by Emily Buder
Garrett Brown discusses how he invented the Steadicam, the art of operating (and why there are too few female operators), his secret to disruptive innovation, and more.
No one hates handheld cinematography more than Garrett Brown. He believes it’s antithetical to the way the human eye works. If we can see stabilized images in life—even while running, jumping, darting, and tilting our heads—why can’t it be that way in movies?
Enter the Steadicam. Before its invention in 1975, there was no middle ground between the smooth (but cumbersome) dolly shot and the handheld camera. With the Steadicam, Brown split the difference; cinematographers could capture stabilized footage with the steady, fluid motion of a dolly and the dexterity of handheld camera work. A self-professed “Newtonian physics guy,” Brown built his device to with an articulated arm which mimics the mechanics of a swing-arm lamp. Two arm segments, connected by a pivoting hinge, form a parallelogram, which is attached to a free-moving gimbal. Brown was able to counterbalance the camera’s weight with that of the battery and monitor, creating a high inertial mass that effectively absorbed small movements produced by the operator. The most ingenious facet of the Steadicam is that its center of gravity, however heavy the rig, is always at the operator’s fingertip.
A year after its invention, the Steadicam made an Oscar-winning debut in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory. In a previously impossible maneuver, the camera started from a fully elevated platform crane and jibbed down; when it reached the ground, Brown stepped off to walk it through the set. Stanley Kubrick was also famously privy to the first Steadicam test footage. Floored by its potential, he recruited Brown to operate some of The Shining’s most iconic shots, such as the tracking shot of Danny riding his tricycle through the hallways and the hedge maze chase at the end of the film. Brown would go on to operate some of the greatest shots in cinema history, such as the stair sequence in Rocky. The Steadicam effectively altered the course of cinematography forevermore.
In honor of the upcoming Film Society of Lincoln Center Steadicam retrospective, No Film School caught up with Brown for an in-depth conversation about his lifelong journey to remain faithful to the human eye.
No Film School: I hear you’re leaving New York to work on a project next week. What is it?
Garrett Brown: I’m actually leaving tomorrow morning to LA to do a Kickstarter video for a wonderful tiny new Steadicam for phones. Up until today, it was called the Evo, but we’ve discovered that another gimbal-type device called the Evo has landed just ahead of us, so I think the new name will be the Steadicam Ace. It’s an astonishing little object because we’ve attempted to make Steadicams for iPhones, and in order to get them stable enough, they need a little bit of mass. There’s one called the Smoothee, which is terrific, but it takes some skill. This one is a new hybrid gyro-augmented Steadicam. The amazing thing about this is the gimbals are a bit sloppy. They stabilize, but they’re not a marvel for operating. As you could probably guess from my history, I’m a huge fan of terrific operating, meaning putting the lens where you want it with great precision and finesse. For me, to operate with something where you move your hand and it catches up to you—like gyro gimbals—is anathema.
[The Steadicam for phones] is a very cool little thing. You can operate it and it feels like a big Steadicam. The whole thing weighs one pound.
NFS: Is this something that you invented yourself?
Brown: The software and gyro capabilities were contributed by a guy from San Francisco that I recruited. We got a license from the Steadicam manufacturer. I did the mechanics because that’s what I do. I’m not an electronic guy. I’m a throwback Newtonian physics guy. The result is extremely pleasing, I must say.
NFS: What were you doing before you invented the Steadicam?
Brown: Not that I could imagine it was useful, but after being a student, I was a folk singer, which I thought was the best job on earth. That was in the ’60s—young people were wearing blazers and singing bogus negro spirituals and so on. It wasn’t particularly authentic because I was inspired by the Kingston Trio in high school, but it was a grand job for a young man. We did hundreds of college concerts and clubs and traveled all over wearing our Brown and Dana blazers. We recorded for MGM—actually a pretty good recording.
NFS: That sounds really fun.
Brown: It was, and so I was devastated when various things ended all that, a terrible car crash and The Beatles arrived. All sorts of things conspired to make that not a viable job, and then I ended up realizing I’d left school and had no way to earn a living, so I was in shock at that point and got a job selling cars and was in despair. I had first tried to earn a living as a writer. I wrote a short story and sent it to Playboy expecting to have a check the next week, and when that didn’t show up for months, I had to get a job. Then a rejection came back from Playboy. Very dispirited, I sent [the short story] off to a science fiction magazine, and months later I got a letter saying that they would buy it. I was stunned. I unwisely quit my job and roared off to drink champagne and dance around with my wife and celebrate. Then we realized that they had offered me a penny a word for 3,000 words—which my vestigial math skills tell me is $30 for a week’s work—so I didn’t have a living writing. But it gave me the courage to go off and try and tool myself up as a filmmaker. That was in 1965.
NFS: You’re an autodidact in terms of film education. You studied in a library in Philadelphia, right?
Brown: Well, film schools were not even in my vision at that point. There was probably NYU and one or two in California, but they were not something I would even consider accessible, so libraries were the thing. Find out how to do something, read 30 shelf feet of film books, which of course what I didn’t realize was all that stuff is terribly out of date in libraries. I taught myself to be a 1940s filmmaker. I read books like Make Films for Fun and Profit (1936), or The Grammar of Film, all either super academic or super unrealistic.
I had the vocabulary of a filmmaker but no experience. None of the 30 film companies in Philly would hire me. But I did get a job as an agency copywriter, which at least gave me some dough, and I parlayed that into agency producing because I could speak the language. Then I watched the suppliers—the filmmakers who’d made commercials for me—and I thought, “Man, that’s the job I want. I want to be a filmmaker.” We won a bunch of awards for commercials that we had written, me and a partner Anne Winn. We did all these ad-lib radio commercials later that became kind of cult objects. They used them for the research and development of the Steadicam and the Skycam later on. This little cash cow of doing ad-lib radio commercials was the secret sauce.
NFS: What initially drove you to take a crack at the Steadicam?
Brown: It was driven by the fact that here I am, this out-of-date filmmaker 3,000 miles from Hollywood. I bought a big dolly and lights—old lights—and made a studio. It was driven by wanting something that doesn’t exist; I wanted a way to make my handheld shooting stable.
One of the commercials that I shot suggested to me that there might be a way to stabilize handheld. We did very technical commercials in Philly in the 1970s and one of the commercials had a camera dangling from a helicopter 30 feet below it on a pole. That camera is in a foam ball and the guy’s sitting on the skids holding this thing with bungee cords holding it up. The point of that in this car commercial was to look up at the cars driving by, look in the windows and circle around these cars, and if we made a mistake, the foam ball would just skid on the ground or bounce off the cars. It was a stupidly dangerous thing to do in hindsight, but the commercial was astonishing. It was like a look at what drones can do, 40 years earlier. When I looked at the results, they were stable as a church, and of course, that was the result of the camera being on a pole. If you stick a camera on a ladder and walk along with it, in the angular sense it’s dead steady. It takes a lot of work to get it to go around the corner because of inertia, but it is steady as hell.
Observing things like that sent me into experiments, like sticking a camera on a pole. Even at six feet long, it’s extremely stable, but it’s only stable in pan and tilt. In the roll axis, it’s terribly unstable, so add a T-bar at the back of it with a couple of weights, and now it’s stable on all these axes just by good old Newton’s principles. I think in hindsight, I not only had the great need for ditching this terrible heavy dolly, but I also had a receptive mind to the results of these experiments. Each one led to something else. Stepping back 40 years, that’s the way bloody inventing happens, but in the middle of it, I was just lurching, like something on a pinball machine, from one experiment to another.
Garrett Brown operating the SteadiCam on the set of ‘Rocky’ (1976). Credit: Garrett Brown
NFS: What was the point where you felt like you were really onto something?
Brown: I had that feeling repeatedly when I put that pole together and ran around on a field. The shots were amazing. Of course, your little reptile brain goes to the rewarding aspects of those shots and for a bit of time, disregards the bad things. Every time I did that, I was making shots that nobody had made before, and that is intoxicating. That is a wonderful joke of mental alcoholism. It makes you go, “Holy shit, this is good.”
Anyway, I could shoot 16mm but not 35mm. I was told by potential licensees in LA that they loved the stuff, but forget about it unless it’s 35mm. I had no way to put a 35mm camera on it.
I tell kids today in numerous lectures here and there on various subjects, including inventing and filmmaking, that’s there’s one thing that we forget to do these days because we have our noses buried in screens all the time. The solution to problems like [my 35mm problem] is more likely to be found inside you if you isolate yourself and give yourself over to this very rare act of sustained thinking about a problem. We jump back into our screens and we jump into social media and we hunt for the answers to problems on Google and other people’s experience. To a slight extent, at least, our fellow humans are forgetting what deep contemplation can yield for you—how to make a movie, or how to write a script, or how to finance a movie, or you name it. The superficial examination of these problems sometimes is not enough, so I’ve become the boring old white-haired fart reminding people of an ancient human virtue: to get yourself away, to shut off the distractions.
NFS: It’s difficult to practice giving yourself space for ingenuity. Most of us have to step far outside the confines of normal life.
Brown: Yes. I try to remind people that not only is it a good way to solve problems, but it is extremely rewarding. I think it has in common with meditation some of those—how should we say—thoughtful, receptive aspects. For example, I’m a big fan of what happens at 4 AM when you’re lying in bed. You’re perfectly comfortable. You come awake and if you allow yourself to think about a [problem], the brain is astonishingly eager to go in and send solutions your way. Almost all of my best stuff has happened lying in bed at 5 AM. That’s where you leap forward on stuff.
But if you want to wake up in the night, don’t set an alarm. Set a problem and then allow yourself, when you wake up, to lie there. Lie on your back, stare into nothing, close your eyes, and let that alpha wave express show up. I must sound like some kind of demented new age guru.
NFS: Not at all.
Brown: It is a novelty for our contemporaries in the world.
NFS: When you were trying to figure out how to solve the 35mm camera weight problem…did this come to you in the middle of the night, or did you find yourself experimenting ad nauseum?
Brown: Well, first of all, I locked myself in a motel room to learn about how something like that might behave, because it had to be very different than my earlier stuff. It had to be mostly the camera’s weight and a very small amount of counter weight at a distance below it, and the Steadicam works by expanding mass so that the center of gravity of the camera pops out from inside the camera, like a seesaw. Then you put a so-called gimbal at the center of gravity—rings within rings that isolate it, in the angular sense, like the gimbal used to isolate lamps on boats. An ancient but very useful bit of tech.
Then, you’ve got to grab that with something that relieves the weight from your hands, and that was a non-existent object at that point. But I had the idea that it might be an articulated spring-loaded arm because I sat there and stared at those lamps with spring-loaded segments—those desk lamps that have springs and can be placed anywhere. I bought a couple of them and took them apart and moved the parts around and thought that that might possibly work. Lo and behold, that’s a Steadicam.
40 years later, it still is. I came out of that motel a bit disappointed because the 35mm version wouldn’t go floor to ceiling. It would go from a little below the waist to a little above the head, and so I was not only extraordinarily tired, but also a bit depressed that I hadn’t thought of the complete holy grail. Yet that is the range of lens heights for 95% of shots, and that’s an extraordinarily useful range. Most of the great Steadicam shots in the time since have flown within that range of heights. My then-self would have been astonished to know that—to know where it all was going.
Garrett Brown with the first version of the SteadiCam. Credit: Garrett Brown
NFS: What are some of those greatest Steadicam shots which you have not operated yourself?
Brown: Well, I was immediately a fan of the Goodfellas shot. God, there are just tons of them. The one from Boogie Nights I loved. Carlito’s Way has some fantastic shots in it. Kill Bill. There’s astounding Steadicam in that. And a vast number of foreign films. An inability to think of them as a sign that there are so many that are spectacular. It’s like asking somebody, “What are your favorite violin solos in history?” and they flood in on you, the most astonishing ones by this and that artist.
The important thing that I learned—and we’ve all learned—is Steadicam is a rather crappy invention. By itself, it doesn’t do a thing. In the hands of a gifted operator, it is an instrument and is of no more use than the skill of the operator. It just barely allows a gifted human being to do this amazing trick: to run along with their ever-moving corpus. Out the other end comes an astonishing dolly shot smooth as glass.
Not only that, it’s a dolly shot that can do stuff a dolly can’t. As a fingertip operation, you could put the lens precisely where it wants to be, not just in dolly to the right, but in French curves. It would drive a dolly group crazy. Instinctively putting the lens where you want as boom up and down, and traverse left and right and aim, pan, and tilt. Everywhere your feet can take you and your arms can put this thing, there is the potential path for a lens. But the point isn’t to be flashy.
The point is to let these storytelling shots show you what you—the viewer—ideally would love to see; where you would put your eye if you were standing on that set looking. We do this a million times a day. Human beings are fabulous camera operators of our own eyes, and our own eyes are superbly stabilized. When you run, you don’t see a jerky shot. You see a very smooth Steadicam shot. We instinctively lean left and right, stand up and move around, to see what we want to see. I think that is a devastating argument against handheld: human beings don’t see in the shaky way that handheld presents the world. In fact, it’s stupid that your audience would see a shakier vision than your actors would see.
There’s a strong argument, I think, for at least being as stable as your own magnificent little internal Steadicam. Your inner ear tells your eye muscles how to move to eliminate the bumps. Look straight across the room and fix your eyes on something and shake your head up and down violently. It just sits there, right? Shake your head side to side. It just sits there. But if that was a camera, you couldn’t watch it. Now, watch this: tilt your head to one side. The room does not tilt. Your brain is conditioned to perceive the room as level no matter what angle your eye is. Why? Because evolution didn’t find that of any interest for keeping us alive. It’s really fundamental stuff. I could be a great bore on this subject, but I’m not a fan of handheld, and that’s why the Steadicam exists. I wouldn’t have been able to put it in those terms 40 years ago, but it’s become quite clear to me.
When you dart your eyes around left or right and fix on something and dart to the other side of the room and look, there are only maybe 30% or 50% of Steadicam operators that can do that with a Steadicam. There’s almost nothing else that can do what is called a saccad. A saccad is when you dart your eyes from one side of the room to the other.
NFS: What do you think contributes to the ideal gifted Steadicam operator? In other words, what would you describe as the art of operating a Steadicam?
Brown: Let’s do that first part of the question first. An ideal Steadicam operator has nothing to do with size and strength. Some of the very best operators are very small women. It’s striking to see in a Steadicam workshop how quickly they get it and how good they are. And how slowly these big muscle-man guys get it because they try to muscle everything. The women immediately get that it’s an act of balance, and once they accomplish that, it’s accessible to them.
Secondly, the most valuable attribute for an operator is having a vision of what they want. You don’t get a frame with a Steadicam, or for that matter handheld, unless you seriously want a particular frame and a particular move. The more clearly you want something, that’s the way to get it with Steadicam or handheld, a dolly or anything else. Steadicam versus the dolly is extremely valuable because if you want it and you have a tiny bit of athleticism, you can get it, but if you are simply waving the camera around and have no specific idea, you will get nothing in particular.
Garrett Brown operating the Steadicam for Stanley Kubrick on the set of ‘The Shining’ (1980)
I think operating is one of the seminal movie-making skills. A beautifully operated shot grabs you viscerally in a way that, in my opinion, makeup or set design or a number of other filmmaking skills have more difficulty doing. It’s very hard to engage the gut due to makeup or to the distribution of props. Operating is one of the undervalued and extraordinarily important skills relating to the psychology of what makes you interested in a movie.
As you picture it, a great operator has an astonishing variety of choices to make. How fast do you accelerate and decelerate? Do you understand that stops and starts are much more interesting to an audience than simply a move? What is the nature of this stop and this start? What’s the curve of acceleration? Where do you place that lens in an infinity of choices? You’re hearing my workshop teaching voice [right now]; we teach Steadicam workshops all over the world and I do talks at film schools. I think one of my tasks is to try to transmit that aspect of camera operating as one of the possibilities you should consider [for your career and movies].
NFS: Do you have any strategic tips for Steadicam operators trying to break in? There is a high barrier to entry, of course, due to investing in equipment.
Brown: There aren’t nearly enough women [operating Steadicams]. I’m perpetually baffled by it because the women that do it enjoy the hell out of it and are extraordinarily valuable. Why are they not [on set] as camera operators? Is it an external prejudice in the business or is it their reluctance to jump? We haven’t done our job to explain how delightful this is and how there is no barrier to women doing it. We are desperate to get women recruited.
If you want to operate, you should desire it. Steadicam operating should be a survival skill for operators. Secondly, can you roust up the money to take one of the great workshops? Because a six-day Steadicam workshop is a rocket ride to get you going. By the way, there are women in every class, but there are way too few by percentage. A workshop costs $3,000 by the time you get there and eat and sleep and do the workshop, but that is a hell of a good investment because it’s not just about the physical skill of doing it. It’s about a great deal more than that.
Let me put it this way. There are four things that we endeavor to teach Steadicam operators at a workshop in ascending order of difficulty. The easiest thing is the physics of Steadicam: the mechanics, the balance, the static and dynamic balance, the distribution of masses, how you set it up, etc. Day one, you’re pretty much there. The next, more difficult thing is the physical skills of operating. Astonishingly enough, that’s only two out of four. The physical skills mean how do you handle it: how do you work close, how do you close your eyes and not bump yourself, how do you feel comfortable with all the positions you need to get into, how do you pan to the right when the arm runs out of room and you would hit the arm with the rig?
Number three in order of difficulty: how do you obtain a shot? What are the tricks and tips and skills and lore that get you the ability to nail a difficult, complicated long shot and not flounder halfway through it every time? By the way, there’s a marvelous book on the subject called The Steadicam Operator’s Handbook by Jerry Holway and Laurie Hayball, which is a 1,200-illustration, 400-page marvel. By the way, just for a general filmmaker or director or actor, it’s a great thing [to read].
Finally, what do you guess is the hardest thing of the four? What is the most difficult? What’s missing?
NFS: Having a vision?
Brown: No. You won’t guess it. It is politics. How do you handle yourself on a film set full of big egos? How do you get the job done among those people in a way that makes them at the end of the day say, “This person is great. Hire them again”? How do you pitch an idea to somebody who has a big ego? You can’t just say, “Well, why don’t you do this?” Because that says to them you think you know more than them. How do you get an actor to do something you desperately need when you’re supposed to accommodate to them? [Working with egos] is probably, dollar for dollar, the most valuable thing to learn [in the film industry]. And that is valuable whether or not you ever lift a Steadicam.
NFS: Do you have any specific tips about tapping into that psychology?
Brown: Some of them are related to Steadicam, but some of them are just related to concepts dealing with actors. Don’t tell an actor what to do. There’s a classic story from one of the great operators, Larry McConkey. Jack Nicholson used to love to screw with Larry because Larry’s a kind of straight arrow and Jack gets bored, so he would plant himself in Larry’s way and if Larry said, “Jack, can you stand over there?” He’d go, “Larry, I’m fucking acting here. Don’t tell me what to do.” Larry was way too smart for him. Larry would just stand there looking around like a kind of confused chicken. Eventually, somebody would say, “Larry, what’s the matter?” Larry would say, “Well, I’m this wide and the space I have to get through is only this wide,” and he would stop and there would be a pause and Nicholson would go, “Well, Larry, how about if I stand over here?” He’d say, “Jack, that’s a great idea.” In other words, don’t tell people what to do. Tell them what your problem is and let them help solve it. As simple as that.
NFS: You need it seem like the solution or idea is organically coming from them.
Brown: Exactly, yes. It’s very hierarchical in the feature end of this business, and if you step above yourself, everybody’s worried. Even Jack Nicholson is worried, believe it or not. They’re all worried. They’re all dealing with their own insecurities, whatever they are, so don’t give them an opportunity to squash you like a bug. Just tell them what your problem is. In effect, your problem becomes the production’s problem, if it’s a genuine, honest problem that is not your fault.
Garrett Brown and Sly Stallone on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum on the set of ‘Rocky.’ Credit: Garrett Brown
NFS: Considering these four elements of the most challenging elements of operating a Steadicam, what were some of the most challenging shots to get throughout your career?
Brown: Oddly enough, the most difficult one was one that the production thought would have been super easy. Some of those difficulties have to do with the particulars of this instrument. In the morning, they had given me a shot that they thought was infinitely complex and they allocated a whole day to getting it. This was on a not-very-successful film called Under the Rainbow with Carrie Fisher and a lot of undersized humans. The shot was what they thought was a complicated piece of business, where the evil guy sneaks up behind a waiter who’s carrying a tray through a crowd and drops a couple of drops of poison in a particular glass. When I heard the description of the shot, I thought that you could shoot it 10 different ways in 10 takes and you can’t make a mistake with a shot like that. You get the lens more or less where it needs to be.
I said to them, “Guys, you better start planning another shot this afternoon because we’re going to have this by 10:00.” They got irritated at me. They said, “No.” I said, “No, listen. Hear me. This is not difficult. Look. Let’s do a rehearsal. You’ll see what I mean.” I nailed the rehearsals so convincingly that they were, in an angry sort of way, buzzing among themselves. They weren’t prepared for this.
Of course, we had the shot by 9:45. It was perfect. They couldn’t think of anything else to do, so by after lunch, they laid on another shot that they thought was easy, bringing Carrie Fisher and a couple of people into a set that was supposed to be the Oz set in the background. Except that where I was standing, the lens barely fit the set, and they come in there on a dead stop, so I had to pan them in and not shoot beyond the set. I knew right away this was a nightmare. I was trying to edge the camera forward and get them to change the lens. I couldn’t do any of it. It took me about 18 takes to get it, and they’re going, “Hey, look, the big man’s sweaty. He’s having trouble.” That, to me, was almost one of the most difficult shots I ever got. Onscreen, it looks like a dead easy thing. Newtonian physics.
Another one of the most difficult shots ever was actually my most favorite shot of all time, which was on an opera shot live in Paris in 2000. La Traviata shot live from four film-style locations in four half-hour live shoots that they broadcast. We had to pull them all off live. Each segment had three or four Steadicam operators and cranes and dollies and tripods. It was a vast crew from France and Italy and gorgeous locations shot by Vittorio Storaro and conducted by Zubin Mehta. It was produced by this mad Italian who had the nerve to try and do this.
The best shot of all was my single, uncut 23-minute shot of the final act when Violetta, the female lead of La Traviata, finally dies of consumption. After three months of rehearsing and after having flawlessly shot the first three half-hours, I got to shoot this thing and it was incredible. We all had tears flowing down our faces and were drenched in sweat. Oh my god, it was so good. At the very final last moment when she dies hanging onto the glass of this window, Notre Dame is lit up behind her and the bells are clanging literally at midnight, and then the music stops and there’s a pause, and the crew floods into this place roaring and yelling and hugging each other. Oh my god, it was the experience of a lifetime.
Credit: Garrett Brown
NFS: I can’t imagine the adrenaline of having to do a take like that in real-time over 22 minutes.
Brown: Yes. You have to trust the muscle memory and the visual memory and the musical memory that you developed over months of rehearsing. I had never [operated] live before. I had a remote control on the camera for my own focus and I had a remote control for this little Steadicam that was balanced on the rig. I probably made 100 focus pulls and 100 trim changes in 23 minutes. As it progresses, there’s a small part of your brain that’s more and more terrified that some stupid thing will happen at the end. Part of that pent-up joy is that nothing went wrong for every one of 200 crew members.
They insisted on a rehearsal just before we shot, which meant we had to do the whole 23 minutes and then do it again immediately. That was because Vittorio Storaro, the great DP, my dear friend, had something to do with the lighting that he wanted to fix, and I said, “Vittorio, if you use the stand-ins, which you’re going to do, they aren’t the same as the actors. Those are the singers and they will deprogram us in the show.” He said, “Garrett, I know, but I must have it.” We did this thing and evidently one of the stand-ins stepped on the barn door of a crucial lamp down at my feet for almost the very highest point of Violetta’s performance just before she expires. It was during the most moving part of the singing and the music, and none of us knew it. Now she gets into that position and she’s in the dark. I have to concentrate on what I’m doing, but there’s nothing that I can do to get her lit.
Then, out of the corner of my eye I see Storaro crawling along the floor beneath all these shots and the lights and so on with his white scarf flapping around, like almost Marine-style under the barbed wire. He’s crawling along the floor, and he looks up at me with this great grin on his face and he has his hand up in a glove on this barn door and he waits for a surge in the music and he slowly opens the barn door. He lights her up, which was infinitely more dramatic than if she’d been lit the whole time. Then, he scuttled away at high speed because there’s a hidden door in the wall that he came in through. He had to scoot through the hidden door before it would pan over and we saw it.
I loved that man dearly at that moment because that was so bold. It was so artistic—so marvelously, wonderfully, boldly artistic that it elevated the thing beyond what it would have been. That’s the stuff you live for. That was almost a culmination of my hundred movies. It was very near the end of my shooting career and was hands-down the high point.