Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

Chicago-based camera rigging company makes an impression on the entertainment industry.

And the Oscar goes to . . .

Viewers of the 88th Academy Awards, broadcast on ABC Sunday night from the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, will be repeatedly hearing this cliffhanger phrase. The ceremony will showcase the best actors, directors, producers, sounds and songs of 2015.

Two weeks prior to the Oscar ceremony, a formal dinner was held to acknowledge the Scientific and Technical Awards and honor those men, women and companies that have contributed in significant and lasting ways to motion pictures. Companies like Zacuto USA.

Zacuto USA is an American-made camera rigging company that has a bright future – and may one day garner an award in the Technical Oscar category. Based in Chicago, Zacuto USA has already won five local Emmy Awards in the last four years, as it’s invested mainly in television video. But it has connected with some of the world’s finest motion picture directors and cinematographers and has filtered into the mainstream of Hollywood films.

Steven Weiss and Jens Bogehegn are the co-owners of Zacuto USA, a partnership that began in the mid-1980s. They’ve worked on everything from small independent videos and documentaries to major Hollywood productions.

“We’ve had stuff on George Lucas’ ‘Red Tails,’ which was about the Tuskegee Airmen,” said Bogehegn. “We even have pictures of him using the gear.”

Weiss, a native of Detroit, added, “Francis Ford Coppola is working on a movie right now with a rig of ours.”

“We actually started communicating with Coppola and started to build this custom rig for him and his wife,” Weiss explained. “He would literally email and text us, asking ‘how do I do this,’ but he is a sort of ‘I’m going to do this myself’ kind of guy. He doesn’t have staff people. He literally goes to the hardware store to get his own screwdriver.”

And that screwdriver may come in handy when assembling a new camera to a Zacuto rig.

We don't sell cameras, we just make them better. Jens Bogehegn

The riggings are the metal parts that a camera is connected with to perform vital filmmaking maneuvers.  The rigs include a base plate, attachment plates and arms to control the camera. More recently, Zacuto USA has ventured into electronics, including a radical viewfinder. They are also involved in producing hand grips and power distribution products.

“We don’t sell cameras, we just make them better,” said Bogehegn. “We are all about top-quality and making our rigs in the USA. The only way we can survive as a business is if we are in the top-end game. If we were to compete in the consumer lower-end game, then it’s impossible with the Chinese knockoffs and all the others.

“The Chinese can’t compete. They don’t know how to do it. Our products have a lifetime warranty, even if it breaks because of misuse. You would never get his kind of warranty from a Chinese product because they are so inferior.”

And, according to Weiss, China does not have the distribution capabilities to compete with Zacuto USA.

“We are the distribution model,” said Weiss. ”We have about 200 worldwide dealers, and I think some 90 percent of our sales come from our dealers.”

Zacuto USA employs 40 people at its headquarters in Chicago and has not dismissed a single person since the company’s inception.

“It’s also the most amount of people we’ve ever employed secondarily outside of machine shops all around Chicago,” said Bogehegn. “Our boards are made in the suburbs here.”

Weiss pointed out the residual effect of their manufacturing.

“Machine shops, design firms, rubber shops, engineers,” said Weiss. “We have employees all around the United States. But our quality level requires us to do all of our contract manufacturing right here in the suburbs of Chicago.”

Zacuto USA is a major player in television and documentaries across the globe.

“A lot of TV uses our stuff like our arms and viewfinders,” said Bogehegn. “Because basically what we do is make equipment that is meant to go on your shoulder or on the tripod. So we’re more of a documentary, reality show, hand-held type shooting company, as opposed to steady cams, dollies and cranes.”

Machine shops, design firms, rubber shops, engineers. Steven Weiss discusses Zacuto USA's domestic supply chain

Weiss added details about Zacuto’s television connection.

“We see our products a lot on television. The film business is a much more complicated business than television. People don’t realize that Hollywood puts out 165 pictures a year, while thousands and thousands and thousands of television programs are made worldwide. The money is really in episodic television. There is really little money in the movie game. The movie game is for top ten films, like ‘Iron Man.’”

But Zacuto USA continues to make its mark on Hollywood filmmaking.

“The last set that we were on was cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt’s filming of ‘Get On Up,’ which was about James Brown,” said Bogehegn. “It was out last year.”

Another recent HBO movie featuring Zacuto rigs comes to Weiss’ mind.

“Do you remember Michael Douglas playing Liberace about a year ago? We had our equipment on that.”

Coppola, Lucas, Michael Douglas, that’s Hollywood royalty,” said Bogehegn. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

And it doesn’t get much better than top-quality Made in America filmmaking equipment that provides hundreds of jobs in Chicago and across America.

Zacuto USA is about quality and innovation. That’s the American manufacturing way.