An Interview with Steadicam Inventor Garrett Brown
By Ron Seifried
Ever since the motion picture camera was invented in the late 19th Century, filmmakers have been trying to perfect their shooting techniques. For decades, camera operators were limited to stationary tripods to establish their shots. When silent movies became popular and film directors wanted to push the envelope and create more ways to tell the story without being limited to the single-shot setup, more mobile shooting techniques were required to enhance visual storytelling. Multiple-camera setups were used, primarily in television, to get several angles of a scene in a single take. But this technique was limited to a wide shot to establish the overall scene, and stationary close-ups of the individual performers. The crane shot took the camera, and in essence, the viewer, above or away from the action, giving a panoramic view at a higher elevation. Sadly, these shots weren’t useful when cameramen needed to get close to and follow the action. The dolly shot, a camera mounted on a wheeled platform placed on top of tracks was created to follow the action taking place, in a smooth glide. This technique is rigidly limited to where the tracks can be placed, the technicalities and inconvenience of laying down the tracks, and the difficulties of getting the rig into tight places. To get into cramped locations, the main option in years past was to place the camera on your shoulder, which limited it to the human body’s natural movements, and frequently resulted in shaky and unsteady footage.
These limitations became sticking points for Garrett Brown in the mid 1970’s. Tired of the camera-support gear that was available at the time, he set out to bypass these limitations and devise ways that would get the camera in and out of the action without the traditional restraints, and would allow the viewer into intimate settings never before imagined. But to get the camera into these unique setups, it needed to be “part” of the camera operator, an extension of the operator’s body, to convey shots smoothly in a seamless, graceful way. This need led to Brown’s invention of the Steadicam, a support system that combines a stable camera-mount design and the fluid motion of a dolly shot, all in a convenient handheld device that is attached to the user’s body via an arm and vest. Any obvious movements from the camera operator are eliminated, rendering elegant movement in the final shot.
Brown wasn’t only the inventor, he was also a user. From iconic shots in films like Rocky, The Shining, Marathon Man, and Return of the Jedi, Brown paved the way for a new style of filmmaking that is ubiquitous more than 30 years after its invention. But as cameras became smaller and more accessible, the need to transfer the original concept of the Steadicam to the current crop of compact camcorders became apparent. “The things that the Hollywood guys with their $50,000 rigs have, someone wants with a little HDV camera,” says Brown. “It’s our job not only to supply the gear, but also to help educate people to use it with the same degree of freedom and panache that the big boys have.
“It never occurred to me that camcorders would ever exist,” Brown says. “The very first ones that came out were of a size that had to be carried on a big Steadicam. Then suddenly, they got small. I loved being part of five-man crews and having focus pullers, loaders, and all this business. But I also loved the idea that I could walk around with a camcorder myself and have auto iris, autofocus, and finally when they got good at it, auto color balance, without a five-man crew. But I hated the idea that they had to be handheld. In the late 80’s, I set out a deliberate program to get some kind of Steadicam for lightweight cameras, and that resulted in the Steadicam JR in 1990, which was not a bad try. It was a plastic object, so it was not ideal, but there are some 30,000 JR owners out there who made some wonderful shots. The whole time, I was lobbying for a really precise instrument for that same crowd. A couple of years ago we brought the Merlin out, and that was very pleasing to me. The Merlin can deliver work, that . . . looks as good as the big Steadicam—and it’s a great package. It’s 12 ounces, it folds up. I would have been amazed if my young self could have looked ahead and seen the Merlin.”
I had the good fortune to see Brown at work, in person, when he came down to do a run-through (literally) of the new Steadicam Flyer LE. Arriving on location to a pre-assembled Steadicam rig set up by Peter Abraham from The Steadicam Workshops, the unassuming and easy-natured inventor spent a few minutes trying on the Flyer LE, adjusting the Steadicam equipped with a JVC GY-HD200U HDV camera; then he and Abraham (equipped with a Pilot and Sony PMW-EX1) were off and running in the newly-expanded 2nd floor of the B&H SuperStore, weaving in and out of the aisles and navigating the crowded show floor, all the while attracting a sizeable audience who had a rare opportunity to witness two premier Steadicam operators dueling each other for the best angle and shot in a step-by-step dance number. “A good Steadicam shot is the combination of an artistic idea and a good story, but also there’s this dance component.
“You have to get the physical ‘corpus’ . . . through the move and control this thing and not mess it up—it’s a delicate balance,” Brown says. “It’s hanging out there on a gimbal, it’s floating out on an arm, sticking out in some odd ways, and you’re tearing through the scene. That’s why it is so incredibly much fun to shoot Steadicam, because you have the artistic bit, you have the continuity of a move that does something, that has an emotional whack to it. And then you have the dancer’s tasks of navigating and not falling down, and the more gracefully you can do it, the better the shot looks.”
Then, Brown and Abraham were off and running at top speed from one side of the floor to the other, over 250′ in a matter of seconds. What was most impressive was that neither man had ever previously stepped foot in the store, yet did not need any direction on where to go or what obstacles to avoid. The Steadicam became an extension of their bodies, like a third arm floating the camera effortlessly to capture their complete tour without missing a beat. Brown stopped for a moment to talk about the new Flyer LE and its features.
“This is the latest model, an upgrade for the Flyer, which has been a very successful rig,” says Brown. “The Flyer was great because it had a very good arm, a true Steadicam arm with a huge boom range up and down, and very smooth performance, and because it had all of the features of a Steadicam: a micro-adjustable stage for the camera, a good gimbal, a monitor, a battery, and the vest to support it all.
“The Flyer LE is another step forward. It has an expandable two-stage carbon fiber post and is no-tools adjustable. A longer post will let you get a longer lens height and a lower lens height, if you flip the camera over in ‘low mode.’ With an improved friction-free gimbal and larger handgrip and an upgrade to the arm so it has smoother performance and smoother bumpers, when you get to the top or the bottom of the range, you really want that movement to kiss that move off so you can go for it. If you don’t have an ultra-soft bumper at the top and bottom, this arm goes up to 70 degrees up and 70 degrees down for 30″ of boom range. You don’t have to be as scientific about it for the high and low shots. The ability of that boom range, in effect, makes you a walking crane. That gets you into some very valuable territory lens-height wise; it gets the lens way below your waist and it gets the lens way above your head, and that is an extremely useful range for all kinds of shooting.”
As Brown shows off the height range of the new Steadicam, he adds, “This new rig is 12-volts and 24-volts switchable; there are a number of cameras, some film cameras, some hi-def cameras, and some accessories that are very valuable that require a choice of 12 or 24 volts, and that, likewise, is very useful for a professional camera.
“Our goal with not only this rig, the LE, but also the Pilot, is that these smaller Steadicams don’t cheat the cameraman out of full function just because he has a lighter camera. He doesn’t deserve to have a toy for a Steadicam, he deserves a real professional instrument. That’s our goal. The arms are all true Steadicam arms, perfectly free and iso-elastic, hand-adjustable in terms of lift, height, and how low. The sleds are all highly inert and fully adjustable, with good daylight-viewable monitors and vernier-adjustable stages so that your control over the camera’s trim is as good as the big Steadicam. And the vests are designed to be comfortable for long-term operating and to fit a huge range of humans. We have people that are way less than 100 to 300 pounds who are perfectly comfortable in these rigs, and that’s a challenge and something we evolved over many years of doing this, and we keep learning from the vests that we introduced at the high-level Steadicam. For instance, the new one has an extremely rigid shoulder attachment, and that means when you change sides with the rig, there is no shifting of the vest on you, therefore there is no need to lean back excessively.”
Since its release in 2007, the Pilot has become a huge success with event videographers, corporate clients, and independent filmmakers, thanks mainly to its design for lightweight cameras. “The Pilot is good for 4-lb to 11-lb cameras. That’s a question of the arm design,” explains Brown. “The Pilot does one trick that is extremely valuable—it allows you to add Merlin-type weights fore and aft and increase greatly the inertia of the Pilot, so it feels like a much larger rig. It actually has the inertia feel of a rig as big as the Flyer when you add those weights. They have an outsized effect on how your shot looks. It has a good gimbal, a wonderful arm, a fine monitor and battery, and a wonderfully comfortable vest.”
The crowd circles around Brown like a maestro conducting an orchestra in a theater-in-the-round, as he continues to maneuver the Steadicam and explains what excites him about these new models. “That’s the one thing I love about these little rigs. When you get the parts right, if it’s a true “Steadicam”—which means an arm that is beautifully free from top to bottom—it doesn’t have something to insert in the shot with friction or weight or mass or any of that. Even the Flyer and the Pilot have beautiful gimbals, because there is your angular isolation: an arm that has the complete freedom within that range so that, in effect, you are holding a camera with two fingers. When you put all that together, you have a chance of doing something, a technique becomes invisible to the audience, they don’t think of you. They just know their eyeballs are in a satisfying path, and I still love that. And the fact that these little rigs for lighter cameras can still deliver that, it’s every bit [as professional-looking] to shoot with that instead of a $60,000 rig.”
We check the clock and it’s time to wrap. Brown and Abraham head back downstairs to disassemble one of the rigs. Brown keeps the Flyer LE as we head outside and cross 34th Street, uptown, to continue our conversation in B&H’s corporate offices. Brown instantly becomes a pied piper of sorts, with a small crowd pointing at the odd-looking contraption that most people have probably never seen, and some take for granted. As an old Steadicam JR owner and operator, this firsthand glimpse watching the master at work has been fascinating and there is a lot more ground to cover with Brown, including more shooting techniques and his storied career.