Forgotten tehniques

July 1993

Last September I was asked to work on Jonathan Demme’s new film Philadelphia which, strangely enough, was coming to Philadelphia and required a certain amount of Steadicam. As you may know, with the exception of a nostalgic run up the stairs again for Rocky V, I have not worked on a picture since 1986. I had decided not to go on location in order to concentrate on my sometime inventing career, and seven years whizzed by without day’s work on a feature.

During that time any calls for my operating services were referred to the SOA Database, but this one was different. I admire Demme’s work and he is great to work for…and he was shooting in Philadelphia! It had been a long wait for a picture like this to come to town. Still, I hesitated. After teaching all these years that „you never forget how to operate Steadicam“, I wasn’t worried about my abilities (thought I should have been!) – I hesitated only because I was out of shape, I have led quite a sedentary life, and with the exception of hand-cranking the underwater camera back and forth in the Barcelona Olympies, most of my recent work has taken place on a variety of comfy chairs. Demme’s first shot was alleged to be a four-minute running shot and I was a bit scared that I wouldn’t get through it. After all, I can’t run four minutes without the Steadicam – but I decided to attend the scoot anyway and check it out.

Well, it was only a 3 minute and 20 second running shot, and 55 seconds of it were immobile in an elevator, and it was MOS, and so on. I concluded that if I could assemble an ultralite Steadicam with my old Ilc, my EFP and a couple of the old „Pan-Arri“ magnesium throated 400 magazines. I could probably do it. Demme’s production manager predicted that there might be about ten additional days with the lightweight Panaflex (and no Primos!) so I took the job.

Back in the saddle on Philadelphia

I had a week to get in shape so I cut down slightly on the chow and actually put on the rig and practiced running up a very short hill. Twice. I also rode my mountain bike several times, and sprinted once to the delicatessen for lunch.

What I should have done was to review what I have been teaching for years at Steadicam workshops! Throughout about twenty days of work on Philadelphia and several more afterward on Wolf with Jack Nicholson, I consistently failed to remember some of the most basic techniques and rules of operating in time to help me get my shots. Hell, I dreamed up some of these tricks, yet they only came back to me on the way home in the van each day. It was humiliating. And it caused problems.

Garrett re-invents “Shakey-crane” on Wolf

Lights in frame.
On my very first shot on the Philadelphia, I noticed a coop hanging down inside a door I was to enter, and asked DP Tak Fujimoto whether its cloth sides would be rolled up. He looked at me strangely and said „Of course“ so I never looked again. Unfortunately, there was another coop a bit further inside the room, and it now appeared behind the rolled-up one. But I had never seen it. I did peer quizzically at the green screen and wondered about that blurry something at the top of frame on several takes, but I forgot, in each case, to go and see what it was. And Lo! In dailies there it was – a dammed coop lighting a lawyer’s office!

As I have told workshop participants perhaps 800 times: Keep looking! Use your own eyes and identify what each dangerous light actually looks like on your screen as you dip it into frame during rehearsals. Program yourself to watch for them as you shoot. Oy.

Actor tailgating.
As the author of operating, the Steadicam operator sometimes bears responsibillity for focus as well as everything else. For example, imagine that your assistant’s view is blocked by your 6’6” self and the actor doesn’t maintain the agreed distance from camera. Tom Hanks can hit marks like a champ, but as I preceded him at high speed through narrow corridors, for some reason he kept overtaking and pushing in to the minimum focus of my 50mm lens. If I speeded up, he speeded up and Clayton couldn’t see what was happening. The next day the lab reported a lot of missed focus in the shot, and so all day we felt like bums. Fortunately, the lab was wrong and the dailies looked pin-sharp. Somehow Clayton had managed to stay with it, and we were heroes again. But as I sat there, I remembered that I could have controlled the shot, and made Hanks’ job easier just by mounting a simple car antenna with a flag extended out under the lens, so he could have a mark to help him maintain the distance. If I had thought of it in tine, we could have gotten the shot in a take or two, instead the half dozen that were unsure of for focus!

Terra Incognita
Larry McConkey does it best (maybe overdoes it at times), but the man is never lost during a shot and neither is anyone else on the set – including craft service. There are marks for everything and everyone, and every event is planned. There is little that is random about one of Larry’s shots, and as a result, after all of the preparations, he can usually deliver on the first take, and more important, so can everyone else. He’s in the agreed-upon-place at the agreed-upon-time, and so are famous players, background actors, props, animals and p.a.’s. of course, I forgot to do all of this, so every take was different – some were great, mind you – but they were each unique, and many were wasted because of unchorcographed variations. Planning, stupid! Marks!!

*As in pinball. I forgot many of the subtleties of level control. In my memory, things were getting less and less bottom-heavy, so I began operating with a drop time greater than 3 seconds. In fact, a number of the living masters are returning to much greater bottom-heaviness for straight-ahead level shots.

Try raising the gimbal a full half-inch above the neutral point and looking for a drop time of under two seconds. My dailies improved noticeably when I remembered to try this.

Not the wheelchair!
Yes, I remembered the physical act of operating. That felt as good as ever. What I forgot was the nuts and bolls, the focus motor setups, the organization of shots, the thousand variations on the theme of hard mounting – I forgot the rigs.

I was saved from near disaster by my old friend, supergrip Billy Miller, who watched me struggling with the worst possible vehicle and gently reminded me how I did this same shot a decade ago. I would have blown it! It became known as the „aria“ shot, and it was quite wonderful, with the lens floating like a spirit several feet above Tom Hanks upturned face, as he danced alone with his i.v. stand. Incredibly, I had selected the Ron Ford-type wheelchair to ride on (wearing the rig!), while standing on heaps of apple boxes, strapped to the backrest, holding the camera out at full extension with a lens height of 10 feet! Even the rehearsals were excruciating, and it was becoming clear, as Jonathan’s enthusiasm for the shot grew, that we would do many four-minute takes! Fortunately Billy got to me before it was too late to change rigs. The Elemack was perfect!

The Steadicam was hard-mounted with the column up full and topped with several risers and my Mitchell Mount adapter. I stood comfortably on boards, leaning on the column, as the grips followed Hanks using the crab steering. Since most Elemacks gradually turn as they are crabbed, the secret to getting the shot was having another grip keep turning the loosened mount so the arm keeps pointing in the right direction while I walked around the Elemack base. It was remarkably easy, and the effect is electrifying. The operatic score, the Wim Wenders-like floating camera freely turning in the roll axis moving through light like a dream. I could never have done it on the wheelchair! Design vehicle shots right…or else!

„Sorry, Jack…“

I had one of the most difficult shots of my entire career on the first of two nights on Wolf with Jack Nicholson. It included a wobbly descending ride on a flimsy crane on unleveled track (because the crane and the track had to be carted off to either side in time to not appear in frame as I backed away for three minutes ahead of Jack and Chris Plummer. Funny, I got this part right every time (except once when the grips got tired and didn’t get the track out of the shot in time). Holding on to the wildly oscillating risers on the crane while operating one-landed was tough but do-able. What took fourteen takes was something easy that I got wrong nearly every time. It was my fault – I just forgot the trick. When I remembered it on the way home, I felt quite stupid, but grateful to Nicholson for bearing with me. I simply needed to hit a mark while backing up, so that when the actors paused to say a few lines I would be able to see a particular element of the set behind them. I must have taught 500 workshop folks how to lay out a V-shape of rope and back into its apex, in order to hit a mark (which can then disappear with a flick of the wrist if you must resume backing). Why didn’t I remember it? It is a problem with me. I tend to count on my skill with the Steadicam to wing my way through shots without enough preparation Nuts.

Two New Tricks
To atone up for the foregoing lapses, here are two new techniques that might come in handy.

Narrowest Steadicam
A shot on Philadelphia requires backing up at full running speed through the narrowest possible corridor made from two walls of filing boxes stacked closer together than the width of my shoulders. In order to get the shot I had to turn nearly sideways, and arrange the arm, gimbal and camera as shown in the top-view diagram. The „upper“ arm link goes the opposite direction from normal, and the gimbal yoke is turned as shown. Although it’s tiring after any length of time, this arrangement will get you through the narrowest possible space. If you are going to back up, I suggest you have yourself strongly spotted, so you can be forcibly kept from banging into anything!

„Active“ Marks!

Here’s a suggestion to help you back up along unpredictably curving paths, through doorways, etc without anxiety and without looking away from the screen. I call it an „active“ mark, since it is trailed along with you by your spotter. Make a flat strip of bright tape, folded over and stuck to itself so no sticky side shows. Attach five feet or so of this tape to a three-foot length of stick.

Have your spotter precede you, trailing the strip of tape along the ground. Adjust your speed and direction so that the center post always stays just above the trailing tape. It’s up to your spotter to trail the tape so it indicates the ideal path for the camera, and keeps you from hitting any obstacles.

The only verbal communication you will need from your spotter is when a step up or down, or an irregularity in the ground is approaching. We gave this a test during one of the workshop „shots“ and found that it works brilliantly: however, the spotter needs a high degree of concentration and some practice without the Steadicam along in order to learn the course.

Altogether, my return to Steadicam operating was a humbling experience. It is a great job, truly „The Last Great Job in the Business“ as Ted Churchill puts it, and I had a terrific time, some of the time, but I was strongly reminded that it is also one of the most demanding and challenging jobs in the world, if your ambition is to be a „Living Master“.

I have temporarily downgraded myself to „Expert“ until I can do another workshop!

Garrett Brown