NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Danny Torrents riding his tricycle through the halls of the Overlook Hotel. Rocky Balboa charging up the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum. If you’ve been to the movies, you have seen once-impossible shots like those thanks to a college dropout-turned-inventor named Garrett Brown. The Philadelphia native created the steadicam, a body-mounted camera that stabilized handheld shots. He’s previously been honored with an Academy Award. Next week, Garrett Brown will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The inventor joins us now from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Congratulations. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
GARRETT BROWN: Thanks, Neal. Hi.
CONAN: Hi. You might think an inventor these days needs an advanced degree in engineering or in physics or in chemistry, or maybe all three.
BROWN: Well, these days, he might. Those days where 30 years ago.
BROWN: I squeak through with those things.
CONAN: In fact, you didn’t have a degree at all.
BROWN: No, 98.6 of them is all I ever had. So…
CONAN: So how did you become an inventor?
BROWN: Well, I’ve puzzled over that and, you know, in the context of being invited into this august body, you know, which, you know, I think I’m sensibly feeling unworthy about, I think that what I managed to do is look at a problem and really, really want a solution and being placed to, you know, not know any better, being a filmmaker far from Hollywood. And having some inventing forbears and, you know, having some discussion about inventing and having a father who invented something, it was in the water, you know, in the air in my life. And it seemed possible to me to get stuff you didn’t have, you know?
CONAN: But necessity, the mother of invention, when you were a filmmaker, and all those herky-jerky handheld shots.
BROWN: You know, I’m very conscious of the way we see the world, always was. I loved dolly shots, in particular, as an early filmmaker, and owned the big klutzy dolly, you know, because that’s what you had to do. But, in fact, we sort of have a stabilizer in our heads, if you think about it. You know, you don’t – you’re not conscious of yourself lurching side to side when you walk, or rising and falling. The brain just smoothes it all out for you, you know? So why should it look worse when you pick up a camera and try to walk? That’s what sort of lured me on back then. And we’re talking 1974 here, Neal, you know.
CONAN: Well, but I gather the first iteration of this didn’t work out so well.
BROWN: Well, I had big ones and fat ones and heavy ones…
BROWN: …and ones that were so burdensome, that I looked at it and thought this could never work. No person in his right mind except a masochist would ever want to run around with this thing. Fortunately, it sent me off to a motel to try and figure it out, with all the drawings that I had. And luckily, I popped out a week later with a sketch of what seemed like a compromise, you know, at the time, but actually was the thing, you know, itself.
CONAN: A motel, it’s interesting. S.J. Perelman, the very funny writer used to, when he had writer’s block, check himself into a seedy motel in Times Square to get over it, so he could out of there and hit his deadline.
CONAN: What did the motel have to do with you?
BROWN: Well, the motel was a way to get away from life, phone calls, all distractions. I disabled the TV set. I don’t know. It was an inspiration, I think, just to, you know, it was as close as you get to a monastery in, you know, Philadelphia, existent to 1974.
BROWN: And it really worked. I confounded the maids, running around with broomsticks balanced on my, you know, fingers and, you know, like, an odd, eccentric hermit taking my meals in the room. But that kind of super concentration a couple of times in my life has actually proved to be really useful, and, of course, obviously very hard to find in an era of texting and emails and 24/7 distraction. So I recommend it.
CONAN: So once you had come up…
BROWN: But not Times Square.
CONAN: Not Times Square. Once you’d come up with the actual device, how did you convince people to try it?
BROWN: Ah, that was semi-miraculous because if you picture it, if you’ve got a gizmo that does this, that allows you to run with a camera and the results are smooth, you have a priceless thing that very few inventors have the advantage of. And that is – I could show up with a demo reel of 30 impossible shots, obviously impossible to anybody that knew anything, and not give them a clue of how it was done, right? So showing with up with a reel just knocked down the doors. It just floored everybody.
In fact, that reel was sent to Kubrick right away, and John Avildsen who directed “Rocky,” and a lot of my heroes in, you know, faraway movie business. And in fact, it was Kubrick who telexed back wonderful compliments and so on. But then he said, oh and by the way, you better clip out the 14 frames in the middle of it that show the shadow of it on the ground because, you know, a skilled photo-interpreting guy could detect that something is rotating and so on and so on. Of course we rushed into the screening room, and lo and behold, there they were.
BROWN: We clipped out the damn 14 frames.
CONAN: So who was the first to bite?
BROWN: Well, there was a pile-up, actually. I shot – I ended up the next year on three films simultaneously, and one of them was “Rocky,” because John Avildsen saw the reel and the last shot on our impossible shots reel was my then girlfriend, now wife Ellen running down the art museum steps and back up, ’cause we were driving by.
And I said, well, Ellen, why don’t you run down? I’ll chase you down. Then she ran back up. So we had this astonishing shot, impossible to do. And, of course, Avildsen said, how did you do that? And where are those steps? And that led, a few months later, to me chasing Stallone up those steps.
CONAN: Was he faster than your girlfriend?
BROWN: No. I have to say no. But you know, the first time he did it, he was exhausted for that scene early on when he failed to run up the steps.
BROWN: And the next scene, he – I think he went easy on me and – he was very speedy, by the way, but of course, so was Ellen back then, so…
CONAN: I have to go back then too. You had a career before you got started in (unintelligible) before you got started in inventions, before you’re success at inventions. And this was a radio career where you were part of a duo pitching various products, well, including the American Express card. Let’s take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO ADVERTISEMENT)
ANNE WINN: Hi.
BROWN: Do you accept the American Express card?
WINN: Oh, yeah.
BROWN: For sporting goods?
WINN: Sure, for sporting goods.
BROWN: All sporting goods?
BROWN: Ah, great.
WINN: What happened? I mean…
BROWN: Why am I in my bathrobe?
WINN: Yeah, how come?
BROWN: I went down to get my mail and the elevator stopped working and the fire door was locked. The landlord locked the fire door. I can’t get back to my apartment.
WINN: Oh. But you do have your American Express card.
WINN: You didn’t leave home without it.
BROWN: Yeah, fortunately.
WINN: How lucky.
BROWN: Listen, I need climbing gear.
WINN: Climbing gear, oh.
BROWN: Yes. I need six pitons, five carabiners, a sling, 86 feet of rope.
WINN: What are you climbing?
BROWN: I’m climbing a block from here, my building 211 South 28th Street.
WINN: Oh, a great building.
BROWN: Yeah. I’m going to make a statement.
WINN: Oh, that’s some statement.
BROWN: You know, if you’re going to lock the fire door, I’m going to climb in.
WINN: I want to see this. Are you going to try the North Face?
WINN: That should be the easiest ascent, I think.
BROWN: Oh, yeah. I always thought so. I’m looking forward to this. My apartment’s at the summit. Do you climb?
WINN: Only socially.
CONAN: Well, one of a series of radio commercials you can hear on a site called Two Voices. Tell us a little bit about that, Garrett Brown.
BROWN: Well, actually, I was making TV commercials and films for “Sesame Street” at a little film company in Philly. Somebody who knew Nichols and May and also knew that my friend Anne, who you just heard, and I used to joke all the time in the agency, which is where we started, asked us if we would knock off Nichols and May and try and do some ad-lib radio spots. And we sort of took to it. And we had a hell of a lot of fun and made a lot of dough and actually paid for some failed inventions with it, with the money from radio spots.
And in a way, oddly, that’s kind of an invention because we figured out how to make them sound ad-libbed, which that was sort of the appeal of those spots. We did them for Molson Beer and for MX(ph). It was quite a run. One of the Molson spots was on the air 13 years.
CONAN: For 13 years.
BROWN: Might be a record of some sort.
CONAN: Yeah. It’s – you said that they were funding. So even then you were back there making those diagrams and checking into motels.
BROWN: Well, actually the Molson, that whole business came along after the Steadicam. So chronologically, that was a running thing that actually providentially occurred in time to help pay for the SkyCam…
BROWN: …which could use some paying for.
CONAN: The SkyCam, now that is the – we can see it, not in the shadow. Often it’s in the shot in football games as it’s flying over the field, giving us that overhead shot of the teams at play.
BROWN: Yeah. That is now almost ubiquitous in games. It’s amazing. And they’re getting less particular about keeping it out of the shot and sort of just gave up and don’t mind if it flies through.
CONAN: And that followed how long after the Steadicam?
BROWN: Well, that was – I actually thought it up in 1979 during a chat with Merlin Olsen, oddly enough, on “Little House on the Prairie.” A lot of standing around on shows like that, which we, you know, we enjoyed working on those things. But Merlin and I were talking about how dreadful football coverage was because the cameras are miles away, way up and high in the stands.
It’s all extreme telephoto by the time you’re in a close-up, you know. And he said, boy, it’d be great if you could have a helicopter over the – a little helicopter. And, you know, the idea of serial decapitations at the expense of people…
BROWN: …put me off of that for a while. Then on the plane I sort of thought, well, how could you do it? And, you know, when you go at something like that and narrow down the possible ways to do it, well, it wasn’t that mysterious. You know, you hang it on four wires. If they all take up on reels off in the corners, it rises, right?
BROWN: Two on the right take up and two on the left let out, it goes to the right. And you can extrapolate that the new, brand new portable computers, we actually did it at the time when an Osborn of all things. The computer can take a joystick input and take out and let up those reels and make it go in any pattern and, you know, French curves and anywhere in that airspace. So it was pretty seductive, actually.
CONAN: And you also need to make sure that it’s not jiggling.
BROWN: Well, that, you know, I stuck my (unintelligible) in effect. And instead of the operator’s hands, I gave it very small inputs right at that old center of gravity, you know? So it actually was a transportation of a Steadicam-like device, inherently stable object flying around over things, you know? And I had the idea it should be on concerts, it should be on Philadelphia orchestra performances, it should – that lens should be lofting like a ghost over all kinds of things, you know, which may – may yet happen, you know?
CONAN: You never know. Garrett Brown, the inventor of the Steadicam, about to be inducted next week into to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
You have also given some thought to the process of invention. You’re going into, as you say, august company next week. There’s a process you’ve worked out – seven steps, you say. Any of us can be an inventor.
BROWN: Well, now I’m on the spot to remember my own rhetoric on the subject, but I certainly believe that inventing, particularly as we practice it in the U.S., which is one of the inventingest countries ever – we do it very democratically here, and we do it, you know, all ages and genders and social positions and so on.
First of all, it’s a really wonderful place to get stuff done like inventing. This is one of the best countries on Earth for getting stuff done. And our culture is a can-do sort of culture. I ‘m hoping it continues to be in these present economic times because it’s so urgent that our population, our kids understand that inventing is something that any one can do, and the way of it isn’t all that mysterious, you know? It – do you want to hear it, in fact?
BROWN: Well, the prime – the way I see it, the prime inventing act is identifying something you really want which is missing. You know, we gloss over what’s missing, we take for granted what’s missing.
CONAN: Well, a lot of us who are inspired by invention really want a whole lot of money.
BROWN: Well, a whole lot of money is an auxiliary phenomenon to inventing. If you’re a good inventor, you get a whole lot of money. I guess theoretically that’s the idea. But you know what, a good life, a great career, a good marriage in effect our inventions because there is something that you want which may or may not presently exist or may only partially exist. What you have already may need improving or it may not exist at all, you know. So I think you have to broaden the definition; it isn’t just gadgets and gizmos and machines and processes. It’s whatever you want and the finding of it, the getting of it could be considered an invention, you know?
I’d love to encourage people, particularly kids, to think of their lives in those terms, you know, and incidentally, by the way, to think of stuff they want personally as accessible. I’m a big fan of personal inventing. My house is full of one of kind gadgets that might not be worth even patenting or selling, but are very satisfying to own, you know?
CONAN: Can you give us an example?
BROWN: Well, you know, unfortunately we’re on radio and I can’t show anything. But I have on my – in my wallet a pair of reading glasses that I – that fit in the wallet and pop out and, you know, are actually great little reading glasses because I didn’t want a lug a glasses case around for dark restaurants when I need reading glasses.
So between wanting that and, you know, imagining its existence and backing up the steps and then having a jeweler build it, well, I’ve got one, you know? I actually patented that one, probably unwisely. But now I haven’t had time to exploit it. But folks, I’m telling you, if you want reading glasses in your wallet, maybe I’ll move to the next step on that one. But I have a fabulous way to clean the gutters of my farm.
My boat has a bunch of inventions on it. I have a wonderful arm that supports my iPad at night so I can lie in bed in any position and not have to hold it up and read, you know?
There’s a long lists of this stuff, but I think the attitude that, all right, if you want it – by the time you actually dug one up commercially and paid for it, half the time you could go to a machine shop and say, here, here’s a sketch, build me this. And the fun is, all right, that’s almost there. Fix it, go back to the machine shop. Here, make it shorter, longer, you know?
CONAN: We just have a few seconds left, but we’re going to try to get this call on the air. John is with us from Smithport, Pennsylvania.
JOHN: Well, I’m just – the reason I called is I’ve been looking for Brown and Dana folk music from the Newport Folk Fest, so I’m just wonder if this is the same guy.
BROWN: It is.
JOHN: How do I get some of your music?
BROWN: Well, there’s a website called brownanddana.com, I think. Isn’t that it, Neal? Sort of – something like that.
CONAN: It is.
BROWN: Yeah. And you can – are you a computer guy, John?
JOHN: No. I don’t have one but…
BROWN: Do you know…
JOHN: …I got friends and family that…
CONAN: Well, you can listen to a little bit of Brown and Dana right here as we go out in the program.
BROWN: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call.
JOHN: All right. Brownanddana.com.
CONAN: Yup. You’ll be able to find it there. Maybe you would not have made the Country Music Hall of Fame though.
BROWN: No, I don’t think so.
CONAN: Good luck, Garrett Brown. Again, congratulations.
BROWN: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Garrett Brown is going to be inducted next week into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I’m Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.