Ted Churchill 1983.
One of the persistent difficulties productions have had to face in the past has been to find qualified operators for Steadicam. Up until a few years ago there were only a handful. Steadicam’s operating techniques, and consequently the machine’s general acceptance, have taken a while to evolve. During this time a not insignificant portion or the industry has become acquainted with a whole vocabulary of unacceptable results: rolling horizons, inconsistent headroom and floating lock offs, all too often attributed, even by operators, to flaws in the design of the machine itself.
Barring outrageous topography or shot complexity success with Steadicam is entirely dependent upon the skill of the operator and skill with the machine requires training and practice. It is rare that someone can simply pick it up and make a good shot the first tune out. Frankly, the person who has never done it but is “sure it won’t be a problem” has about as much chance of getting precise results as Blind Pew on Treasure Island.
The basic qualification for being good at operating Steadicam is being a good camera operator to begin with. The instinctive ability to accurately compose is invaluable when additional navigational problems threaten to overcrowd the capacity of one’s brain. Steadicam’s behavior is unique; it’s a device of sustantial weight, yet one which responds dramatically to the slightest touch or position of the body. For the novice Steadicam is easily viewed as a machine cleverly designed to either alter your looks or drag you kicking and screaming off sets. Depending on how it is set up, adjusted and manipulated Steadicam can do practically anything or absolutely nothing. In the hands of the inexperienced, it can produce truly ghastly results.
Of vital importance to successful Steadicam work is precision: the ability to compose accurately and execute consistent rakes time after time. Because operating Steadicam is an acquired skill, there are varying levels of success with the machine. Although basic technique is not profoundly difficult, more complex manuevers (coming to rock-steady lock offs in the middle of high-speed moves, maintaining consistent headroom throughout every take and keeping a dead-on horizon through thick and thin) require a substantial amount of time in the sling and a lot of commitment to accuracy. Yet, once this level of skill is achieved, one can consistently crank out frames that are virtually indistinguishable from dolly or tripod. Ironically, the greatest aspiration and reward for a serious operator becomes, by default, the indetectibility of one’s work.
Steadicam in the low mode simulates the last seconds of a car hitting a character in BAD BOYS. Hand held lights moving with the camera create the effect of the headlights, and the actor falls back onto a mat as the camera track over his head.
An operator has the option of working with the unit on either side of the body, out in front, or a combination of these positions during a shot. The camera may be pointed up, down, to the front, rear or to either side at any time. Although operating on the side has been found to be the least fatiguing, it is occasionally necessary to place the unit out in front when shooting in light spaces. (Walking through a moving subway train was one example. Another was going through the 23 inch window on the lip of the crane) In preceding shots, one can walk backwards and point back or walk forwards and point back. The latter takes more practice (since the unit is no longer pointing in the direction it is going and one must sidestep to see the monitor), but is imperative both when running/preceding and ascending stairs/preceding. The further the unit is placed from the body, the more tiring operating becomes: so the trick is to keep the unit as close to you as possible while not hitting it with your leg or, God forbid, the camera magazine with your head.
In the beginning. and even occasionally today, operators would use only one hand to manipulate Steadicam. It was eventually realized that with this technique there was a limited amount of precision possible, that any force applied to the unit would create undesirable “floating” in the frame, especially during a stationary part of a shot. During THE SHINING, inventor Garrett Brown developed what has been called the “two-handed technique” which has subsequently become accepted as the most successful to date. One hand is placed on the top of the spring arm and controls the vertical position of the unit (crane function) and the position of the unit in relation to the operator’s body. The other hand performs the functions of pan and tilt. By this separation of activities, abrupt force necessary to stop and start the unit quickly or crane up and down is not transmitted to the unit: the stability and accuracy of Steadicam is dramatically improved.
Because Steadicam can be of substantial weight size and strength have often been assumed to be the most important qualifications for success in operating. Simply not true. Although being in good shape is decidedly helpful, skill with the machine is primarily a function of learning its techniques, of agility and determination to be good at it. It is not a profession for one who avoids physical activity, is unable to concentrate, rears machinery, falls apart under pressure, despises perspiration or has a tendency to trip. Yet it is highly rewarding for those who enjoy working hard, continual challenge, problem- solving, the conception and execution of visual ideas and the constant opportunity to perform.
Perhaps the most frequently asked question a Steadicam operator encounters is, “How’s your back?”, along with a look that says. “This whole act looks cool, but you gotta’ be paying a price. ” Horror stories abound. Perhaps all this is an understandable function of one’s first response to putting the thing on, perhaps it’s an unwillingness to accept a valuable device with no drawbacks. Whatever the case, I confess that after using Steadicam day in and day out for over two years, I have had no back problems whatsoever. Nor, to my knowledge, has its illustrious inventor. Not that it’s not impossible to injure oneself. If someone unfamiliar with the machine were to keep it on for an extended period of time, all the while experiencing pain, the chances are quite good they might have a problem. I gather it has happened. It’s imperative that a novice understand the adjustment of the device to particular body style, how to manipulate it to minimize discomfort, perhaps injury.
But Steadicam can, and often does, put one right on the edge of one’s skill and stamina. Depending on the complexity of the shot, the weight of the camera, the climate and the number of sequence, shots and takes, Steadicam operators have been known to wilt. I have more than once. Having done high-speed walking shots all day-on the hottest day of ’81 in New York City, with a 35BL I was shuffling “back to one” alter God-knows how many takes, exhausted, drenched in sweat, panting, totally trashed, when Bobby DeNiro came up from behind, stuck his famous grin in my face and jokingly said, “What’s the matta’, can’t keep up?”. Nothing like a much needed gesture of support, perfectly timed. As a friend jokingly said about the Steadicam. “It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it”. Dirty job it can be, I’m very partial to it. I spent four years sweating, learning to dance on roller skates. Loved every minute but never made a dime.
Fatigue is a factor every operator must contend with. especially since the level of appreciation or an operator’s need for rest varies from job to job. On a feature an AD may come up every two minutes to inquire about your condition, while on a multi-camera video job they will undoubtedly forget about you for hours on end. One learns a few things about rest very quickly-especially how not to be shy about asking for it.
If, by this time, operating Steadicam seems like a commitment beyond the enthusiasm of most, it might be worthwhile to mention that there are a substantial number of technicans currently pursuing its skills. Each year, primarily through Garrett, the International Film Workshop and Cinema Products, more than 100 are now being trained. Although all do not become full-time operators, most develop skills which make them quite capable of handling the machine. In addition to the increasing number of trained operators, as I have mentioned, is the present quality of operating techniques themselves. As skills and experience are shared, and formal classes continue, a majority of operators know a great deal more today than many of the best just a few short years ago. Productions are therefore no longer at the mercy of vague recommendations in finding qualified personnel or forced to eliminate shots because top operators are unavailable.
OPERATOR IN ACTUAL PRACTICE
An operator of Steadicam or Panaglide is always functioning under a number of inherent fears, or perhaps “apprehensions” is a better word. Oddly enough, the fear of falling or crashing into something is generally not of primary concern. More significant is the fear of encountering a shot beyond one’s level of skill. It’s interesting to note that when operators describe memorable shots to other operators, more often than not these stories center on how close they came to the edge of their abilities.
Difficult shots fall into three major categories: first, shots that tax one’s stamina (running up stairs, for example). Second are shots which are so complex they defy one’s ability to remember them. Third are shots in which there is little action but great intensity, calling for the operator to move with the sublety and accuracy of a geared head or slow dolly move for a sustained period of time. Then there are shots which incorporate all of the above. The plot is often thickened by numerous external elements: geographic quirks, placement of lights, flags and overhanging grids precariously close to frame edge, hazardous surfaces, a lack of scene illumination, an excess of wind, curveballs from actors, not enough rest or too much lunch. All of these and many more invariably conspire to bring the operator down in flames.
An example: This is not a shot one has to execute daily, but it does give an idea of what an operator is occasionally forced to confront. It is a night scene: a dark mansion, tall trees and expansive lawns. From inside the house, the camera looks out through the glass frame of a French door in a wide shot. A figure, barely discernible against the background cautiously approaches. There is little light. The Arri 2C grinds away. The gain on the Steadicam monitor is pushed to its maximum, but the image flickers with the roll of the camera and is almost impossible to see. Another “Prince of Darkness” on the throne. I hold the shot rock steady. Very important to look like a tripod until you move. As the figure nears the door revealing his face in close up, I slam the Steadicam arm down to its minimum height to catch the door handle. (Because of inertia, it is often necessary to use the crane function of the arm instead of tilting to lower the frame in a hurry.) As the latch slides into frame his fist smashes through a pane in the door. Wham! Glass spinters fly everywhere. Fortunately, I wear glasses. He grabs the latch and slowly opens the door. My cue to move. As I begin to back slowly into the room and around a dining table, the figure cautiously enters. Beside me, my assistant carefully rides my FCC approved and underpowered wireless focus control. One CB equipped wide-track Camaro passes by outside and we’ll probably be somewhere beyond infinity. At T1.3 with both camera and actor moving, focus is no joke. My backing around the dining table-just enough room between table and wall isn’t funny either. On the last take I nailed the battery case on a chair back and blew it. It has taken 20 minutes to replace the glass in the door, fifteen seconds to eighty six the chair. Strike one. This is take three, I am informed-the last take. It is 3:30 in the morning.
Moving backwards, I precede the figure through the doorway and into the adjoining room. It is no brighter than the first. I glance at the small bubble level below the monitor to check horizon, always critical when it’s not possible to see background verticals. Shooting at this light level with 47, Lord-help-us with high speed stocks. Backing up against the far wall, l hold as the figure passes in medium shot, pan and slide right to reveal a hallway in front of him. Fortunately he is silhouetted against a bright wall at the far end. First time I have enough light to make out the frame lines on the monitor clearly. Headroom looks good, but the light certainly won’t last. Cautiously he walks down the hall. I hold position, the shot widens. As he gets into full figure, I slowly begin to track toward him being careful to make the start-up as inconspicuous as possible. It would be wonderful to track in wide shot behind him now, but I don’t have the luxury. He is nearing a left-hand turn and the camera must close up or he will be obliterated by the left hand wall. I could let him go and reveal him again but the move would give the camera an unwarranted identity of its own: stalker instead of observer. Better to accelerate into medium shot and keep him in.
The camera drones on. I increase speed, cross the second door jam (enemy of dollygrips) and catch him as he makes the turn and descends a short set of stairs into a large entrance hall. I slide right to hold on a wide shot. It’s a sticky move because I’m operating left side, doing a left inside pan which must be done with the entire body and not just the gimble. The hold is long and must again be rock steady-it is, after all, a wide shot. Then a very slight, slow tilt as he walks cautiously away from camera and toward a door at the far end of the room. The shot works well here because the audience will experience his Isolation-a high, dark room with tiny, receding figure. As he crosses the floor; he pauses in the center to listen. No doubt he hears only the grinding of the camera. He starts to move again, I to descend the stairs. Slow wide shots down stairs from a hold: no fun. The result is acceptable, but not great.
As the figure nears the door at the far end of the room, I must again play catch up with him. Accelerating as inconspicuously as possible, I reach him in medium shot just as he moves through the door and makes another left turn. I slide through the door with Steadicam sideways, gauging distance front and rear for clearance. No sweat. (I went through one once with literally an inch to spare on either side, and fast too. A good chance to get creamed.) Through the door frame it gets really tricky. It’s imperative to immediately arm down, keep the headroom tight to avoid a wall stretcher in the next room, pan slightly right to avoid clipping a dirty little soft-light on the left. (Should have lodged a protest about that baby after the last take but clean forgot. Just content to rest and get depressed about the dining chair incident. In the future, I will have to carry a small recorder for a running monologue of problems I can play back between takes for the AD.)
The figure pauses by the next doorway, peers into an adjoining room beyond. Another black hole. The position of the frame lines on the monitor are again purely conjecture. The light level is threatening to put me in a very bad mood. I move forward and arm up over his right shoulder, revealing the room before him. Hold. The room is a study, a fire glows in the fireplace at the far end. In front of the fire, a body lies face down. I quickly check the frame edges, camera level. Breathing a little hard, a bit of sweat and ready to move. The figure in front of me advances toward the fireplace. Lots of time here. I let him get into three-quarter and begin to track. Slowly, slowly he kneels down beside the body. Another tough part. As the camera reaches the figure, I arm up and over his right shoulder, past it and down Into a medium closeup of the body’s face as he turns it over. The guy is dead. Lock-off. To do this maneuver the camera must be at full extension out front and is murderously heavy to hold, very difficult to hold steady for even a short period. Done with a sound camera it would undoubtedly somersault me right over him and into the fire.
This hold is a killer, plus my glasses are beginning to show signs of fogging up. Just what I need. Rarely do my eyes stray from the video monitor, but in this case I’ve got to look at the dead man’s face. Got to see whether he blinks. If he does, and they- don’t go in for coverage, the whole thing is a trash out. Enough justification to pull the quick-release on my vest and drop forty pounds of “tech-on-the-hoof” right in his lap. He looks OK, real dead. Not a major dialogue scene for him, but he does it well. This hold is about over, half the shot done anyway. Next case.
The figure begins to rise from the body. I arm up, pull back and out. He slowly staggers toward me, dazed. Backing away, I precede him in medium shot. He smashes his leg on a piece of furniture, almost trips (inserted into the action to give me time through the door). A serious decision to be made here. Somewhere before the entrance hall I must change position, face forwards, point back for his final run. Where to make the switch? Tried it here last time and didn’t like it at all. Better to wait until after the second doorway, still have to contend with soft light and streacher now riding right on top of TV.
I continue to back up through the next room, figure close behind in medium closeup. Suddenly too close. Buzzed him. Either he sped up too fast or the focus motor was too slow. No matter, same result. I precede him through the second doorway. Starting to speed up, impossible to tell whether the frame was clean of the light. Good I didn’t switch, too much going on-too fast. Now the switch. I make it through the door. Again acceptable, but not great. Have to practice that one some more. The figure increases speed, I start to run. We charge across the entrance hall, the crew standing out of shot a dim blur. The assistant flies by like a gazelle and leaps the stairs in one jump, effectively eliminating any feelings I might have had about my own athletic prowess. Certainly doing his job, that lad.
Sweating a lot now. My glasses are becoming a real problem, completely fogged over. I run up the stairs, attached to all this junk, an awkward maneuver at best. The figure is right behind me. A lot of heavy breathing. I can’t put distance between us in the straights because again I’ll lose him in the turns, and this puts him right on the edge of minimum focus of the lens. Not an attractive situation for the assistant. But I manage to pull slightly away down the hall and still grip the floor enough to slow down for the turn. Screeching of sneakers on the wood floor, almost dead from fatigue. I can hear the magazine grinding down toward the end. How close were we to a run out on the last take? We’ve both just about had it on this one. Almost home.
I sprint through the last doorway and into the original dining room from which the shot so long ago originated. Probably the worst part of the shot coming up. Have to come to a dead stop, pan with him as he goes through the door and hold. Sounds simple except that the inertia of the machine wants to make it keep right on going, a quick stop to a very fast pan, to yaw horribly if the hand is not dead-on the post’s center-of-gravity. I find my mark and jam on the brakes, panning the camera as hard and fast as possible. If I wait to see whether he’s in frame, he will be long gone. Just have to wing it. I pan and then grab the post tight for the stop. Not bad. He has stayed in frame, the camera is level. The figure is gone, cold air rushes through the open door. Breathing heavily, the camera still grinding, I slowly arm down bringing the top of dining table into bottom frame, bringing down the energy, restoring the feeling of the now empty house and permitting me to terminate a rather violent ending with a bit of subtlety and grace.
It is only quite recently that Steadicam seems to have finally come into its own. Directors and cinematographers have become increasingly sophisticated in its use, confident in its ability to perform many varied functions successfully. Operators find themselves in more and more demand, not just to execute specific shots or sequences, but major portions of projects, sometimes entire films. An example was a picture called BAD BOYS which was filmed in Chicago last summer.
BAD BOYS, directed by Rick Rosenthal and photographed by Bruce Surtees and Don Thorin, is an incisive look at the violent reality of city street kids in the 1980s. Filmed in some of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago, in prison and reform school, it takes one on the intimate and brutal journey of day to day survival in the lives of its main characters Mick 0′ Brian (Sean Penn), his girlfriend J.C. (Ally Sheedy) and rival gang member Paco Moreno (Esai Moralez).
BAD BOYS is in many ways the kind of film a serious Steadicam/Panaglide operator dreams about: an opportunity to use the machine in a multitude of varied applications, to test and improve one’s skill in difficult circumstances day in and day out. It was a tough film to do-for everyone. Much of the action took place at night in really funky locations, lots of high speed stuff with stunts and special effects, a budget that wouldn’t allow any screw-ups, lots of pressure. Although the conditions were hardly hospitable, it was just what I needed-proof that in tough situations, on medium to low-budget pictures, Steadicam was a tool that a production could hardly afford NOT to use.
My experience on BAD BOYS was somewhat unique because I had met Rick Rosenthal at a Steadicam/Panaglide demo in California some months before the picture started. At the demo and a number of times thereafter we had discussed Steadicam’s assets and liabilities at length. He had used the machine before and had an impressive understanding of its potential. In our initial discussions a number of classic issues came up: where and to what extent could Steadicam be used, why would it be preferable to other techniques, would it help or hinder an already tight budget?
The issues encompassed the stylistic and the practical. From the script it was clear that the impact of the film relied largely on total audience involvement with the characters and their actions, for better or worse. It was necessary to create, if possible, the feeling that one is unable to escape the film any more than the characters from their environment; that the audience, forced Into their situation, must feel what they feel, even if they might not respond as they do in the film. On many occasions, this dictated the camera’s getting in close, sharing their experience by staying relentlessly with the action.
On the practical side, there were elements of equal importance to be considered. First and foremost was a budget which, by Hollywood standards, was low. Most of the action sequences (and there were quite a few) took place on the street at night. There was little question that the number of dolly shots required to stay with the action would give the Chicago elevated train a run for its money in track length. Another alternative was lots of hand-held camera. Yet that had inherent drawbacks as well. First, no matter how good one is at it, on a large screen hand-held camera is often difficult to intercut with conventional shots. In addition, it was my feeling that under low-light conditions at night during fast-moving sequences, hand-held camera would often leave an audience hard-pressed to see what was going on, especially if the cuts were coming thick and fast. Thirdly, hand-held offered little mobility beyond short distances. Moving rapidly over longer stretches was out of the question.
The solution to the problem, not surprisingly, led to Steadicam. First, it would provide the ability to stay with the action at all times. Secondly, it would create an image equally as exciting as hand-held in intimacy, spontaniety and energy, yet stable and accurate enough to be easily intercut with shots from tripod or dolly. Finally, we would be free to do whatever type of shot we wished, to choose whatever path for the camera we desired, unencumbered by location geography, curbs, parked cars, extras, etc. And finally, we would be able to make up-as we often did-some incredible shots on the spot with no additional expenditure of time or money.
Under the auspices of Local 666 and with support from Victor Duncan Inc. with the Panaglide, I arrived on the set in April. DP Bruce Surtees, whose films I had long admired, greeted me with usual cigar in hand and confident low-key style. I found out quickly he liked to work in the “English style,” dealing with lighting and often leaving the choice of shots up to director and operator. On the first shot when I asked with all due respect what lens he wished to use, his reply was simply, “Whatever you want: Dangerous words to a Steadicam operator who will invariably choose the widest angle, or in the case of Panavision, the lightest. Hardly to my delight, the first shot was a running shot down the street. Mick (Sean Penn) smashes the window of a car stopped at a traffic light, steals a woman’s purse and tears down the sidewalk, knocking down pedestrians in his wake. The first shot is running, following him-not a tough shot, but tiring. In the reverse, though, the camera is to precede hi down the sidewalk at full tilt. Now since it’s my first night on the job, Sean and I have yet to reach an agreement that takes into account his youth, my slightly more advanced age and the 50 pounds of Panaglide I am carrying as I run. So I present the problem to grips Art Bartels and Michael Krevltt who, wonderful folks that they are, immediately set about making a speed rail rig on a big Western dolly for me to stand or sit on. This is all being done while closeups are being done inside the car at the light. So when the other shots are finished, we wheel this thing onto the sidewalk which, with minor improvements, will be used extensively, among other vehicles, for high-speed preceding shots throughout the picture.
The speed we (I should say “they”) could muster with this baby was really incredible, often quite hairy. But it permitted us to keep ahead of a sprinting teenager, and there were lots of them in the film. During the second shot of the scene, as Sean ducks into an alley, a pedestrian in hot pursuit, the dolly stops abruptly and I slide off. The pursuer slowly advances down the dark alley. the camera tracking in full figure slowly behind him, then moves slowly into a closeup as an arm flashes into frame and slugs the pursuer with a sap.
Steadicam was also used to shoot additional coverage and reverses, as it was often during the film. But the master was really the gem, thought out on the set and very successful, its rhythm drastically changing from criminal in desperate flight to cautious pursuer down the alley. I describe it because it was typical of many we did on the film-an example of the ability to efficiently innovate with Steadlcam being an important aspect of the machine.
More than half-way through the picture actor Sean Penn injured his leg during a chase sequence In the woods; filming was postponed for a month. Bruce Surtees, along with several other crew members, was forced to leave to honor a commitment to another picture. Don Thorin (of OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN) came in to finish, thus providing me a wonderful opportunity to work with two DPs I greatly admire on the same film.
In the end, the amount of Steadicam/Panaglide in the film was substantial: 18 major sequences, 57 separate setups, ten scenes where one or the other was used exclusively, or nearly so. Keeping In mind that a Steadicam shot generally covers a number of camera positions, that’s a lot of material. It was used for conventional shots as well as non-conventional; walked, ran, sat and knelt with; mounted on western dolly, camera car, normal car; wagon, pickup truck, crane, motorcycle. But though many of the shots were interesting in themselves, Steadicam’s value in BAD BOYS is perhaps most evident in the way sequences were built around the device, structured as with a dolly-mounted, tripod or hand-held camera but utilizing Steadicam’s versatility and mobility to achieve an increased sense of presence and intimacy. Following are two examples which I will first describe dramatically, then technically as they were executed. with Steadicam. Since the scenes get a bit complex, I have added overview diagrams of each to facilitate their illustration.
The first is a night sequence on the street. Three youths (Paco Moreno and accomplices) carrying a suitcase worth of drugs are walking down the sidewalk on their way to make a deal. Mick and convincingly nervous cohort Carl Brennen (Alan Ruck) track them from a car. As the youths continue to walk, Alan pulls the car over on the right. Mick, dressed in dark blue jump suit and black ski mask, jumps out.
As he crosses in front of the car, the headlights reveal a gun held tightly at his side. He starts across the street toward the trio of walking drug dealers.
At the same time, four black kids riding behind in a car (previously tailing Mick and Carl) skid to a halt in the middle of the street. One with a bald head and dark glasses, sporting a long trench coat, jumps out and moves quickly toward Mick and the still unsuspecting dealers. At the same time Mick makes his move. Now between two parked cars directly behind the trio, he raises the gun and yells for them to freeze. At the same moment the black kid, closing in on Mick, whips a sawed-off shotgun out from under his coat. As the trio spins around responding to Mick’s yell, Carl, having seen the kid with the shotgun approaching, jumps out of the car and screams to warn Mick. Mick drops just as the youth with the shotgun opens up. The blast misses Mick and hits one of the drug dealers, sending him through a store window.
Steadicam in low mode slides into mortally wounded drug dealer as he crashes through a store window after being hit by a shotgun blast in the final part of shot #6 in the street shootout sequence for BAD BOYS
All hell breaks loose, Paco and his buddy, in shock, take off down the street. Two other black youths are now out of their car and open up on Carl, who desperately returns fire but doesn’t have a chance. Hit by numerous shots, he slumps down near the back wheel. But he has shot one of the black youths in the exchange. The youth’s friends drag him into the now moving car and they take off in a cloud of rubber, a hail of bullets in another exchange with Mick. Mick runs across the street to Carl, who open eyed and bloody, has slumped in a sitting position against the rear wheel, dead. Realizing there is nothing to be done, Mick jumps in the car and takes off. Carl flops face up onto the pavement. (Very well played.) Crowds exiting the movie theater initially dive for cover; then cautiously begin to gather as the wall of sirens is heard and police cars appear in the distance.
That’s not the end of the scene, but it’s enough to illustrate how Steadicam was used. The scene was Initially shot in totality with a crane master, (indicated C1, lower left In diagram) then with three tripod-mounted cameras. Next Steadicam was brought in to do specific moving shots within the sequence. (Tripod-mounted cameras are Indicated by C1 & C2.)
The action starts at #1 with the three drug dealers walking down the darkened sidewalk. Shot #1 with Steadicam is a medium preceding three-shot in the low-mode with a 24mm lens. We track about 50 feet and they exit frame. Shot #2 is a closeup of the same action, moving from face to face with a 50mm. Shot #3 is a low-mode insert from the rear featuring the suitcase of drugs one is carrying, this again with the 24mm lens. The opening has been established.
Action #2. Mick and Carl pull over. Mick gets out and crosses the street. Shot 4. This is one of the more exciting shots in the sequence. It starts on the right headlight of the car (camera again in the low-mode), starts tracking back with Mick as he rounds the front fender. As he passes the headlights, the light reveals the gun he carries at his side in closeup. We hold on the gun, then, as he continues to walk, pan up to his face covered with black ski mask in closeup. The severe up angle makes him look pretty heavy. Halfway across the street he passes the camera which pans and continues to track him low from behind. As he reaches the curb on the opposite side the camera slows into a medium-long shot and the torso of the black youth with the long raincoat slides into frame left behind a parked car and raises a shotgun from under his coat. Steadicam holds. Alan screams at Mick, he ducks and the blast hits one of the drug dealers in the background who goes through the store window.
Shot # 5 will make a couple of very interesting cuts possible with #4. It starts on a long shot of the street with a 24mm. Mick and Carl have pulled over to the curb out of frame. The camera, again in low-mode, is moving in the middle of the street toward the approaching black kids in their vehicle. Mick’s legs cross the frame from left to right. Because the camera is moving toward the car. time is compressed. The car closes quickly, suddenly stops in the middle of the street. The black youth flies out of the rear door and walks rapidly towards the still moving camera. He passes: the camera pans with him and tracks behind. He starts to move faster. Just before he reaches the sidewalk he drops behind a parked car. Camera slides right to reveal Mick and the dealers: he pulls out the shotgun and pres.
In shot # 6 the camera is again moving, this time in long shot from the position of the black kids’ vehicle. The black youth enters frame left, walks swiftly toward the still unsuspecting Mick. Mick enters frame right in the background. The camera tracks as they get closer and closer together. As Mick hits the curb, the black kid crouches. Carl screams. Mick drops as the black youth fires his blast. The camera continues without pausing past the crouching black youth, over Mick lying on the ground, across the sidewalk and into the shot drug dealer as he crashes through the window. Part of the shot repeats #5 but going through the action into the window is most exciting.
Shot #7 is a high-mode shot walking across the street toward the drug dealers as Mick’s point-of-view. At 35mm it is less dramatic, more clinical than the other shots. Because of Mick’s concentration on the impending rip-off, it will work well. Shot #7 ends before the shotgun blast which, needless to say, has already been adequately covered. Shot #8 is a reverse of the black youth leveling the shotgun and firing. It was done both with “A” camera (what had later begun to be amusingly called “the real camera'”) and Steadicam. Steadicam however slides in to MCU as he fires, this necessitating a face mask and goggles for operator and assistant. Shot #9 (not represented in the diagram because it would become too confusing) tracks the black youth back to the already moving car. As his friends drag him into the back seat, the camera pans with the car, tracks with it for 10 to 15 feet. then stops and lets it move away into wide shot. The vehicle only hit the Steadicam arm once when I got too close trying to make the shot more dramatic.
We shot one to three takes on each set-up, had to occasionally wear protective clothing for the gun wads and rain gear for the blood packs. I’d never done a scene which employed both stunts and special effects. It was most interesting (although at times a bit messy). It was not, however, nearly as messy as the next scene.
The second scene to be described is an interior of a reform school cafeteria. The location has been established earlier in the film. Pertinent characters in this scene are the Viking (Clancy Brown), toughest guy in Dorm C of the reform school. He runs the dorm, abuses everybody and gets away with it. Barry Horowitz (Eric Curry) is a charming, insane little guy, science wizard and chronic nail-biter, who is in for murder, having firebombed a bowling alley for revenge. During lunch more than 100 inmates inhabit the cafeteria, primarily kept under control by guards Gene Daniels (Jim Moody) and Wagner (John Zenda) who sit at their own table near the entrance.
Horowitz serves food from behind one of the two counters. Viking, having pushed his way through the line as usual, gets a helping of food from him. Dissatisfied with the helping, he gives Horowitz a sneer and says menacingly “More, Jew Boy!”, Horowitz puts another helping on his plate but clearly doesn’t like it. Viking moves down the line and out into the room to his seat. Horowitz has had enough. He grabs a food tray and moves from behind the counter toward the seated, eating Viking. Viking’s back is turned and he doesn’t see Horowitz coming. Horowitz dumps the contents of the tray on his head. In a fit of rage Viking stands and turns just as Horowitz levels a kick at his groin. Viking goes down in agony, the kids in the room are stunned. Horowitz walks over to a garbage can nearby, picks it up, walks over and dumps it on the prostrate, writhing Viking. The whole place goes crazy, screaming and hollering.
Horowitz, now really motivated, runs back, jumps up on the food counter and, screaming and laughing, begins to throw food at everyone in the room. The whole place goes berserk. Kids return the fire in kind. The place is instantly a madhouse. The two guards have jumped up from their table at the opposite side of the room and are desperately pushing themselves through the crowd. Spinach, potatoes and milk cartons fly through the air. The sound level is deafening. The two guards break through and yank Horowitz down from the counter, begin the drag him through the crowd toward the door. The other kids roar their approval for him as the guards force their way through. The struggling trio passes Mick who stands silent and stunned in the crowd. As Horowitz’s only friend, he alone appreciates the consequences of this insane and disruptive action. The guards drag the still smiling, insane Horowitz through the door and down the hall.
To control as much of the impending pandemonium as possible, the scene was shot chronologically. In action #1, (upper right corner of diagram) Viking moves through to the head of the food line, arrogantly pushing his tray at the servers. Steadicam starting at position S1, (upper right corner) tracks him at 24mm in preceding three-quarter shot through the line. Camera stops and Viking exits. He comes into frame right at #2, (lower right) facing Horowitz across the counter. (V2 & H2) They have their exchange and Viking moves down the counter. The camera (52), locked off in the exchange, prcedes him on the other side of the counter. He turns and walks to his seat (V3). The camera tracks behind him until he sits, then arcs around (pan symbol) and comes to a hold in wide shot (S2 End).
Horowitz (H1 ), fed up and crazy to begin with, grabs the serving tray from the steam table and moves around the counter and across the floor toward Viking. His POV is shot later by S8. He walks up behind Viking and dumps the full tray on his head (Action #3). Viking jumps up, Horowitz nails him in the groin (H2, V4), turns and goes for the garbage can near the pillar. Shot S2 holds in wide shot for the entire action. Cut to 53 (medium shot) as he grabs the can, returns to the prostrate Viking (H3) and dumps its contents on his head. Shot S3 precedes him back into medium shot, pans down to Viking with the garbage. Shot 54 (reverse), positioned by the pillar, picks up Horowitz as he runs back behind the serving counter, jumps up on top and begins to throw food at everyone in the room. S4 tracks back until he passes camera (4-2), pans with him and tracks right laterally until the camera is in front of Horowitz as he mounts the counter (Action #4, Hold 4-3, Horowitz position H4).
Meanwhile, at Action #5 (top center) 2 guards jump up from their table and push their way down the aisle through the crowd of yelling, food flinging youths toward Horowitz. They are tracked with preceding shot 57 down the aisle and exit frame left near the serving counter. The guards enter frame right of S4-3 which is held on Horowitz. The guards tear him from the counter and drag him down the aisle toward the exit (action 4 to 6). With a 24mm lens S4 continues in preceding shot ahead of them down the aisle through the hysterical and cheering youngsters. The shot continues through the door (upper right), pulls back, pans and holds in a wide shot as they move away from camera.
Steadicam shot 55 is a following shot of the action picked up• as Horowitz is again on top of the counter. It holds at the corner of table 5 until the guards force him off and drag him down the aisle. The camera then pans and follows behind, Horowitz occasionally turns back to scream at others. SS cuts between tables 1 and 2 slides across and again behind them through the door. It comes to a stop and holds again in wide whot. Shot S6 is Horowitz”s POV as he is dragged down the aisle. Other inmates jam the aisle, four deep, screaming encouragement. The camera pushes through and arcs around at HS (center diagram} on Mick’s face as it passes. The shot is done both with a 24mm and 35mm for a CU of Mick. S6 ends before the turn at the end of the aisle is made.
As complex as all this may appear, it was minor compared with the conditions under which it was shot. Even to shoot this scene from the corner of the room would have been a mess for an operator. The amount of hot, sticky food being slung around was incredible. The level of noise made it impossible to hear any other crew members. For the Steadicam operator It was insane. As the scene progressed the floor got super slippery: I was forced to kick aside chairs flung in the camera’s path. With so many people in the scene there was hardly room to work. The chances of an over-enthusiastic extra bumping into the rig were excellent. I was hit repeatedly by hot spinach, mashed potatoes and containers of milk. The grip guiding me slipped and fell down himself. Stopping the action after a take took the same effort as stopping an aircraft carrier. the enthusiasm of the extras for continuing the scene being boundless. My hat is off to both first AD Pat Keyho, second AD Katterli Frauenfelder and Rick for the way they managed it.
Cleaning after the take in the cafeteria on BAD BOYS. Food being thrown around the room ended up all over – including on the operator and in the lens
The number of difficulties a Steadicam operator may be forced to confront suggests that it is not one of the industry’s more desirable professions. It does, however, have its pluses-the most obvious in providing the means for getting one’s minimum daily requirement of exercise. Confrontation with new and more complex problems is continually stimulating, seldom boring. It’s a craft that forces the operator to learn, utilize and perfect a number of skills simultaneously, not the least of which is the ability to bring into precise control a device which practically ignores gravitional discipline. Because Steadicam is virtually synonomous with difficult shots, it provides continual challenge, and therefore continual reward. Because it requires a great deal of skill and stamina, it pays well. And it happens to be a lot of fun. Because of the nature of specialization, the Steadicam operator is forced to give up a number of other interests, to abandon many functions of the DP. At the same time, the opportunity to contribute to production in a unique and meaningful way, to work hand in hand with the best cinematographers in the country can leave little regret. Like many camera technicians. undoubtedly most who read this magazine. I am fascinated with the craft of filmmaking, eager to learn and participate in that process with those who do it best. That, perhaps above all else, is what has drawn me inexorably into the use of this instrument.