More with Steadicam Inventor Garrett Brown
By Ron Seifried
Garrett Brown is the inventor the Steadicam. He holds more than 50 patents, worldwide, for motion-picture and film camera stabilizing technology. His creative and successful inventing career has also included the Skycam, a robot camera that slides on wires during sporting events; Mobycam, a submarine tracking camera system; Divecam, a vertical tracking camera system that follows Olympic divers through a gravity-driven system; and the Flycam, a low-tension rigging system that follows athletes via a wired system. Before he became the modern filmmaking equivalent to inventor Thomas Edison, Brown was also a popular folk singer, producer of well-known radio spots, director of TV commercials, and maker of short films for Sesame Street. In Part One of our interview, Brown talked about his new creation, the Flyer LE, while cruising through the B&H SuperStore in midtown Manhattan. He outlined the basics of his invention and some of the ideas he had while reconfiguring the original Steadicam design to accommodate today’s lighter and more compact cameras.
Being the inventor of the Steadicam created some cachet for Brown early on no one else in the film industry knew how to operate his new contraption. For several years, the only person directors could call when they were interested in the unique perspective the Steadicam delivered was the inventor. In Part Two, Brown tells us a bit about his prolific film career as a Steadicam operator, which began with Bound for Glory, a Woody Guthrie biopic directed by Hal Ashby, and included other notable filmmakers such as John Avildsen, John Schlesinger, Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Martin Scorsese, Ivan Reitman, and Stanley Kubrick, among others.
For some of the shots in The Shining, there were as many as 80 takes, including some two-shot setups where you would stay on the actor for up to 3 minutes in a stationary position. Was that physically grueling for you?
No. What was interesting about that is that a long complicated shot like that illustrates something … true about Steadicam, which is it is a visual art form because you have, in effect, the ability to put the camera wherever your hand can reach, and the ideal path for the lens isn’t where your shoulder is, which is the problem with handheld. The ideal path of the lens sometimes cuts corners that would be tough to get your body past, whether it’s on this side of your body or that side.
On The Shining you once mentioned that you became a master of the Steadicam. Is that because you rehearsed a lot of the shots, going through a lot of takes? Is rehearsal very important to operate the Steadicam?
Rehearsal is hugely important because there is no perfect shot. I’ve done 100 films and I rehearse like crazy before a shot. If you accept the idea that it’s not just an artistic exercise of framing, it’s also sort of a dance exercise. You have to get your body through the shot and not fall down in a reasonably graceful way. It’s almost like pair skating or ballet. This is your ballerina that you are putting around. You don’t want to go klutzing around in it. The better you know the set, the better you’ve got the shot memorized, the more you are free to concentrate on the emotional quality of the shot. Even me, with all of the experiences I’ve had … I can go in and wing a shot, and it wouldn’t look bad. I mean, we just winged this whole trip through the store, and some of it looked great. But if I could have done that twice it would have been even better, because what happens is your mind is spinning from the frame to navigating to keeping it level to the next idea, watch out for the guy and here’s where I want to go next, whoops don’t trip over that, watch out don’t bump that guy, wait he’s not going through so that your mind should see an EKG printout of a Steadicam operator in the middle of the shot. And that, of course, is the fun of it. I learned on The Shining, when Stanley [Kubrick] would do 80 takes. [For] each one you’d have a playback and an argument about what should have been. I found that I kept getting better and better very rapidly for the first five, and then it would be what any other director would say, “Wow, that was great.” But I kept improving until about take 14. I’m not recommending, by the way, anybody to do this. By take 50 or 60 you start being in this Zen-like state which is really pleasurable because you have it wired, you have that finest aspect of where that frame is, and you realize that where I can go another inch with my foot when I go around this corner I can come a little closer here, I can line that thing in the frame with that thing in the background and then open it up, then think that this frame is 1 degree better on the left. I think like someone who is on Broadway every night, doing the matinee and then the evening performance, there is a period of time before it gets stale where it really gets fantastic, and they get really loose with it. This is performance art before the viewer sees the result, which is very interesting.
How physically fit do you need to be to operate the Steadicam?
There was a period when the sound camera came in, they were really heavy, even the BL’s and the early Panavisions, and we looked at each other when the BL came in and thought, “Can human beings do this?” I didn’t first imagine this. We’ve been using rigs with 50-pound cameras and 70 pounds overall, and guys have flown IMAX cameras with this thing. It’s a great delight to do Steadicam when the whole rig is in the weight range of the Flyer or the Pilot because you don’t have that fatigue factor creeping in and affecting the work. I would say you don’t need to be nearly as fit as you might have wanted to be earlier with it, with these rigs and the weight of these modern cameras. You don’t have to go on a year-long exercise regimen with it. In fact, a friend of mine just explained to me what that muscle is, two muscles back here [pointing to his lower back] the erector spinae. For the full-size Steadicam, those guys speak to you, they tell you how they are feeling and if they hold the rig out too long, they start shouting.
What’s too long in terms of holding the rig out?
I’ve done a 25-minute uncut shot on one of my favorite jobs ever for an opera that was shot live in Paris, and Tillman Bittner did a 90-minute uncut shot for The Russian Ark, which is a really interesting film shot in St. Petersburg. How long is too long? I would say 90 is too long [laughs]. He’s admitted it was too long. Nearly killed him [laughs].
Explain the “Don Juan” method of shooting with the Steadicam?
The “Don Juan” arrived early on because it was clear to me early on. It’s a way of walking forward and shooting backwards, because … we realized you’re not really safe backing up stairs or backing down stairs. We needed a way to precede somebody down stairs, so I started practicing, lens pointed to the rear and walking forward. Your peripheral vision is showing where you are going. I suddenly realized that … peripheral vision is like a cardioid microphone pattern that sticks way out to the side, but it’s no good up and down. So even if I’m backing up, if I turn my head sideways and look at the monitor this way, I can still see where I am going. We are still learning tricks. I figured that out only two or three years ago. The Don Juan, by the way, was a whimsical name we coined early on, which is embarrassing now, but gets a chuckle in the Steadicam workshops.
Today, quite a few post-production tools have the ability to remove shaky cam footage. Do you feel that takes away the importance of having a Steadicam?
Early on we were always afraid that some black box would make the Steadicam obsolete. When the first in-camera stabilizers came along, the best of which is the one Canon patented, we looked at them very carefully. We realized that they just did vibration in the x/y axis. Vibration is not the problem when you are doing moving shots. Even a dolly shot will have some vibration, so the post tools would be useful for that.
There are some elaborate post-processing tools that are time consuming, with a lot of processing that can even smooth the roll axis. But you lose resolution at the edges. They have to pick a common frame within your wildest move. None but the elaborate and time-consuming post-production tools do the roll axis; they just do the limited bit of vibration correction.
What we are faced with is that we need a good way to hold the camera, and that is at least half of why the Steadicam is valuable. It’s a beautiful, elegant way to hold it within the reach of your arm so you can make these sweeping moves, even moves you can’t make on a dolly. Once you are making a move, you are stabilizing. If you are holding a camera improperly and you are walking, the magnitude of those bumps is causing your frame resolution to shrink. I never figured 35 years on that I’d still be selling the Steadicams, and that they are more valuable then ever.
We should point out that the Steadicam is not a stand-alone tool; it can be combined with dollys, cranes, cars, wheelchairs.
Yes, it’s a way of getting the lens where you want it, it one of many ways. It certainly doesn’t replace a crane, but it looks like a crane in the short strokes. It doesn’t replace a tripod, but you can stand there and look like a tripod. It doesn’t really replace a dolly in the sense that nobody would want to do a Steadicam job that went on for two hours in the studio. You’d rather be sitting on a dolly. But you can look like a dolly if you want. It’s really a tool of options for users that gives them a much broader palette, particularly if you are understaffed, a lone wolf out shooting. It gives you a fantastic mobility.
In your first feature film, you combined a crane shot with the Steadicam. You once said that you were nervous that day. Was it because it was your first feature or because of the complicated shot you had to master?
I wasn’t a Hollywood guy. I came from the East Coast, shooting Sesame Street films and commercials. I had an enormous dolly that weighed 800 pounds with a little Bolex sticking on the dolly. It was a stupid-looking combination. That’s what I needed to make a 10′ moving shot. That drove me to invent this thing. It was so frustrating to lift the dolly onto the pickup truck, carry it to location and lay my 30′ of rails out in order to make a brief moving shot.
I have to tell you, my first 200-man film crew and 900 extras was a big shock by itself. Then my mentor and great friend, Haskell Wexler (cinematographer) put me on a crane. He already had seen what the Steadicam could do and he devised the first combination shot. So, my very first shot. I’m standing 30′ in the air on this crane looking at 900 extras. Not only the altitude, but the pressure of getting this right was killer. We only had one magazine and the shot took only one magazine. They were already upset about that. I would have to come down between shots and give them the magazine to reload.
Another interesting combination you have done in your career is with time lapse. In Return of the Jedi, you shot the speeder bike sequence.
Video cameras are starting to do that trick. Your modern generation of operators will have fun with that. I actually wrote an article about that in American Cinematographer, because we had to work at a pretty elaborate technique to smooth it out over the long haul. I was going 1/30th the speed of the final shot. I was walking about 3mph and sped up 30:1, so the on-camera speed was close to 100.
What’s in the future for the Steadicam?
I have found a wonderful home with the Tiffen organization. They understand [the Steadicam]. They get it. They are absolutely engaged in supporting our R&D efforts. We have a little Skunkworks on the East Coast and we feed ideas back and forth with the factory in Glendale. We have a vast program of very hot stuff in the pipeline. Tiffen is the one that is responsible for the Pilot, the Merlin, the new Ultra II that just came out, the Clippers, the Archer. There is a whole parade of wonderful rigs that have come out, and once the funds were made available to bring this forward, I’ve done the new G-series arms of professional rigs and just did the Merlin arm. Long story short we will have some spectacular stuff coming.