Legends Behind the Lens: Leonard Chapman
A pioneer of cranes and lifts, he forever changed sports television's point of view
The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.
Legends Behind the Lens is presented in association with the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the SVG Sports Broadcasting Fund. In these trying times — with so many video-production professionals out of work — we hope that you will consider (if you are able) donating to the Sports Broadcasting Fund. Do so by visiting sportsbroadcastfund.org.
Leonard Chapman has redefined the angles at which fans watch sports. As CEO of Chapman/Leonard Studio Equipment, he has developed numerous cranes, hydraulic-lift dollies, and mobile pedestals that bring viewers closer to the action from an NFL sideline to the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. Over the past 60+ years, Chapman’s innovations have become as ever-present on movie sets as they are courtside, on sidelines, and around golf courses nationwide.
Growing up in Southern California, Chapman was a sports fan, faithfully listening to Army, Navy, and Notre Dame football games on the radio. He began his career in the motion-picture industry, where his father had founded Chapman Studio Equipment in 1945 to build stage cranes for Hollywood. After graduating from UCLA’s school of engineering in 1956, Leonard formed his own company, Leonard’s Studio Equipment, and, in 1965, merged with his father’s company to create Chapman/Leonard Studio Equipment.
When the opportunity arose to develop equipment for sports production, Chapman was thrilled. Frank Chirkinian, coordinating producer of golf at CBS, had heard about Chapman’s film equipment and decided to bring it to a golf course. He mounted cameras on Chapman Titan Cranes and leapfrogged the mobile units around the course, videotaping 18 holes of golf to make the production look live.
“The cranes were highly mobile,” Chirkinian explains. “They had huge tires, so you could travel them all over the hilly countryside at decent speed. They created very artistic boom shots, when you take the camera from the ground all the way up to 28 ft. in one motion.”
Applying Hollywood camera equipment to sports fields required Chapman to take safety into account, to protect the environment, the operators, and the athletes, coaches, and cheerleaders on the sideline. Smoothness, noise, and emissions were also of concern as he adapted and created support equipment to fit the specific needs of sports-production teams.
“They wanted mobility, access, and to be able to use cameras with big lenses. Our focus was to give them lifting mechanisms and mobility so that they could get around golf courses or football stadiums and get the lenses low or high. For the two-minute football drill, the speed of the vehicle was important.” – Leonard Chapman
In the 1980s, Chapman began developing a lift vehicle that would lend the studio quality of motion pictures to sports. The dolly had to be rigid and fast enough to record the action on a football sideline, had to remain level, and needed to easily fit inside a mobile-production truck.
“The big challenge was to build a sideline vehicle that would get them up high and move fast along the sidelines but be safe at the same time,” he says. “We ended up calling it the Olympian. They really started to come out in numbers just before the 1984 Olympics, but they were primarily designed for football use.”
With large balloon tires, 18-mph electric drive speed, and 14 ft. of lens height, the Olympian was a stalwart during coverage of the 1984 Olympics and remains integral to today’s NFL and college football productions.
“That cart is the director’s best friend for a football broadcast because it’s closest to the action with a big lens and it moves down the field with the ball,” explains Fox Sports Director Artie Kempner. “I can get tight, intimate pictures of the key coaches and players whenever I need them. It’s a versatile tool for a director.”
CBS Sports has deployed the Olympian cart at its football games for decades, and it has revolutionized the way the network covers football.
“It’s easy to come up with a robust cart, but to have it actually break down to a small enough footprint that it could fit in an existing truck was the trick,” notes John McCrae, director of field operations for CBS Sports.
Chapman also developed the Pedolly, which combines the features of conventional dollies and pedestals with the Lencin pedestal, a portable studio pedestal used at the US Open tennis tournament as well as for taking studio shows on the road.
“It breaks down into small and light enough pieces that, if you don’t have forklift access, it can be hand-carried up a flight of stairs,” McCrae explains. “It can then be reassembled and used just as a studio pedestal would.”
Chapman has developed dozens of cranes, dollies, pedestals, and other systems that have improved the mobility, stability, and range of cameras with increasing height, hydraulic lifting systems, and new types of steering.
“Regardless of what it cost or the design, Leonard would always come up with something that worked for the industry,” says Steve Gorsuch, director of broadcast operations for USTA. “A lot of times, he went back to the drawing board and said this was great on a studio stage, but how is it going to work out there in the field? The equipment segued very nicely from the film industry to the sports industry.”
Says McCrae, “Leonard really has a perfect understanding of the industry. He has provided us with the tools that were hitherto unavailable in the sports world. If you can dream of something, Leonard will make it.”
The video in this profile was originally produced in 2010. For more on the life and career of this industry legend, visit their profile at the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.