Ted Churchill 1983.
Two-and-a-half years ago I inadvertently became involved in Steadicam like many others I had heard a great deal of discussion and conjecture about the machine, had seen memorable, though occasional, examples of its use on screen, and had witnessed a few daring intrepids flying down the aisles at SMPTE shows in what appeared to be, above all else, an incredible display of willpower. Steadicam was certainly an object of curiosity. Yet as a specific advance in neither camera nor grip equipment but rather an invention from some shadowy area in between-it was difficult to categorize, perhaps even easy to mistrust. I suppose, in retrospect, that after spending a number of years developing particular skills in cinematography, one is apt to be cautious of new devices foreign to one’s experience.
Finally, as events would have it, I had the opportunity to watch Steadicam’s entertaining inventor, Garrett Brown, demonstrate his device on a number of occasions. This, combined with some persuasion from my twin brother Jack, who had used the device extensively in Sweden, as well as my undiminished enthusiasm for both camera technology and the tax benefits of equipment ownership, prompted me to buy the machine.
Churchill lines up opening shot for DINER in which a long involved tracking shot concluded with a crane up by means of a platform on a dolly
Since I knew next to nothing about Steadicam, this willingness to purchase the device might seem somewhat arbitrary. But my decision, a few months later, to become a Steadicam operator by profession was not. It was becoming obvious that along with the rapidly growing enthusiasm for Steadicam throughout the industry, there was also a shortage of qualified operators. In addition, new and inventive camera choreography was constantly being created around the device. Steadicam was an ongoing challenge and, perhaps most important, loads of fun to operate. This made a lateral career move a swift and simple decision to make.
My nearly exclusive involvement in this role has permitted a fairly accurate evaluation of Steadicam’s viability in the industry. After working on quite a few productions and talking to a vast number of people at shows and demonstrations, it has become clear to me that although Steadicam has attained a solid reputation as a valuable production tool, to many it still remains a somewhat exotic device surrounded by mystery, often misunderstood and approached with great apprehension. Furthermore there seems to be a great deal or information-often crucial to solving particular production problems which has been available only to those with Steadicam experience. For the uninitiated, the hiring of a Steadicam and operator has often turned into a rather costly education, and an excellent opportunity to dismiss the device out-of-hand.
It is no surprise that the Steadicam is still considered novel and occasionally controversial. It must be remembered that although the device has been around now for some six or seven years, it still remains one of the few major innovations in industry technology in well over 50. In that perspective, Steadicam is still relatively new. Considering that its hardware, uses and techniques have been in a constant state of evolution, that it is an instrument not inherently easy to master and that it requires a skilled operator, it is not surprising to find an industry partially confused and disappointed about its function.
Churchill prepares to back off an escalator at O’Hare airport for a shot in RISKY BUSINESS
HOW IT WORKS, WHAT IT DOES
Steadicam was designed to solve a persistent problem which had plagued cinematographers for quite a few years: how to make the camera as mobile and versatile as a human being while rendering a stable and accurate frame competitive with traditional, but more complicated, techniques. Although Steadicam was not designed to replace either the dolly or handheld camera, it does have certain characteristics which, in specific situations, make it highly desirable: MOBILITY, being able to move the camera without geographic restraints; VERSATILITY, the ability to either wear or hard mount the device and therefore use it in conjunction with conventional camera moving apparatus and EFFICIENCY, the ability to quickly stage, reset or alter the camera’s path without involving elaborate support systems.
Steadicam accomplishes all this by the utilization of simple Newtonian physics. To dispel a common misconception the device employs no gyros for stabilization: and because it is primarily mechanical is highly reliable. The objective of Steadicam is to allow a camera operator whether moving or stationary to hold a stable frame and this is accomplished in four ways:
First. the camera is rendered more inert by expanding its components and allowing the center of gravity to be pulled outside the camera where it is accessible. Second, this object is attached to the operator roughly at the center of gravity with a three-axis gimbal so that the operator’s angular movements are not transmitted to the camera system. Third, the operator’s arms are relieved of the weight of this object (which can be considerable with a 35mm sound camera) by an adroitly hinged and sprung arm attached to the operator by a vest which isolates the camera from the operator’s lateral and vertical moves. And fourth, the operator is allowed, by means of a video monitor, to see an image without holding his eye to the camera.
If all this sounds like the results of patent search, it simply means that an operator has potentially unlimited mobility while being able to hold a steady shot. Since the system may be easily inverted (set in the low or underslung mode), a variable lens height of from one to six feet is achieved when worn, down to four inches above the ground when rigged. The gimbal permits 360 degrees in tilt and roughly 270 in pan (not including the operator’s ability to pivot). and the spring arm a crane function of between two and three feet. This means the camera can be pointed, and moved to or from, any point in three dimensional space. Steadicam can accept, with the correct adapters and video assist, virtually any 16 or 35mm film camera and a variety of tape cameras including the EC35. (Panaglide has integrated Panaflex, PanArri or additional Panacam camera). Usable lens lengths run to at least 100 mm although-as in hand-held shooting-accurate framing becomes more challenging as focal length increases.
Dialogue during this walking shot for PORKY’S was an outrageous and funny, it was hard to keep even the Steadicam steady
With Steadicam, the camera is supported in space at one end of the spring arm in a fine state of balance and trim. Reacting as if it were in neutral gravity, it wants either to stay where it’s put or continue in the direction it is guided. The unit is highly responsive to an operator’s touch, but at the same time must be isolated from contact with the operator’s body, not to mention anyone else’s body, as well as inanimate objects and severe wind. All are hazards which tend to destabilize the machine and defeat the system. Consequently, all lens control systems (focus, iris and zoom) are done by servo motor through radio control or hard wire to an assistant. Besides the monitor mounted on the Steadicam by which the operator views the frame, a video signal may be taken from the unit and either wired or transmitted (where legal) to VCRs and additional monitors. This permits others to view the frame from the device-a feature helpful to OPs and directors as well as operators who, like everyone else, dislike surprises at rushes.
Working on stage with David Bowie during a concert sequence for CHRISTIANA F. Steadicam combines the spontaneity, of a hand-held camera with precision close to a dolly
You can wear the Steadicam or you attach it to any number of moving platforms, vehicles. dollys, cranes, wheelchairs, whatever. This is generally accomplished by an adapter (made by JAR Enterprises in North Hollywood) which connects Steadicam arm to high hat, tripod, speed rail or planking. In this case the operator is relieved of navigational obligation and is free to concentrate solely on frame accuracy. This is exceptionally valuable when tracking (usually preceding) objects which move faster than one can run. It will also enhance the frame’s stability over rough topography above most, if not all, other existing techniques.
EVOLUTION OF THE SYSTEM
Steadicam can be a cinematographer’s dream-come-true. Yet in a short history filled with spectacular results there have been disappointments as well ranging from equipment not technically evolved to the needs of a particular shot to a lack of operator skill. Some productions have had to accept footage filled with floating horizons, stomach-churning horizontal roll and actors inadvertently sliding out of frame. Some operators, inexperienced in Steadicam’s techniques, have been left stunned by a device capable of meting out such punishing surprises. For many, Steadicam became a tool of limited and questionable value.
Steadicam was originally designed simply as an MOS single camera (35mm Arri), run around machine used to make “stunt shots” impossible to achieve with conventional methods. As the realization of Steadicam’s potential increased however, the industry became quickly dissatisfied with such limited use of the machine. The demand for the adaptation of sound cameras, increasingly powerful and precise lens control systems, and the eventual adaptation to electronic media, initially outstripped the ability to design and fabricate a tremendous number of electronic and mechanical accessories. Cinema Products, manufacturer of Steadicam gave it a good and finally successful try and Panavision (limited to their own cameras) continues to modify, lighten and improve the Panaglide in customary class-A fashion. But for a time, satisfying these new demands was left to the ingenuity and tenacity of a handful of determined Steadicam owner/operators who functioned in a unique arena where technique had outpaced hardware. Unfortunately, though the demands they attempted to satisfy were a strong indication of a growing need for Steadicam, industry enthusiasm was often accompanied by equal frustration.
There’s been an effort, along with the development of hardware, to improve the skills required fa use it. In the beginning these techniques ranged from the primitive to the nonexistent. Even early photographs of the intrepid inventor himself show an alarming lack of what we now know to be correct technique. A daring few tried Steadicam and got good at it. Many found it too difficult, or too tiring. Knowledgeable operators, in constant demand, were hard to find. There was a great deal of experimentation; some successful, some not. A consistent problem was the operator who assumed the device could be used with no prior experience, blew the shot, and in many cases, Steadicam’s reputation as well.
At the same time, the few skilled operators were out there having a great time making shots that had never before been done. Learning under fire, stretching themselves to the limit and studying their rushes with murderous attention to the edges of the frames, they got better and better. Impressive results continued to appear on the screen, even though productions continued to be hard pressed to find enough skilled personnel to make Steadicam a reliable and universal production tool.
One of the more interesting aspects of Steadicam, and one which makes operating continually challenging and rewarding, is the vast range of possibilities that exists for its use-possibilities which extend from the most precisely technical to the most liberally stylistic.
The use of Steadicam is determined primarily by geographic necessity: if a sequence requires laying down an inordinate amount of track, or if a location or set is too confined for the camera’s choreography, or if the action is too fast, complex, or unpredictable for a dolly, one would do well to consider using Steadicam. Since the device’s most basic function is as stabilizer and shock-absorber it is highly advantageous in situations where rugged terrain prohibits the use of the camera hard mounted on a vehicle, a hand-held camera, or even other stabilizing systems- sequences that, when filmed with traditional techniques, would have an audience doing “the rainbow yawn” 20 seconds into a shot. For tracking over uneven sidewalks, rough pavement, back roads over hills, through woods, Steadicam used in -conjunction with western dolly, pickup truck, station wagon, speed boat, camera car, golf cart, all terrain cycle oust about anything that can get through) is a natural for shooting vehicle interiors, vehicle to vehicle, persons walking or running, riders of motorcycles, bicycles, horses and the like.
In circumstances such as these, Steadicam (instead of the camera) is attached directly to the vehicle, its spring arm absorbing the vibration and shock, thus permitting an image stable enough to closely duplicate the perceptions of the human eye. Furthermore, the operator (properly affixed to said vehicle) has the added option of wearing the device while sitting or standing. This provides great versatility in camera height, as well as the ability to shoot front, rear or to either side, and the capacity to dismount (within reason) into walking or running mode at any time during the shot. An operator can consequently ride for a high-speed portion of a short, get off and continue a shot on foot, and make intricate maneuvers impossible without Steadicam.
Another exciting aspect of Steadicam is its lack of mass. An operator on foot takes up little more space than the average person, and substantially less than most dollys. The ability to have a camera lens travel close to objects on both sides, through any configuration, virtually over any surface-through tight interiors, crowded areas, up stairs, etc – provides a perspective traditionally limited to the hand-held camera, which, in most cases, has proved less than satisfactory as a POV. (OAS BOOT, an obvious exception.) Since Steadicam operation is the act of individual will, it can behave similarly make spontaneous lateral moves, instantaneous stops and starts accelerations, decelerations; be passive or aggressive, omniscient or participatory. Or, with equal facility, it can articulately follow the same behavior in another person.
Because Steadicam can provide this enormous range of options, it is most often and most effectively used when worn by an operator on foot. It ominously creeps down the hall of a haunted hotel, is every psychopath we never wanted to meet, an animal stalking derelicts in a place no one wants to live. It walks down the street as an intimate observer of marital crisis, flies through offices, homes and yards looking at fashions, snacks and detergents, allows an audience to roam a rock concert stage, examines art at museums, is a dancer at the ballet, skater at ice shows. It paces the sidelines at football games, rides a horse at the track, fights it out with the champ in the ring and still arrives in time to be confidante of conflict and woe on the soaps.
Yet Steadicam’s dashing performances as intimate observer or specific personality, memorable as they may be, account but for a small percentage of actual use. Its ability to do flashy shots is usually outweighed by simple, practical considerations. If Steadicam opens up a world of stylistic possibilities, it also makes the production process substantially easier. Be it large or small, even the most carefully planned and organized production is susceptible to external elements, the sole purpose of which seems to be to frustrate filmmakers, stop them from making a shot and put them over budget. This is especially true when doing city street scenes in, say New York City-locations which supply interesting background but require enormous efforts to control. Whether it’s the usual “space cadets” trying to find God-knows-what in the lens, or others who consistently fail to differentiate between the Evening News and Panavision or crowds who understandably find compromising the background less important than getting home, Steadicam has the advantage of keeping the paraphernalia of production to a minimum and therefore less obtrusive. It’s indispensible when it becomes impossible to “own” the territory in which one is shooting.
On smaller productions, limited in personnel, Steadicam’s lack of visibility and its high mobility make it possible to “steal” shots-to wait in the shadows ’til the right moment, step out and do a shot before the location is even aware of the camera’s presence. On larger films, by throwing a few extras behind the principals employing a few PAs to impress the more intractible passersby that they are about to be mowed down by the “three-armed man with a sewing machine”, it is very often possible to simply blast away down the street shooting clean, usable material something not always possible with a major crowd-drawing operation.
Another Steadicam asset is that the operator, geographically independent, has the ability to respond instantly and adjust to unpredictible circumstances during the shot itself. Whether it be documentary situations or elaborate theatrical sequences, a host of unpredictible elements which would ordinarily compromise the shot or necessitate the restart of a major setup are potentially correctible with Steadicam during the shot. A good operator can often see problems coming before they occur in frame, can subtly change the rythmn of the shot; adjust the camera’s pace, path or position; make slight or major compensations spontaneously along the way and get a usable shot.
Equally important is an added ability to get a scene before running out of light (or dark), not having to return the next day (or night), or having to kiss off the shot or accumulate an extravagant list of unfinished locations for the end of the production. A Steadicam shot can generally be set up and repositioned very quickly and it has often been able to complete a scene otherwise impossible because of changing light. This brings us to the question of speed. Although I don’t generally consider speed as ample justification for Steadicam’s deployment, its swiftness is of undeniable value. This is especially true on low budget pictures where a cinematographer may well have limited resources in crew size, support equipment and time, consequently limited options in visual production value and variety. Steadicam can stretch a tight schedule by getting in the can a great deal of interesting material which would otherwise be denied to the production.
Heady stuff-yet not entirely without its darker side. Invent a geographically uninhibited picture-taking machine which incorporates the benefits of quick setup and strike; location moves, retakes and shot changes combined with the ability to shoot anything short of 85mm, including masters and lockoffs and you have a device which will leave even the most suave producer fighting an uncontrollable drool. It’s not unreasonable. Get a fast car and you’ll find yourself going fast. “Open her up and see what she’ll do”, as aspirants of hot machines are wont to say.
I really don’t know why it is, but there is often a tendency to shoot fast with Steadicam, even when it is totally unnecessary. To the operator, the challenge is understandably seductive- the desire to be efficient, to really get cooking. Directors and DPs feel it too getting the energy up. It takes a powerful commitment from anyone to even suggest a production slow down, but there are times … Once, on a television movie, we were shooting furiously in Times Square at night. Not long after we started, when the first AD, realized how fast a shot could be reset with Panaglide; he began yelling “Action I” before “Roll sound” in a frenzy of enthusiasm, much to the chagrin of my excellent, but already overworked and disconsolate assistant, Gary Muller. But it gets a lot worse, and not as humorous. A friend who does a great deal of video Steadicam told me that during rehearsals he often has to point the camera at the ground so that the rehearsal won’t be used as the take, no matter what the quality. Since the balancing act between economics and craft exists In all areas of production, I guess one must simply attempt to work on those that tilt, however slightly, toward craft.
STEADICAM AS STYLISTIC CHOICE
one important non-technical function: that of encouraging innovation. It is undoubtedly Steadicam’s use as an instrument of dramatic choice that, in the hands of inventive directors and DPs, has created its most effective results. Although this can be seen in all types of production, it is perhaps most apparent in commercials and theatrical films.
In commercials, visual innovation is the name of the game, an area where concepts are designed to get the attention of a largely disinterested audience. In the age of special effects, computer graphics and video games, live-action directors and cinematographers must continually come up with images that are unique and powerful. Those images, if they do nothing else, must defy a whole television culture to use the bathroom during commercial breaks. The level of talent, artistry and skill required to accomplish this awesome task is often comparable to that of even the best theatrical films, and is clearly the reason a vast number of the country’s top cinematographers choose to do both.
Much of Steadicam’s contribution to making commercials exciting to watch centers around its ability to make graphic and geographic transitions with lightning speed, to move effortlessly and limitlessly through location or set, into close up or back to wide shot in seconds. Whether Steadicam approximates human vision or simply satisfies an audiences addiction to high-speed events, there is little question that the shots it produces can spellbind even the most cynical of viewers. An outright charge at product or personality with 18 millimeters leaves an audience breathless in anticipation of collision; an exciting walking-shot-with-spokesperson saves everyone from television purgatory-yet another talking head. And a POV floating up a set of stairs has got to mean that something horrible (therefore wonderful) is about to occur at the top, even if, as usual, it turns out to be an encounter with something to eat, wear or apply to one’s underarm.
Many times Steadicam is deployed on commercials which have been designed as single shots. The camera moves from one piece of business to another, through a complex set or location, or geographically reveals an ending. One example we did recently involved the camera pointing at the front of a home at night. The camera moves into a window (23 inches wide), through it, through the living room, the dining room and into the kitchen where it stops on a close up of a man sitting at his kitchen table. He looks up to camera and delivers a line. Because such commercials are continuous shots, they arouse one’s curiosity about their conclusion. Because they utilize no cuts, they are highly believable. Many times they are designed around Steadicam, without which they couldn’t be done.
Then there are commercials which are built around many short shots intercut – sports and recreational events. social gatherings, etc. -situations where the energy of the moment sells the spot. Next to advanced computer graphics (example: the motorcycle chase in TRON) there is little that can match a wide-angle Steadicam shot in pure kinetic energy. It makes an eye-catching opening, is great for fast intercutting. For a series of Saks Fifth Avenue spots we did opening shots which blasted through a large loft, the camera slicing by passing models in a move that (though it almost maimed the talent) showed much of the spring line in seconds and literally demanded the rest of the spots be watched. On another commercial for a cheese snack the opening establishes a family on a camping trip. In three seconds a wide master (with lake, trees, family, tent and vehicles) turns into a tight close up on the name of the product sticking out of a grocery bag being carried from a jeep which has driven into frame. It happens so fast that it could almost have been a cut, but actually charging into the ECU makes all the difference when it comes to exciting an audience as familiar with cutting as they are with breathing.
But if much interesting Steadicam work is being done in commercials, it is in theatrical films where it is undoubtedly best remembered, where unique Steadicam styles develop. Its use in films like BOUND FOR GLORY, ROCKY, THE SHINING, HALLOWEEN (Panaglide) and WOLFEN created enormous excitement for audiences and within the industry. The device made possible shots and sequences which had never before been done, perspectives which had never been seen. These films set off stylistic trends with which Steadicam would long be associated. Its ability, for example, to be highly mobile and maintain continuous action without cuts made it a natural for suspense sequences. So natural, in fact, that it has scared half the country to death, in one film or another, as the relentless point-of-view of the insane, homicidal or supernatural in a never ending host of horror films so dear to young hearts and investors’ pocketbooks. The sense of involvement it provides an audience has been, over and over, successfully utilized to enhance intimate scenes, action sequences, crucial moments like the openings and closing of films.
Since the most dramatic shots made with Steadicam are invariably the most highly visible, they tend to define its function. Yet they are only examples of ways in which it can be stylistically used, not a singular definition of how it must. Perhaps because Steadicam functions with virtual geographic impunity, there is a seductive tendency to construct long, continuous shots with it. There is little doubt that in the past such shots have been highly effective. Yet at the same time, the fact that Steadicam is used far more frequently to make shorter, less complicated shots is often overlooked.
Since Steadicam and editing perform entirely different functions, there is little to justify the assumption that one must be used to the exclusion of the other. A director who relies heavily on editing to build a sequence will find Steadicam as valuable as one who doesn’t. Steadicam’s ability to rapidly change perspective, to make highly energetic moves, works wonderfully with quick cutting-commercials, as I mentioned, being a prime illustration. As a device which can do both stationary and moving camera shots, it is used extensively to do scenes where the two are intercut. A common example is stop and start walking dialogue with close ups and reverses. In gathering material for background action, montages, actual or stated events it is excellent: a director or DP says “get me this, this and this” and off you go. It happens a lot. There are endless possibilities in the way Steadicam may be used, many just now being explored. Foremost of these, I am convinced, is the creation of material for interactive video discs. But that is a subject for an article in itself.
Since innovation with Steadicam is an area, much of which has yet to exist, it is necessary to think about it in general terms. If the device is revolutionary in its ability to do both conventional if it adds dramaticlly to of a scene; or if it is that Steadicam only makes the process of production a less arduous, costly and complicated task-it may be, in the end, simply the amount of freedom the device permits that is its most important asset. And freedom, be it art, craft or business, is an aspiration with which everyone can identify.
In this first of two articles, I have tried to outline Steadicam’s evolution to the present and some of its uses. As one might well gather, I consider it quite an important invention. Yet it is only a machine and as such, is entirely dependent on its operator for successful function. Correctly manipulated it can do marvelous stuff. But operating both Steadicam and Panaglide is a learned skill without which the results may invariably be far from satisfactory. The second of this series deals with the importance of the operator and gives some examples of Steadicam’ s use in specific films.