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 Sisters, Oregon-based business, Fluid Images, is considered a pioneer in the industry.
Johnson, who graduated in 1962 with a degree in education, credits his son Rick with being the brainchild behind Fluid Images. It was Rick’s idea to start a family business, Johnson says. 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 30-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. Rick and his wife had sold nearly all of their valuable possessions in order to take the gamble on the family business. They lived with Bob and his wife, who had also “hocked everything but the kitchen sink” in order to be a part of it.
“Over the past 20 years, it has been really great,” says Johnson.
The first taste of huge success came for Johnson and Fluid Images in 1996. He and his son Rick were at the ShowBiz Expo West in Los Angeles, demonstrating their 72-foot crane, when film producer Jon Landau walked into the room.
“He saw the crane, and was blown away,” says 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.”
At the time, their 72-foot crane was by far the longest in the business. It enabled camera operators on film and commercial sets to get sweeping, high-angle shots that would have previously been impossible. Think of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio standing on the prow of the Titanic, and you can get a sense of what a crane that size can do.
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.
This kind of innovation is what Fluid Images has become known for. To date, they’ve worked on more than 3,000 projects and 700 feature films. They’ve worked on ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Into the Wild,’ ‘The Thin Red Line’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ to name just a few. 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 keeps itself involved with the community as well. They have filmed spots for the High Desert Museum in Bend and for a Sisters organization devoted to educating teens on drunk driving. Johnson, who was a track star at Oregon State during his days as a student, has coached track in Sisters since he moved to the town in 1994. “Track at Oregon State was so great to me,” says Johnson. “I want to give something back to track and back to kids. If an athlete or student can take one thing from our program they can use their whole lives, we’ve been successful.”Johnson’s 440 relay team still, in fact, holds their record at Oregon State.
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.
“It’s been great to get interns from Oregon State,” says Rick. “We’ve had them do editing. They’ve PA’d and gripped. I was a student at one time. Being able to give back to a college so students can come work with us is great.”
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. “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.