Often the most impactful inventions in history have come about as a result of a beautiful accident. In film, especially on set, beautiful accidents happen all of the time. Luckily for us, a particular invention happened nearly half a century ago, early enough to give us some of the best footage we’ve ever seen. The Steadicam came about over trial and error. So what is it? What is a Steadicam shot? Let’s quickly define it, and learn more about the inventor of one of the most revolutionizing pieces of equipment in film history.
An introduction to the Steadicam
Impossible to avoid redundancy, here it is. A Steadicam shot is a shot using a Steadicam stabilization system (yep) all performed by...you guessed it...a Steadicam Operator!
But of course, none of this helps if you’re not entirely sure what a Steadicam is, or why cinematographers might want to use one.
So, before we get into how it changed the game...what is this thing?
Steadicam Shot Definition
What is a Steadicam shot?
A Steadicam shot uses a Steadicam, which is a camera stabilizer that combines the stability of a tripod, flexibility of a handheld camera, and the movement capability of a dolly. Steadicams absorb shake by mechanically isolating the operator’s movement as to always produce smooth tracking shots. A Steadicam Operator wears a vest that is attached to the camera rig. This makes the camera nearly weightless and easily controllable. It can get these smooth shots in any direction — around corners, up and down stairways, and even on bumpy roads.
The Steadicam eliminates the need for expensive crane shots, or the time and labor of laying tracks for dolly shots. This kind of camera movement changed the way the world experiences cinema.
Who invented the Steadicam?
- Garett Brown invented the Steadicam in 1974
- By 1975, Cinema Products Corporation introduces it to the public
The number of movies you’ve seen that have used a Steadicam is probably endless. The list goes on and on. Below are just a few examples of the Steadicam shot in some of Hollywood’s most beloved films.
Before the 70s, the director and cinematographer had two choices when considering camera movement.
They could mount the camera on a dolly, a wheeled mount that rolls on tracks or boards. This is a time consuming process that wasn’t always suited for lower budget films.
In fact, laying tracks wasn’t even always practical for higher budget films if the locations weren’t particularly cooperative.
The second choice? The camera operator could just hold the camera.
This manual grip allows for speed, control, creativity and flexibility, but it doesn’t solve the camera shake. Documentaries and news reports are more suited for this kind of movement.
STEADICAM Shot List
Steadicam allows for choreography
Let's take a look at a recent example and how the Steadicam can capture something as a chaotic as a fight scene with the ease and grace of a ballet. The film is Hanna (2011), directed by Joe Wright — whose iconic 5-minute long Steadicam shot in Atonement (2007) will go down as one of the greatest shots of all time.
Pay attention to how elaborate the scene can get — not only the fight itself but traveling through various locations and finding strong, individual frame compositions along the way.
If you're going to plan a Steadicam shot like this, meticulous planning and rehearsal is absolutely necessary. Storyboarding a shot like this is the best way to start the process. Here's a storyboard of the fight scene from Hanna to give you an idea of something Joe Wright and his team would have had to prepare.
Knowing which equipment is best suited for which project is important. Jump into our free Directing the Camera Masterclass to learn more on how to move the camera with purpose.
Fluidity in camera movement is fundamental to cinematography but it wasn’t always so easy. Dolly tracks needed to be laid down and setup, and handheld cameras only looked right if shake was intended. But then came the 1970s, and a guy named Garrett Brown.
Let's go back to the Steadicam's humble beginnings and track its evolution through filmmakers in films from Kubrick and Scorsese.
STEADICAM CAMERA MOVEMENT
Brown’s Steadicam changed the game
In the mid 70s, aspiring cinematographer Garrett Brown, single handedly changed the way the world experienced film. The soon-to-be famous inventor started his career by shooting Subarus.
His rig included fixing a camera at the end of a 30-foot pole, and adding a tilt mechanism at the bottom for more camera rotation. The footage came out surprisingly stable...really stable in fact, and he realized he was on to something.
Brown discusses the excitement and process behind inventing the Steadicam below.
We have the field footage he’s referring to as well as the extra footage that would change his life and movie-goers’ lives, forever. He uses this new rig to follow his girlfriend (now wife), up Philadelpia’s iconic Art Museum’ steps. He runs alongside her, tracking her all the way from the top to the bottom, and back up to the top.
I run out of breath just watching it.
This footage revealed what cameramen and women never had before. This new equipment could isolate them from the movement of the camera, while being in complete control the camera. No shake. No tracks. Just a mix of artistry and athleticism.
Brown began sending out his footage... and people, especially producers and directors, began to take notice.
A few filmmakers in particular, took a lot of notice.
In the above video, did those steps look familiar?
Before the Rocky Franchise was a franchise at all, and well before we recognized those steps from the iconic Rocky montage, there was Garrett Brown and his girlfriend. A young couple testing out an invention that would have a profound impact on how we make films today. And in this case, it would have a huge impact on Rocky itself.
Steadicam shots in Rocky
Rocky Director, John G. Avildsen, had been scouting countless locations for what is now considered an iconic sequence - the all-too-familiar training montage.
But all this prep seemed to be leading nowhere because Avildsen still had no idea how to pull it off. His assistant cameraman encouraged him to take a look at a demonstration reel for a new piece of equipment. It was of course the footage we just saw from Garrett Brown and his girlfriend running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Now watch the scene in Rocky.
Can you imagine if they had to lay down dolly tracks over all of these stairs? Or what if they had to rely solely on the expense of crane shot?
The first Rocky was about as low budget as you can get, so all of those setups just wouldn’t have even been possible.
While the very first film to use Brown’s Steadicam was Hal Ashby’s, Bound for Glory in 1976, (which one the Oscar for best cinematography), the technology really took hold after Rocky. The offers for Brown’s invention started pouring in.
The Steadicam spread like wildfire throughout Hollywood.
The Shining Steadicam shot
Filmmaking guru Stanley Kubrick was also impressed by what he saw in the demo reels. In fact, he wrote Garrett Brown a letter informing him just how interested he was.
Hear Brown recite Kubrick’s letter word-for-word, and take notice of several other shots from The Shining that show us how Kubrick nearly perfected Brown’s invention.
Kubrick ended up hiring Brown to operate the camera for The Shining. The most notable Steadicam shot is of Danny on his tricycle, riding through the creepy hotel hallways.
Kubrick masterfully took on the Steadicam as if it was his own creation. Kubrick’s motivated camera movement complemented Brown’s invention near perfectly.
The eerie smoothness of each Steadicam shot coupled with Kubrick’s perpetual center framing, gave the movie the menacing feeling we all remember. The common feeling that the hotel is watching wasn’t just a product of Kubrick, but also the genius of Garrett Brown.
Steadicam Shot Example
Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino
In 1980, Martin Scorsese hired Garrett Brown to shoot a scene in Raging Bull. When De Niro entered the ring though, Scorsese thought the shot looked way too much like Rocky. So, needless to say, he fired him!
But Scorsese made up for it, hiring Brown again some 10 years later, for Goodfellas. By this point, Scorsese understands that following a character through an environment, just like in Raging Bull, gives the character power and importance.
The Goodfellas Steadicam shot is definitely one of the greatest of all time and it is the perfect application of the technology because it informs character and story — more than just a fancy camera move.
A few years later, in Casino, Scorsese again finds a way to use the Steadicam for a reason. The ease with which the mob was skimming off the top of the Casino's earnings is matched by the ease and smooth camera floating in, around, and back out of the room.
Steadicam shots have been used in thousands of movies, from Star Wars to modern romantic comedies. Garrett Brown has shot a ridiculous amount of them, but not all, and today there are a slew of experienced Steadicam operators as Steadicams have become a staple on set.
Many operators are members of the Steadicam Operators Association (SOA), formed in 1988 by none other than Garrett Brown. SOA not only represents them but also holds regular training workshops. Tiffen is the company that currently manufactures Steadicams and also puts together these sessions.
Garrett Brown didn’t start his career in the film industry. In fact, former folk singer had a brief stint selling Volkswagens! If only he knew in the 60s and early 70s that he would revolutionize the film industry.
Brown won an Oscar for his Steadicam achievement. But he had loftier goals than just the big screen. This folk-singer turned cinematographer has no became an incredibly prolific inventor. His other inventions include the Skycam, Flycam, and even the Divecam. He also uses a mini Steadicam for his smartphone.
Best Video Camera Stabilizers
Camera stabilizers, handheld ones, vest stabilizers, and yes, more Steadicams. Which is which, and more importantly, which stabilizer is best for you and your project? Get the scoop on nearly every professional level video camera stabilizer in our next article.