Ed’s 40-year Crank-O-Vator Legacy

Posted by Valerie Taylor on

It’s been 4 decades since Ed Phillips and Matthews revolutionized crank stands with the Vator family of stands for large light fixture positioning. Years ago, arc lights were used in film production lighting for large exteriors or shooting night for day. Carbon arcs required several people for setup because they were hefty, weighing 250 or more pounds, and were basically big BBQ’s with two pieces of carbon burning in them. Ed’s first company, Waynco, specialized in rebuilding old arc lights into lighter weight carbon arcs making them more portable. Large light fixtures like Ed’s carbon arc became popular but required support to raise them up and down on set or location. 

Transporting Carbon Arcs

One of the more popular solutions for large lamp support in the mid ‘70s was the Mole Richardson electric stand. Electrically driven, it required a large power source to drive the motor. And it was constructed out of heavy steel components making it extremely difficult to transport given its overall weight and size. Plus, the legs only folded into one position making its large footprint difficult for storage. Getting these into the truck was a real challenge: they took up too much space and were way too heavy. 

Demand for Portability Drives Cine Vator

Location shooting with production and grip trucks became increasingly popular in the ‘70s driving the demand for portability. Weight (or lack of it) became a prominent issue when production trucks needed to be under a certain weight. 

At the helm of Matthews, Ed responded to the need by introducing the first Cine Vator to the film community. He had collaborated with Henry Dovsek and eventually manufactured Cine Vator under the Matthew’s banner. It still required power, but lightweight aluminum construction and 3-position folding legs made a world of difference for truck transport. 

Senior Brace Stand fills the Void

While engineering its soon to be popular Crank-O-Vator, Matthews introduced the Senior Brace Stand, a non-electrical, non-cranking, telescoping stand that required manual lifting by several crew to hoist large lights up into the air. The unique Brace Stand had two sets of leg braces (top and bottom) for strength. The stand was known to put a bloody ring between the operator’s thumb and index finger due to unintentional pinching between the two bonnet brake housings. Eventually, these stands wound up on stages or studio lots holding spotlights when the film community became sick of getting their hands torn up—and they found their new love, Matthews Crank-O-Vator.

Matthews Cranks Up new Crank-O-Vator

When the first two Crank O Vator prototypes came out, Ed took one to New York to show the large rental houses Camera Mart and F&B CECO. When it was time to go home, Camera Mart wouldn’t give the prototype back because they liked it so much. Ed charged them for the tooled parts totaling about $50,000, back in 1978. And Crank-O-Vator was off to a good start.

Unlike Matthews’ Cine Vator, which operated via an electric driven worm gear, the Crank-O-Vator was totally hand-crank driven, using a gear rack and an elevator cable system to make the top double-riser work. 

The Crank-O-Vator could lift a large light fixture up and down, didn’t need power and was small and lightweight enough to fit many on the truck. The industry quickly adapted. Crank- O- Vator allowed crews to quickly and safely raise and lower large light fixtures from eye level to about 14 feet. Then came the Lowboy Crank-O-Vator that got light fixtures through first story windows, followed by Super Crank-O-Vator that aced location work with its big wheels, tires and brakes for rough terrain. 

The only issue with the original Crank-O-Vator design was that it wouldn’t come down without a light fixture or other weight on the top of the stand. It didn’t seem like a big problem until it was a problem. There were situations where studio trucks would pull up to Matthews with fully extended fourteen-foot cranks hanging out the back.

Next Gen Crank-O-Vator II

This led Matthews to investigating a new version-two of their crank family, but not before playing with some new technology. The clunky Brace Stand had been phased out, but people still wanted lighter and faster solutions. Pneumatic and hydraulic pumps were investigated, but they were messy and unpredictable. Matthews played with the idea of a lighter weight Vator stand with a pneumatic column, so if it came down quickly it would have a nice air controlled stop, protecting the bulb from cracking the fixture and protecting operator’s hands from getting pinched. Of course, one had to be careful lowering the column back down as the air would build up and pressurize, causing the top riser of the stand to shoot up, potentially catching the users chin and knocking them unconscious. But, at least the stand came down without weight on it—eventually. 

Crank-O-Vator II’s, released with great new features, were a big hit. Instead of an elevator style cable system for the top riser, a chain drive was implemented to increase strength and longevity as well as a top riser return cable so the stand would go up and down without requiring weight load. The push-to-release safety was modified so it didn’t need to be engaged to crank the stand up. The castings were also beefed up and other comfort features were added over time. 

Onward & Upward: Crank-O-Vator III

Crank II’s were popular, but to Matthews there’s always room for improvement. Crank III’s were released several years ago with updates like the precision rack and pinion gear drive, and the reduction of internal moving parts down to two. Most of the parts are now CNC’d out of billet aluminum. To support legacy units Matthews makes some of the Series III parts retrofit-able for previous models. 

On sets around the world, you will see the newest versions of Matthews Crank-O-Vators, and some of the oldest of the old Matthews cranks still in service. Why: because they were designed like tanks and built for field service. Plus Matthews cares about parts, service and tech support, offering both an online parts store, and help from our parts expert—Stuart. We continually improve each Vator generation. Currently each Vator III stand is covered by a three-year warranty.

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