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Steadi’s Daddy: An Interview with Steadicam Inventor Garrett Brown

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Steadi’s Daddy: An Interview with Steadicam Inventor Garrett Brown

Author’s Note: Since the Steadicam discussion seems to be flowering into something more than an argument about a piece of equipment, rather than change the subject with a totally different post, I’ll stay the course. What follows is reprint of an article I wrote about the history and aesthetics of the Steadicam, built around an interview with the device’s creator, Garrett Brown. It was originally published in the Winter 2005 issue of Film Festival Reporter magazine, which is edited by my friend Scott Bayer, a journalist and filmmaker.

Garrett Brown might be the most influential filmmaker that the moviegoing public hasn’t heard of. Throughout his long career, the 62-year old Philadelphian has been a mostly behind-the-scenes presence in the industry, working as cinematographer, cameraman, inventor and teacher. Yet his impact has been as profound as that of any auteur, star or studio executive, thanks to his greatest invention: the Steadicam, a combination camera and body harness that merged the improvisational freedom of the handheld shot with the elegance of the dolly, and expanded the frontiers of cinema.

In the 30 years since the camera made its debut in director Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie biography Bound for Glory—in a still-dazzling shot that began atop a high crane, drifted to earth and then wove through a camp full of migrant workers—the Steadicam has become a star player in some of the most visually and dramatically memorable sequences of the past three decades, sequences that advance the narrative while subtly commenting on the meaning and uses of movie language.

The sequence in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables where assassins invade Sean Connery’s apartment is a dramatically pivotal moment and a fine joke on cinema’s ability to compel identification with unsavory characters; it depicts the assault from the point-of-view of one of the killers, starting outside the building and ending indoors with Connery snapping the audience out of its identification with the killer by pulling a gun and pointing it at the camera (i.e., the attacker). The Copacabana tracking shot in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas followed Ray Liotta’s gangster and Lorraine Bracco’s moll through the bowels of the nightclub and ended at the best table in the house, visually illustrating the idea that criminals gain money and power by going underground.

The iconic scene in John Avildsen’s Rocky where the hero jogs up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum is a triumphant plot moment, but it might not be as emotional without the free-floating Steadicam images that visually express the lifting of Rocky’s and the audience’s spirits. A creepy low-angled Steadicam shot in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining followed five-year-old Danny as he circled through the hotel corridors on his big wheel, ending with a whipsaw pan around a corner that revealed the ghosts of two twin girls. The moment worked both as an old-school horror movie jolt and as summation of Kubrick’s technique, which lulled the audience into complacency with repetition, then punctured that complacency with terror.

In each case, the Steadicam sold the filmmaker’s intent by finding a magic middleground between photography and performance. In some sense, the Steadicam operator is an actor with a camera—an additional, unseen performer who can join the movie’s fiction and act simultaneously as an omniscient narrator and first-person audience surrogate.

Movie lovers treasure these sequences and others. Yet the cameramen who actually enacted them—Larry McConkey in The Untouchables and Goodfellas, Brown in Rocky and The Shining—have remained largely anonymous. This might be an outgrowth of the Steadicam’s oxymoronic nature: Brown’s invention is at once ethereal and workaday, arresting and subtle. It personalizes a director’s vision in the same way that an actor personalizes written dialogue, by imprinting abstract plans (dialogue, body language, camera distance and movement) with an artist’s in-the-moment improvisational judgments.

“It eliminates obstacles that are physical—doorways, steps and so on—which were allied to the earliest reasons for creating it,” says Brown. “In a mechanical sense, it eliminates a degree of klutziness that imposes limitations on what can be done. For example, dolly shots are frequently very foursquare, very linear, because that’s where the rails can go, and they frequently vibrate because they were built up to accommodate the camera and the operator. If you look at old Busby Berkeley crane shots, they’re frequently lurching and bumping and jumping up and down because they are being pushed over studio floors very enthusiastically.” The Steadicam, says Brown, allows both camera operators and audiences “to join the filmmakers’ ideas more closely.”

The Steadicam won Brown a special Oscar in 1978, inspired numerous copies (including Panaglide and ultimately Glidecam) and went on to be sold to the Tiffen company. The Steadicam is now available in a range of modes and prices, from the $66,000 Steadicam Master—a biotech-warrior contraption that can accommodate cameras weighing up to 40 pounds—to the consumer video model Steadicam Jr. (about $400). Brown also founded the Steadicam Operators Association, an online guild that represents the interests of camera operators, provides job referrals and conducts workshops. He has passed on the tradition directly through his son Jonathan Brown, a director of photography (Without a Paddle) and Steadicam operator (father and son worked together on Warren Beatty’s Bulworth).

In three decades, the camera has gone on to become such an industry workhorse that it now hard to envision modern film or TV without it. NBC dramas from producer John Wells (ER, Third Watch, The West Wing) regularly pull off heavily populated long takes that are a marvel of choreography.

But the Steadicam is also used for simpler, so called “invisible” effects—as a means of allowing directors to shoot massive numbers of close-ups and medium shots in a brief span of time, making a shoot more efficient. HBO’s early ’90s comedy The Larry Sanders Show used a Steadicam in a subtly revolutionary way, to make talky scenes more cinematic by following the actors around offices, hallways and soundstages as they bantered. This functional use of the Steadicam is now so commonplace that filmmakers have given it a nickname: “the walk-and-talk.”

Any shot can be expressive, but Steadicam shots have a uniquely organic quality that is powerfully seductive. Part of that power derives from the Steadicam’s, well, steadiness. The Steadicam arm, a massive mechanical arm with multiple joints, spreads the mass of the camera and widens its circle of gravity, enabling the camera to register only the cameraman’s most purposeful motions (pans, tilts, dollies) while minimizing everything else (bumpiness, shakiness).

Brown began futzing with ideas for the Steadicam during the late ’60s and early ’70s. A self-described “moving camera junkie,” Brown hoped to devise a handheld camera that would produce dolly-like smoothness, but without having to lay dolly tracks and then take them up again when it was time to move on to a new shot. Brown got “close” to a good design with a “long, crane-type version,” but “it wasn’t until I got out with it that I saw how ridiculous and clumsy it was, and how unlikely that film people would be lining up for the chance to be wrecked by this thing…

“When I put on the next and final prototype it was much lighter and easier to use. Then we went and made a shot on the steps of the then-unremarkable Philadelphia Art Museum. I ran down the steps chasing my then girlfriend Ellen”—(who later became Brown’s wife)—“and then ran all the way back up. I had an inkling that it was good, certainly better than the earlier, klutzier one.” Brown says when he got back to Los Angeles and screened the developed footage, he thought, “’This is it. This thing is good.’”

Good, but also misunderstood. When the casual moviegoer notices a Steadicam, it’s usually because a filmmaker or publicist has called attention to a shot that is superficially noteworthy because of its duration and physical difficulty: i.e., how long and how hard. Steadicam shots in films by such auteurs as Scorsese, De Palma and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, shot by Steadicam operator Ron Vidor) are superficially exciting because they move through so many different rooms and evade so many partitions and performers, but their larger dramatic function—laying out the physical and political geography of a fictional world, establishing connections between characters—often goes unremarked.

Brown himself has contributed many such outwardly spectacular images—the speeder bike chase through the Endor forest in Return of the Jedi, for instance, or the sequence in Raging Bull that follows Jake La Motta from the isolation of his dressing room to the teeming coliseum of the boxing ring. When deployed by an intelligent filmmaker, such shots can be both dazzling and instructive. De Palma, for instance, uses them to advance narrative, illustrate themes and tacitly comment on the act of making and watching movies.

See, for example, McConkey’s exceptionally long Raising Cain Steadicam shot in which Frances Sternhagen’s psychiatrist explains the hero’s personality disorder to Gregg Henry’s cop while traversing multiple floors of a police station. The shot is a well-executed chunk of exposition that tips its hat to the endless psychiatric summation at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (and modern movies’ need to make such monologues “dynamic”). But it’s also a winking acknowledgment of the cult of the super-long Steadicam shot, and the choreographic challenges such shots entail. The Steadicam follows the actors into and out of an elevator and affects a Dutch tilt while following them down an escalator. At one point, Sternhagen seems about to head off in the “wrong” direction—a charming and probably intentional “mistake” that reminds us that Steadicam shots, like dance routines, are all about hitting one’s marks.

Such discreet aesthetic qualities often get lost in the testosterone fog of, “My Steadicam shot is longer than yours.” And detractors have charged that the camera’s very existence encourages lazy filmmaking. In his 1992 book On Directing Film, David Mamet complained that the Steadicam made directors a bit lazier because it freed them from the responsibility of having to make a shot list.

Mamet appears to have revised his opinion, since The Winslow Boy, Heist and Spartan all use the Steadicam in functional, expressive ways. Nevertheless, Brown resents such talk. “To lead with the hazards is not a great way to evaluate something,” he says. “There was a Cahiers du Cinéma article that made similar points about the Steadicam’s misuse. Good lord, the zoom was misused, and digital effects can be a much greater offender.”

Yet he confesses that after 30 years as a Steadicam operator, he’s grown less impressed with duration and showiness. He says assuming a Steadicam is mainly useful for five-minute tracking shots “is like assuming a violin is mainly useful for running scales.”

Brown was impressed with Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, a continuous 90-minute Steadicam shot through Russia’s Hermitage Museum, performed with a high definition video camera by cinematographer Tillman Büttner (Run Lola Run). Brown calls it “breathtaking in its boldness and its seriousness…I was jealous, and I wished that I had done it myself.”

But for the most part, he isn’t interested in “the real time thing, because I love cuts. People are unconscious of cuts. It makes sense to me to take a character to the edge of a staircase, then cut then pick up again with them at the bottom of the stairwell. I’m not inclined to follow somebody’s bald spot down the steps or chase their wide-angle-distorted bum up the steps…In a word it’s much more important to know when to stop than when to start. It’s more important to know when to hang back and when to simply look. There is an awful tendency with this thing in your hand to want to make music all the time. I have to mentally flog myself to make myself stop. You can’t just follow somebody around in a bust shot for the whole movie, because it’s boring as piss…It looks like rear projection.”

Brown is intrigued by the Steadicam’s potential to combine an actor’s dramatic intelligence and a musician’s grasp of rhythm. Not surprisingly, Brown started out as a folk singer. At age 40, he teased out the similarities between camerawork and music by taking classical guitar lessons; he later invited his instructor to bring a guitar to a Steadicam workshop and analyze the similarities between musical notation and camera movement. Brown believes in this analogy so strongly that when he talks about the aesthetics of the Steadicam shot, he often drops musical terms like “rubato” and declares, “the problem isn’t playing any one note, it’s sustaining a succession of them and setting yourself up for the next one.”

Brown takes pleasure in minute details of camera movement, which are to cinema as word choice is to literature. “When you move quickly up to someone and then make a full stop—boom, like that—that’s a statement. When you go in decelerating very rapidly and then gradually, that’s a different statement.”

In 2000, Brown combined the best of both schools of Steadicam thought while working on La Traviata Live from Paris, a live TV broadcast that still hasn’t been released on home video due to legal wrangling. He shot the final act as a 25-minute continuous take. “What I liked about it was that it was an ensemble piece. It’s the small things that one does in that setting, because actors and singers are doing their thing and you’re doing something contrapuntal to that. You are the closest human being to these people.”

Matt Zoller Seitz is the creator of The House Next Door.