Oregon State alum’s company builds world’s biggest film cranes

Bob Johnson's company, Fluid Images, makes the world's largest film cranes (photo: Teresa Hall)

SISTERS, Ore. – An Oregon-based business that builds the world’s largest film cranes is being honored by Oregon State University.

Fluid Images in Sisters, Ore., is receiving OSU’s “Orange Spotlight” award, which highlights businesses and organizations either operated by Oregon State alums and faculty or who employ a large number of Oregon State graduates. These businesses demonstrate a dedication to community service, sustainability and innovation.

Oregon State alum Bob Johnson never imagined he’d be in the film industry. But it was his belief in his son’s creative energy that propelled the family into the heart of show business. Now Johnson’s business, Fluid Images, is considered a pioneer in the industry.

Johnson credits his son Rick with being the brainchild behind Fluid Images. Rick had just gotten out of film school, and was looking for a way to make his mark. He saw his opportunity while watching film crews use 50-foot cranes to shoot movies, and imagined what would happen if he developed a much larger crane.

“I thought, ‘there has to be something I can make that’s bigger, that will give them bigger shots,’” he said.

It took Rick two years to build his first 72’ Akela crane in his father’s barn. It enabled camera operators on film and commercial sets to get sweeping, high-angle shots that would have previously been impossible. In 1996, film producer Jon Landau saw the Johnsons’ crane at a show business expo.

“He saw the crane, and was blown away,” said Bob Johnson, who graduated from Oregon State in 1962. “We gave him a demo reel, and Landau gave it to James Cameron. Six months later we were on the set of ‘Titanic’ with two cranes. We shot 80 percent of the outside shots, and that really got that part of our company going.”

Now, Fluid’s longest crane is 100 feet. It’s still the largest in the world, and they’re the first people in film history to hit that mark. Their latest crane invention is the “Hook & Release” system, on which a Steadicam operator can be “flown” at the end of a crane arm while safely suspended in a harness. Their cranes are used in productions worldwide.

To date, they’ve worked on more than 3,000 projects and 700 feature films, including ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Into the Wild,’ ‘The Thin Red Line’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ They’ve worked on the X-Games, the Olympics and the British Open. They’ve expanded their company to include film and video production, as well as digital signage and content development.

“The motion picture world – there’s a lot of excitement, but more importantly it’s a heck of a lot of hard work,” says Johnson. “It’s not a glamour job. Some days there’s a little glamour. But you’re providing a piece of equipment that gives people the ultimate shots. It’s been very exciting.”

Fluid Images has been closely involved with Oregon State for years, entirely due to Johnson’s commitment to his alma mater. They have filmed national commercial spots for the Beavers for the past six years. They created the introduction pieces that Reser spectators see before the OSU football team runs out into the stadium. They hire interns from Oregon State as well.

Bob Johnson feels many of the qualities that have enabled him to succeed in the business were traits he picked up at Oregon State as a student athlete in track.

“Hard work, dedication, determination, enthusiasm, desire, willing to go the extra mile to make it happen. And I think I learned all of those from Oregon State,” he says.

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