The Steadicam – “The biggest thing since Technicolor”

If we could listen in on the thoughts of most every cameraperson, we’d often hear, “There has to be a better way to do this.” Some people stop there. Others make half an attempt to create something and give up when something similar is in the airwaves—or, worse, a ‘trained engineer’ who says, “it can’t be done.” Others slog on to moderate success. Then there are a very few who go all the way. None, however, have had an impact the way Folk-singer/Volkswagen salesman/radio pitchman/award-winning radio commercial creator Garrett Brown, who as The Washington Post once wrote, created “The Biggest Thing Since Technicolor.”

Once upon a time there was a cameraman/director/editor that made films for programs like Sesame Street and commercials for various clients out of an old barn/studio in Gradyville, Pennsylvania. Since he’d learned filmmaking by reading books from the Philadelphia library (circa 1940), he thought he needed dollies and big lights and such. “I was obsessed with having a mike boom, the kind that could crank in and out,” laughs Brown. “When an old-time Philly filmmaker went bankrupt, I got a truckload of his stuff, which was all obsolete.”

The tools gave him a chance to create. And move. Sort of. “To get the results of a camera move that went from here to there that looked really good on screen, you had to put your little pin-head camera on a 600-pound contraption and lay rails for it,” he says. “My floor creaked on the studio, and it was not quite level—you constantly had to be leveling this thing while you drove it. It was a nightmare.”

That nightmare got Brown thinking that there must be a better way. With partner and good friend Warren Paul (as producer and sales rep in the New York office), The Moving & Talking Picture Company of Philadelphia, New York and Gradyville was into the invention business.

Enter the ‘Pole.’ A few lengths of plumbing pipe and lead ingots became a simple pole with weighted t-bar at the back. Brown bolted the camera to the front and he held it at the center-of-balance and ran around the Pennsylvania backwoods, recording the results on an Akai 1/4-inch reel-to-reel.

The question became: Would it work on a real shoot? If they could ever get one!

The answer came in the form of a call from hotshot director John Wilcox, who’d heard about the ‘Pole’ and thought it might work for a segment of ABC’s Monday Night Sports Special about jockey Robyn Smith (Fred Astaire’s future bride). Wilcox wanted a single, long, uncut tracking shot preceding Ms. Smith as she walked the 200-yard path from the ‘weighting room’ at Saratoga Springs to the paddock. Cameraman Urs Ferrar had heard about the ‘contraption’ and once they viewed Brown’s demo, both were sold. The problem was that it had to be 16mm.

“We had three weeks to make it work in 16mm,” Brown recalls. “I had already tried hanging my Éclair on the iron pole but it was heavy and much too flexible—the camera visibly whipped around as I walked.” A fast trip to Manhattan’s Canal Street, home of New York’s remaining WWII surplus stores, a stock of eight-foot lengths of rectangular one-inch by two-inch extrusion from aluminum box-beams and a race back to Gradyville for more R&D. A Kenyo gyro replaced the weights. The fiber-optic bundle was mounted so that the lens could peer through the eyepiece. The viewing end was attached to a headband.

“Because the 16mm image had to squeeze through an 8mm bundle, it was exceedingly dim and the real world was comparatively, painfully brilliant,” Brown recalls. “Only if I squinted the other eye like Long John Silver, could the view-finding eye see what I was shooting. At the last minute, I cut a hole through one lens of a pair of dense sunglasses, threaded the bundle through the opening, and committed my fortunes to that notoriously absent-minded guardian angel of inventors (and fools).”

On August 8th, 1972, Garrett Brown stood on his opening mark outside the weighing room door, “holding the handle of my newly built, complicated-looking rig, whose mysterious, bulges—cardboard boxes draped with black velour—concealed the fact that underneath it was still a ‘pole.’ The camera was in front, the disguised gyro sang its intriguing song in back, the black garter snake viewer writhed up and through the hole in my shades.

“I felt like the Cyborg from a cheesy science fiction film,” he recalls. The director called ‘roll camera’ and ‘action.’ Brown backpedaled frantically, the miniature flickering figure in his right eye looming into a head-and-shoulders shot. He lost his way through the over-bright monocular world in his other eye. His assistant whispered “No!” as he backed up the wrong path. He carried her increasingly distant profile, “twisting my head around to see how I might get back near her, finally lurching across a flower bed, blindly lifting my legs like a stork as she entered the paddock! I held the ‘pole’ up as high as possible, shooting between the top two rails as she mounted her horse and jogged alongside as she circled the enclosure.”

Brown didn’t know until recently what had been used. All he knew is the ‘Pole’ had survived the test—only to be knocked out of the park, when he discovered Howard K. Dearborn’s patent of a similar contraption, circa 1960.

Now, a normal person would probably hang his (or her) head and give up at this point. Not the young inventor. He dug through his inventors notes and an early detailed and practical drawing of a parallelogram arrangement of pipe—like a miniature handheld crane—that would preserve the stability of the pole but keep the camera level when it boomed up and down seemed to be his answer. “It was complicated,” says Brown, “and was probably patentable. It would do the wonderful Pole-type inertial trick, but the lens could be at any height from floor to ceiling, booming smoothly up and down while I strolled effortlessly along, with the quintessential ‘look’ on my face, peering through my new big fiber-optic bundle at the bright and perfect image.”

Again, Brown called on his co-conspirators and the new version of the ‘Pole’ was drilled, milled, blocked and welded. “We called it the Cine-Turkey and it was still non-functional when we were offered a 16mm job in Hartford, Connecticut.”

Connecticut Natural Gas wanted a visual tour of the Nature Valley Arts Center, which occupied a long, narrow converted mill. The idea was to show local painters, potters, printmaker, weavers and metal-smiths working away, flanked by a multitude of windows that would have let ordinary heat escape. “I offered the ‘Brown Walking Boom’ as we now called it, to ‘fly’ the lens, without dollies or rails, over, around and through the work areas of the artists, in a single, long, uncut two-minute shot.”

Boom up and down? Pan and tilt? “Was I nuts?” he says. That didn’t stop him. Friends, family, and anyone they could cajole into working redid the new ‘Pole.’ Races were run along the New Jersey Turnpike for parts and participants. Clandestine meetings with ‘metal workers’ and a lot of gulping, but by 8 a.m. the day of the shoot, the ‘contraption’ was ready. The commercial was a hit!

The Moving & Talking Picture Company of Philadelphia and New York (they finally dropped Gradyville) continued to refine, retool, add to and take away from the ‘Moving & Talking System’ as they shot commercials (with clients good-naturedly signing non-disclosure agreements before the ‘tool’ was trotted out).

Brown watched operator after operator stumble along with, what he called, “A thing that was manifestly, painfully, absurd.” It was working well for commercials, but would motion picture companies pick up on the monstrosity?

A lot of head scratching. And, on a hot August weekend he tried every moving shot he could think of, including strolling with his three-year-old son Jonathan down the back wagon road of the farm, wearing himself out chasing their dog, and bicycling around the driveway with Jonathan peering at him over the back wheel from his little seat. On Sunday his wife (then girlfriend) Ellen raced through dockside alleys and under dark approaches to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and, “finally, impulsively, down the broad, then-unremarkable, steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.”

He cut the best of what he had together and took the leap to Hollywood. Skipping all the politics and prevarications (this is Hollywood, no one has to elaborate), Brown met with two movers and shakers—Robert Gottschalk, founder of Panavision, and Edmund DiGiulio, president of Cinema Products Corporation.

Okay, so it didn’t happen over-night. He checked himself into a motel for a weeklong marathon of thinking-with-no-distractions, making improvement after improvement. After a two-year delay, Brown and Cinema Products worked together to create more than a prototype.

Meanwhile, a ‘real job’ had surfaced. In 1975, “Haskell Wexler had persuaded [director] Hal Ashby to try an extravagant, time-consuming, expensive mega-shot with complete reliance on our contraption,” Brown recalls. “We had only one throated magazine. I had never been on a feature set until I arrived in Stockton, CA for Bound for Glory. I entered the location to see 900 extras. And, I’d never seen a Chapman Titan Crane in person, prior to being put up on the platform 30 feet in the air, hands shaking violently, with Don Thorin, the regular operator, who said, ‘Look, that’s funny, the camera isn’t shaking!’

“I got two rehearsals, and we broke for lunch, during which I had a beer and Don calmed me down a bit. Then we made just three four-minute takes. As the crane boomed down beside David Carradine, I got off and ‘walked’ with him across the huge camp and most of the way back, dodging kids and crowds and tent-ropes and vehicles. In the end, I was numb with fatigue and nerves, and the whole crew flowed away to resume the regular work without a backward glance. It was two nights later that I finally saw our amazing shot and received a standing ovation from the large crowd in the screening room.”

And Garrett Brown is still receiving standing ovations. Not long after Bound for Glory, Brown got a page from director John Avildson, who had seen the demo. He loved the Art Museum shot and wanted to use it in Rocky.

Since then, Garrett Brown has trained over a thousand Steadicam operators. And every director in the business has come to rely on the ‘Pole’ to bring his or her vision to the screen.

“In the early days, the Steadicam operator was treated like he had his own little bag of voodoo,” recalls Dan Kneece, SOC. “People didn’t really know what to do with it, so it was treated like a specialty camera. Things that should have been done on the dolly were done on the Steadicam and things that should have been done on the Steadicam were done on the dolly. “These days, you still find some misconceptions out there but for the most part, productions have become very sophisticated in their use of Steadicam,” Kneece adds, affirming The Washington Post’s statement (and The Motion Picture Academy for honoring Brown’s determination with the 1978 Award for Merit for the Steadicam invention). Operator after operator can recall how they have been challenged to make an incredible move, and could do it because of Garrett Brown’s Steadicam.

“For me, it was doing an overhead Steadicam shot on a moving crane in Road to Perdition,” says Scott Sakamoto, SOC. “Dollying backward, looking straight down and then jibbing down to ground level, stepping off and walking into a room locking onto a mirror reflection. All this done, with the set wall and ceiling dropping into place, coordinating the dolly move with the grips, and the actor (Tom Hanks) for hitting mark and swinging the mirrored door in the precise position.”

“On Pool Hall Prophets, I had a low-angle tight close-up of a pool table break that had a whip tilt up and lock onto a moving actress who scanned a room for someone,” recalls operator Dave Frederick, SOC. “It motivated the Steadicam to pan off to see who she was searching for. A waiter took the frame in a cross back to her while I stepped onto a Giraffe crane.

“The actress, Rosalyn Sanchez, started up a flight of stairs, which motivated the crane to dolly and crane up to meet her at the top of the landing on the mezzanine level over-looking the pool hall. A swing-away banister flew out, the crane alighted o the second floor level, I stepped off the crane, moved around her for an over-the-shoulder to see what she was looking at. She then stepped back and I followed her into a room where she met the man she was looking for, Freddie Prinze Jr. I tracked with them through a wall to a window and spied on them through Venetian blinds.

“That was supposed to be the end,” he adds. “They instead started to kiss, for several minutes, and the director kept the shot rolling. I was in an awkward position and had extended out the camera on the arm for a better composition, experiencing the full weight of the rig in my lower back. The magazine, thankfully, ran out and a cut was called. That was a tough one because of the blinds, and steady lock off hold after the gymnastics of the crane move.”

“There is a sequence in Seven where I had to lead the actors down several flights of stairs with landings in between, then pass through a very narrow doorway into a parking garage,” recalls operator David Emmerichs, SOC. “A shot like that is challenging enough but what made this one really difficult was the director’s insistence that the shot look like it had been done with a motion control camera. He wanted it perfect. I practiced backing down those steps for two hours, with the dolly grip, while they shot another scene. By the time they got to the stairwell shot, I could race backwards down those steps without thinking about it. I could concentrate on the framing. It’s still one of the best shots I’ve ever done though it looks deceptively simple.”

Thanks to Garrett Brown, a lot of shots can look deceptively simple. Fortunately, he didn’t stop his inventive soul with the Steadicam. Today, he holds over 50 patents worldwide for camera devices, which include the new Steadicam Merlin, a miniature version for camcorders, Skycam, the robot camera that flies on wires over sporting events, and Mobycam, Divecam, Flycam and much more. Not to mention that he’s been honored for his incredible shots—from films like Bound for Glory and his record 25-minute continuous shot as he captured the live opera broadcast of La Traviata from Paris.

Thank you, Garrett Brown, for making one of the biggest technical contributions to the art of movie making!

By Pauline Rogers