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The Steadicam
January 16, 2011 10:04 AM   Subscribe

The "Brown Stabilizer" - better known as a Steadicam - had its first commercial use 35 years ago in Bound for Glory, Hal Ashby's biopic of Woody Guthrie. Later that year, it was used to film the iconic shot of Rocky Balboa running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But it was this shot in The Shining - which even Kubrick-hater Pauline Kael deemed "spectacular" - that showed the technology's full potential. (previously)
posted by Joe Beese (41 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Cool post.

My favorite bit of Steadicam trivia is how, according to the late, lamented John Frankenheimer, 60% of his cult classic Ronin was shot on Steadicam. Not just action stuff - basic interior "dudes around a table talking" scene. He liked the spontaneous feeling you got from being able to smoothly wobble or move the camera, improvising as the conversation went. It was an interesting, unique, subtle application of very cool but sometimes overused technology.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:18 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Don't have $4000 for a steadicam? Try using a chicken.
posted by T.D. Strange at 10:23 AM on January 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


If a Steadicam is too expensive and you don't want a chicken, try the $14 Steadicam.

I've made one. It takes a little practice, but it totally works.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:26 AM on January 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


Amazing how much we take for granted, if it hadn't been pointed out that the Rocky and Shining shots were amazing for their time I'd have never noticed anything about them.
posted by sotonohito at 10:28 AM on January 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've been on set with a steadicam operator. This was fifteen years ago. Maybe they're lighter now. But, at the time, I was impressed with how athletic the operators had to be. The rigs were incredibly heavy, and, of course, directors expected the operators to jog around and do all sorts of wearying moves -- over and over for multiple takes.
posted by grumblebee at 10:45 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sticherbeast: Is Ronin considered a cult-classic? I thought Frankenheimer's work was already too commercial by 1998 for him be considered anything but. (Or is that why he's lamented?)

IMHO, Ronin was just bad pornography for people who enjoy real classics like Day of the Jackal and The Fourth Protocol, but YMMV.

Otherwise, yes, cool post.
posted by vhsiv at 10:47 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I worked in television production, mostly as a shooter and shader, for quite a while. The original steadicam rigs were engineering marvels. It's easy to take the small size of modern professional cams for granted. Thirty-five years ago if you could afford a steadicam rental then you were shooting on 35mm (or an enourmous tube camera, if video) and to support that camera took a steadicam with a reinforced vest and a massive spring loaded counterbalance system. There was a sort of "docking station" where the operator could go between shots and rest the rig, to take the weight off their body. It was a serious workout and to see a good operator in action was very much observing a zen thing.
posted by werkzeuger at 10:49 AM on January 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


REDRUM! REDRUM!!
posted by growabrain at 10:53 AM on January 16, 2011


I wish it was used more these days instead of the constant use of shaky-cam.
posted by octothorpe at 10:57 AM on January 16, 2011 [9 favorites]


Alton Brown was a steadicam operator(scroll down) before getting into food. Hence the production values on Good Eats are always so high, as his background was in cinematography and film (The One I Love-REM).
posted by oflinkey at 11:01 AM on January 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Previously on Metafilter: homemade steadicams.

Here's a very young Peter Jackson with his own homemade steadicam ("20 bucks!") -- skip to 4:53: Good Taste Made Bad Taste
posted by xil at 11:04 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Don't forget James Cameron's brilliant on-screen adaptation for the Aliens Smartgun wielded by Vasquez and Drake. It looked pretty damn cool, even if it might not be wholly practical.

Obviously the Rocky shot is pretty straightforward, but it's fascinating how much dramatic tension Kubrick milks out of variations on the distance and timing of the camera behind Danny. A master at work, even with brand-new technology.

He liked the spontaneous feeling you got from being able to smoothly wobble or move the camera, improvising as the conversation went.

The be-all and end-all of this, most likely, is J.J. Abrams personally drumming on the camera throughout most of Star Trek to defeat the camera's own steadiness. I couldn't find a shot of him doing this, but it's on the Blu-Ray extras. He actually had only one person on the crew he trusted to do it as well as himself, and in some special effects sequences they actually introduced a similar wobble. Fans dubbed this the Shaky-Cam.
posted by dhartung at 11:05 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


dhartung, Battlestar Galactica (2003) also featured the "hand-held cam in space" effect, in fully computer-generated scenes. I don't know if they were the first either but I have to admit it was spectactular.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:13 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Love it. Thanks for the post. Any time I come across The Shining (or a handful of other films) I always wonder if films like this can ever be made again. Sure there is some terrific creativity out there, but dear god, did Kubrick ever control the screen!
posted by zerobyproxy at 11:14 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


The first time I came to California was to visit my then boyfriend who was working that summer for his uncle, Ed DiGiulio of Cinema Products. I was still trying to understand why tv and videotape "looked different" from film. (Boyfriend was film major, no surprise.) We went to see "The Shining." Something shifted in my brain, not sure where, but as a mostly non-visual much more auditory/verbal person I suddenly understood that there could be all kinds of ways of looking at and showing what is going on in real time, the moment. Cinematography, I guess.

Shaky-cam is hard for me too, octothorpe, although I did love Breaking the Waves.
posted by emhutchinson at 11:25 AM on January 16, 2011


dhartung, Battlestar Galactica (2003) also featured the "hand-held cam in space" effect, in fully computer-generated scenes. I don't know if they were the first either but I have to admit it was spectactular.

I think Firefly was the first to simulate the hand-held field in CGI, which was one of the reasons why BSG went with that particular effects company (Zoic Studios) for the mini-series and early episodes.
posted by Sparx at 11:49 AM on January 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


The Shining shot still scares the crap out of me. This, however, is pure steadicam enjoyment.
posted by TheShadowKnows at 12:34 PM on January 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wolfen, which came out in the early 80's, had some choice steadicam by Garret Brown, the same operator as for the Shining. I can't help think the werewolf POV scenes might have been better if they stayed away from the cheesy solarization.
posted by jeremias at 1:00 PM on January 16, 2011


I love how those shots from the Shining show how huge the sets that they built for that movie were. Not too many movie makers bother to build contiguous rooms and corridors like that and just fake the proximity with editing. To me the way that its all so connected makes the hotel seem like a character itself. This is a great article about the sets in the movie and how they don't make any sense if you try to map them out.
posted by octothorpe at 1:11 PM on January 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


It should be mentioned that Garrett Brown isn't just a Steadicam operator, but the device's inventor. And I'll throw in a plug for my Steadicam operator of choice -- she did lots of work on The Wire, among other shows and movies.
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 1:39 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Does anyone remember that during HBO's early days ('77 or '78) their interstitial fill was steadicam shots of Central Park, particularly around the Bandshell, with a Scarlatti accompaniment? It would seem bizarre today, we're so accustomed to every spare moment being used for promotion. I'd love to find some of that video online, but never have.
posted by spasm at 1:45 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is the scene that I first think of. A 3.75 minute fight scene in a... hotel/mall? I'm not sure. But, it's good. :)
posted by 47triple2 at 2:04 PM on January 16, 2011


The be-all and end-all of this, most likely, is J.J. Abrams personally drumming on the camera throughout most of Star Trek to defeat the camera's own steadiness.
Seems like it would be easy to do in post.
posted by delmoi at 2:34 PM on January 16, 2011


The be-all and end-all of this, most likely, is J.J. Abrams personally drumming on the camera throughout most of Star Trek to defeat the camera's own steadiness.

Similar thing, but not with a steadicam, during the drop-ship sequence in Aliens. The cameraman is trying to get a steady shot the whole time while Cameron is slapping the camera around.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:09 PM on January 16, 2011


Also, if you've ever watched (American) football you'll have also experienced his work.
posted by basicchannel at 3:35 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


(I wasn't saying first, mind you, just that it's almost impossible to go farther.)
posted by dhartung at 3:35 PM on January 16, 2011


dhartung, Battlestar Galactica (2003) also featured the "hand-held cam in space" effect, in fully computer-generated scenes. I don't know if they were the first either but I have to admit it was spectactular.

Actually, this is something I always hated about BSG. It smacks of trying too hard, and it's patently ridiculous -- where the hell is that cameraman supposed to be standing, exactly?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:36 PM on January 16, 2011


where the hell is that cameraman supposed to be standing, exactly?

I've always found sci-fi movies and tv shows are a bit more believable if you aren't trying to figure out where the cameraman is standing. YMMV.
posted by auto-correct at 3:58 PM on January 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


Thanks for linking to that article octothorpe. I was all wrapped up in it and came up for air and thought "This would make a great post for Metafilter, oh wait a minute..."
posted by marxchivist at 4:03 PM on January 16, 2011


I've always found sci-fi movies and tv shows are a bit more believable if you aren't trying to figure out where the cameraman is standing. YMMV.

My point is that it's kind of contrived to simulate a cameraman darting here and there and everywhere when (a) you're looking at what is obviously a CGI shot and (b) if this were somehow something real, you would somehow have to believe that there is a guy with a camcorder darting here and there and everywhere through the void of space. It's silly, and it's trying too hard. It may have contributed to a sense of realism for someone, and if so, good for you, I guess, but it just kinda made me roll my eyes every time.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:06 PM on January 16, 2011


I guess to me that thinking that way is essentially the same as saying aerial shots in historical movies ruin the setting because there obviously weren't helicopters back then.

But I think we can certainly agree that everyone has different limits for their suspension of disbelief. I remember hearing an anecdote about an old woman watching a TV show for the first time in the 60s who couldn't deal with the implied jumps in time that happen between scenes. I personally hate almost any CGI because it pulls me out of the moment.
posted by auto-correct at 4:19 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I guess to me that thinking that way is essentially the same as saying aerial shots in historical movies ruin the setting because there obviously weren't helicopters back then.

This may be about what handheld shots are for. By which I mean, my thought is that the herky-jerky nature of them is necessitated by someone literally running back and forth to catch everything because there's no other way to capture the action...this is obviously kind of a contrivance because we're not talking about something that's happening with any real spontaneity, but a performance that's carefully structured and could have been constructed in another way (i.e., one that didn't make awkward camerawork necessary). In other words, although anything that makes the presence of the cameraman clear should take us out of the story (and I admit that the shaky-cam stuff kept me from watching NYPD Blue for ages), it somehow works when it feels like a natural part of the presentation (even though it is really a deliberately chosen part of the presentation). But on BSG it doesn't work for me at all, because it's a device that's drawing attention to itself without any respect for the idea that what it's simulating could never be a physical reality -- there is no way for a person to get that kind of a handheld shot in the absence of gravity or, like, a place to stand. It's trying to mimic realism in the most preposterously unrealistic fashion possible. I'm not trying to go all organic webshooters on this, but it's just so damn goofy that the first time they had a scene like that, I thought it was some kind of a joke, and I'm still amazed they kept it going the whole series.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:15 PM on January 16, 2011


My point is that it's kind of contrived to simulate a cameraman darting here and there and everywhere when (a) you're looking at what is obviously a CGI shot and (b) if this were somehow something real, you would somehow have to believe that there is a guy with a camcorder darting here and there and everywhere through the void of space.

IIRC this sort of shot (I'm thinking of Galactica exteriors, watching Vipers come in and that sort of thing) didn't physically dart around, it was from a single point of view, panning and zooming as if it was a handheld POV in a cockpit or on another ship. That's why I found it effective, the result was very organic, less stagy and simulated.

And as for (a), if you let your knowledge that it's "obviously a CGI shot" inform your sense of realism, there's a curious sort of disconnect there.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:43 PM on January 16, 2011


2nding the awesomeness of the "Goodfellas" single take shot. I also can't imagine how long it took to light that damn thing.
posted by Gilbert at 8:13 PM on January 16, 2011


Well, I guess I'm allowed to self-post in the comments. A couple of years ago I interviewed Garrett Brown for an article about the Steadicam (and the moving camera in general) for Invention & Technology magazine. It was a great experience. The weird thing is that I pitched the story before I learned that Brown lived less than 90 minutes from me in Pennsylvania. I was able to meet him at his place and talk to him in person--something you can't always do with the limited budgets magazines have these days. I really enjoyed talking with him.
posted by Man-Thing at 8:20 PM on January 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Halloween's opening steadicam sequence invented the victim-in-the-second-person so fundamental to horror.
posted by dongolier at 12:48 AM on January 17, 2011


This ties in to my thing about complaints about ships making sounds in Star Wars etc. - you're already viewing the Millenium Falcon from a third person omniscient perspective, why not hear it from one as well?

Series that use a first person (diegetic?) camera perspective have a similarly limited sound design- Firefly (no sound) and BSG (muted sound).
posted by zamboni at 6:37 AM on January 17, 2011


Series that use a first person (diegetic?) camera perspective

A diegetic first person camera perspective would be one where a character within the universe of the story is the one doing the filming, e.g. Blair Witch Project.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:44 AM on January 17, 2011


A diegetic first person camera perspective would be one where a character within the universe of the story is the one doing the filming, e.g. Blair Witch Project.

Sort of what I was aiming for- a camera that behaves like it's part of the environment, rather than one outside of it. Is direct character interaction necessary for something to be diegetic?
posted by zamboni at 9:55 AM on January 17, 2011


Sort of what I was aiming for- a camera that behaves like it's part of the environment, rather than one outside of it. Is direct character interaction necessary for something to be diegetic?

Things that are diegetic are literally part of the story's universe. So, either your cameraman has to interact with characters, or, eerily, s/he exists within the story but interacts with no one. (Shades of Doop.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:27 AM on January 17, 2011




Ever since the introduction of the Steadicam as outlined in the original post, the use of it as a tool on film sets has been pressed. The technique was taught almost from the beginning at the Maine Workshops in Rockport, Me, where to this day some of the early pioneers of Steadicam still teach.

The Steadicam is a brand name and though there has never really been any competition, in the early days Panavision had there own version of the Steadicam called the Panaglide, which due to the highly complex nature of the gear, never really had a foot hold in the industry.

Steadicam as such really does not exist anymore and all of the components (the vest, the arm and the sled) are now made by various third party manufacturers. Steadicam operation was originally considered a specialty item. You would bring in a Steadicam Owner/Operator in for a single shot on a feature film.

Steadicam operators owned there equipment and charged very high fees for there work. Steadicam owners have to put out a significant amount of time and money to become operators. Since it is a piece of equipment that is a specialty, there is zero tolerance for it not working when you bring one in and it is a fairly complex item, therefore owner operators pretty much complete backups of each component, the vest, the arm and the sled. All told, this is a many hundred thousand dollar investment. It was considered somewhat of a luxury in the earlier days of Steadicam to have that at your disposal on a feature film set.

As the popularity grew and more and more operators bought "rigs" the appearance of a Steadicam operator became more and more of a standard part of a feature crew from the onset of production.

The envelope got pushed in the early nineties when some major "A" budget films started using Steadicam as their "A" camera operators and have the "B" operator be a "old style" operator. This was because more and more flashy, hand-held, constant movement style cinematography was communing into vogue, so it became clear to some that the Steadicam was the lead or primary camera.

At the same time, the ubiquity Steadicam grew on television shows. This was propelled by techniques that were refined by the show Chicago Hope, which was shot exclusively on a Steadicam for many of its seasons and received a lot of attention because of that fact. The first time and maintained that high paced, moving, passing from one actor and scene to anther fluidly style and is both very inviting and immediate feeling.

The part that is hard to describe is that when you work with a Steadicam, it is a slightly different process than when you work with a camera on a tripod or a dolly or even a crane arm. When the camera is Steadicam, the whole process revolves around the Steadicam and the Steadicam operator, he is more like a one man band than when you work without a Steadicam operator. The focus of the set is different, the process of taking the shots are different. It is hard to explain.

This is why there are directors of photography and directors who pretty much refuse to work with Steadicam, they are just not comfortable with the change in the process.

Today a steadicam is standard part of almost every feature film and tv show. There are usually two camera operators on a given project and one of the them will more than likely be a Steadicam owner operator.

it is a very specialized field and though there may be many operators out there, as has always been the case, there are only a small group of individuals that are considered masterful and they work pretty much non stop.
posted by silsurf at 9:55 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


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