Cinematographer Christopher Probst, ASC, is known for shooting prominent music videos for artists such as Taylor Swift, Eminem, Ariana Grande, Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z and Billie Eilish, as well as high end commercials (Apple, Nike, Google, BMW, Samsung, Audi, Adidas and Uber) and narrative work including David Fincher’s Mindhunter, for which he received an ASC Award Nomination. Within the professional filmmaker community, Probst’s fame extends to his invaluable contribution as co-author of The Cine Lens Manual, the comprehensive bible of all things cine lenses. A self-professed technical geek, Probst goes into detail on the MAX Menace Arm and how this trusty tool from Matthews Studio Equipment has been an indispensable part of his kit throughout his career.
What is your history with the MAX Menace Arm?
Probst: I've been using the MAX Menace for over 15 years now – on virtually every project. I was introduced to it through one of my gaffers, Jeff Murrell who had one of the very first prototypes because he knew Richard Mall, the key grip who invented it. I used it on a number of projects with Jeff, but then he got sucked into gaffing mega blockbuster feature films like Captain America and the Avengers movies for Marvel, so I had my key grip immediately buy one so I could have it on every job.
When have you found the MAX Menace to be a particular asset?
Even though I use MAX Menace Arms all the time, I have recently found them especially useful for virtual production jobs on LED volume stages. LED panels are great for capturing visual effects shots directly in-camera, but they are not as effective in creating strong, directional projections of light. On LED volumes, I find I often need to place a light into tricky areas, but often don't have the time to yank a panel and put a backlight in. Using a MAX Menace in these instances, I can arm-in a quite punchy source and easily wheel the light stand around, quickly cranking it up to the height I want, without having to worry about getting the stand in shot because it has such a long reach. I like to bring two or even three MAX Menace Arms on virtual productions because we need to move very quickly, so I usually head one up with a Skypanel fitted with a Chimera lightbank and have the others supporting one to two backlights. Utilizing the MAX Menace, I'm able to really work quickly and subtly add to the existing ambiences already floating around the volume space.
Where else do you use the MAX Menace Arm?
This is such a part of my fundamental toolkit, I really begrudge going out of town to a location that doesn’t have them… I remember early on going to New York, for example, where the MAX Menace wasn’t adopted as quickly. Many New York crews have their own methods, so when I would roll into town and say, "Hey, I really want a MAX Menace here," they’d sometimes react incredulously. But I made them try it out and showed them how to use it. On the shoot I would put up a light into an impossible position for a conventional menace arm and then ask them, “Could you have accomplished this rig any other way?” They’d have to admit, "We couldn't have." Exactly. You can’t go into a sensitive location like a mansion or historic building and start screwing into the walls or clamping onto the beams. With the MAX Menace, I can crank it up myself in three seconds! And I have done that enough times now that those crews have started to embrace the MAX and really embrace using it.
A lot of people can be initially confused or hesitant of the MAX because they are not familiar with its setup. But the alternative ways of doing menace arms are just antiquated, significantly less safe, require three times the manpower to set up and adjust, and can't even handle even a fraction of the payload. When I go to do a job in Europe, for example, everything is oversized for their stands. They will put a little 1K light on a crazy Avenger stand! It’s a huge base, super heavy, and you end up with an unwieldy jungle of equipment that you have to work around. The MAX is 100 times simpler. There's a reason it won a Sci-Tech award: it is really a great device.
How does the MAX Menace Arm work compared to a conventional menace arm rig?
The old-fashioned way of making a menace arm is to start with a combo stand, a piece of pipe and a sliding coupler. So if you have a 20-foot piece of speed rail, you place the sliding ear coupler at say, 6 feet from one end as a fulcrum point. If you put any light on the long end of that pipe, the weight would make it tip over, so you then have to put a counterweight on the back end. Like a few sandbags or, more ideally, a sliding clamp-on weight… If the pipe you are using is aluminum – which is not very strong, or even if it’s steel, which is stronger but much heavier – it STILL starts bending with any amount of weight placed at the end. Next, the grips start making something that looks like a ship’s mast out of ratchet straps to help alleviate the weight and keep the pipe from sagging. But even then, that’s not enough. So they usually take another ratchet strap and pull down on the short end of the pipe to one of the stand legs to help increase the counterbalance and stabilize the weight. Great… But then if I want to raise the light, they have to break the ratchet straps and have two to three grips raise the stand while another guy cranks and secures the ratchet straps again.
On top of all those obvious headaches, by using a large combo stand, which has three legs at the base that flare out about 3 feet or so in each direction, after accounting for the 6-feet of counterbalance at the fulcrum point, a 20-foot pipe may only give you 10-12 feet of reach! With the six feet of counterbalance pipe, it can’t be backed against the wall, and then with the stand leg sticking out at the bottom, that further limits how much you can shoot past the rig and place a light out into the set. And in the end, the most you can arm out is only about a 2K lamp for that 10-12 feet of reach with the 20-foot rig! Meanwhile I could put a 200-pound light on a MAX Menace Arm and crank it up or down myself without any help, and I can put a light 20 feet out, with no counterweights, right up against the wall. That, for me, is a game changer.
Can you tell us more about how the MAX Menace Arm works?
The design of the MAX Menace is basically based on an engine hoist. It utilizes telescoping sections of perforated square tubing that you can quickly adjust to the desired height and length with quick-release pins, and one of the two upright telescoping sections has a worm gear crank built into it, allowing you to easily adjust the angle of the arm up or down. The square stock the MAX uses is significantly less susceptible to bending than round speed rail tubing as well.
Additionally, the design has no fulcrum point, so there isn’t 6 feet of pipe sticking out on the back end. Instead, there are two posts at the base for stacking lifting weight plates as a counterweight. I have a photo from Richard Mall, where he was on a rooftop in downtown Los Angeles, and he had like six MAX Menaces lined up, each with an Arrimax 18K armed over the edge of the building and aimed into the windows of a loft below the roofline up there. To do that rig another way would have been a 2-3 day pre-rig with massive construction cranes, box-truss and chain motors to fabricate a huge structure to get lights outside those high windows. Instead, Richard just laid down some plywood on the rooftop, placed the MAX Menace Arms and armed them down – about 15 feet – and aimed the lights into windows. It's crazy.
Any Final Thoughts?
There are a few tools I use in my job that I have branded “the best things ever.” I have made the MAX Menace such a fundamental component of what I do, that when I don't have it, I feel like, "Oh, my God, what am I going to do?" Now there certainly are other ways to achieve similar rigging goals. But when you account for the time, cost, manpower and safety of those other means, there's really no comparison. The MAX really is one of the best things ever! I’ve made it my personal mission to spread the word about this amazing, essential tool.