NAB 2011: Mr. Brown’s Marvelous Machine: Garrett Brown & Steadicam

The Shining: No footprints in the snow

(Article first published as Mr. Brown’s Marvelous Machine on Technorati.)

A young boy rides his Big Wheels tricycle around the empty lobby of an old resort hotel as the camera follows close behind, low to the ground, the sound grating and tense as the trike runs noisily onto the hardwood floor, then over a rug, then onto the floor, then over a rug, around and around.

The boy’s father, haunted and demented by months of isolation, chases his wife with a knife, up and down a circular staircase. Later he chases an apparition through an eerily lit hedge maze in the snow.

Someone has scrawled “murder” backwards in red letters across a bathroom mirror, and a child crooks his index finger in rhythm with the spooky, chanted words “Red-rum, red-rum.”

Elevator doors open at the end of a hall, gushing rivers — no, oceans — of blood.

I’d never seen The Shining before and hadn’t really known what it was about, but I wished I had a flashlight with me as I walked nervously back to my room after the screening. I checked behind every bush along the way, but no crazed, knife-wielding killers emerged from the sylvan darkness of Carmel Valley, and somehow I made it safely.

The folks who ran the Maine Photographic Workshops (years ago when they still held classes in Northern California) had set up the screening for our Steadicam class, set to begin the next day. I quickly figured out why: Our teacher Garrett Brown, who had invented Steadicam, had used it to shoot about 80% of The Shining.

How cool that the inventor of this amazing device was also its best-known and most accomplished operator! I recalled first seeing Garrett demonstrate the Steadicam years before at the SMPTE Convention in LA, running down the aisle through a packed auditorium of professionals, then up a half dozen steps to the stage, as the camera floated smoothly and the wowed audience cheered. This figured to be an interesting week.

Next morning at eight, we greeted Garrett with applause for his work on The Shining. The class had about 25 students, including three who worked for Disney in Orlando, two Aussies, a Frenchman, three Italians, and two Japanese guys. Many of the students, including most of those from overseas, had already taken Garrett’s class, but felt the need to return for another week at the feet of the Perfect Master. I could see why. Garrett was the kind of instructor who could teach newbies like me (and most of the class), and still provide enough advanced tips to make it worthwhile for the more experienced operators.

Style Manual by Ted Churchill

Ted Churchill co-taught the class with Garrett and showed us his funny pamphlet Steadicam Operator’s Manual of Style, with chapters called Attire, Perspiration, Suiting Up, Gravity, Attitude Toward Crew Members, Humping the Big Guy, Drugs, and my favorite, Expanding Your Legend. He and Garrett taught us how the rig worked, mechanically and cinematically. We learned about different configurations and spent lots of time in the saddle, each of us wearing the rig, walking around, and trying prescribed shots.

We learned, whenever possible, to walk forward, not backward, during our shots. They taught us the most basic move: using the rig to point the camera forward as we walked forward. We tried variations: (1) the Don Juan Move, walking forward with the camera facing backward, and (2) the Banana Move, where the camera starts out leading the actors in the Don Juan, then eases to one side to allow them to pass, then follows them from behind, camera facing forward. Or vice versa.

We learned that the Steadicam was pretty mechanical, in a low-tech way. The patent was based on balancing and floating the camera at the end of an articulated arm, which isolates the camera from the stepping motion of the operator. The arm was attached to a padded, metal-framed vest worn by the operator. The camera could not be held up to the eye, so the operator framed shots by watching a bright, high-resolution monitor mounted on the “sled,” the lower part of the Steadicam rig, which held the electronics and counterweighted the camera. For film cameras, the monitor displayed images from the video assist.

Above all, we learned to respect and propagate Mr. Brown’s marvelous machine and its reputation.

“Remember you could be coming onto a picture where everybody’s already tired of each other and you’re just there for a short time,” Garrett told us. “Make sure you do your prep quickly and thoroughly. If you’re not ready when you say or you hold up the production, they’ll resent you and gossip about you. And you represent us all.”

Steadicam had only been around for a few years at that time, and we all wanted to spread the gospel. Garrett reminded us that, even though we had this cool device to move the camera, we still had to respect the usual rules of cinematography and frame shots correctly, with adequate look space and head room.

During our practice sessions, we were able to monitor, and comment on, each other’s carefully choreographed video shots. We would chant “head-room, head-room” in spooky voices, with rhythmic finger crooking, when one of our classmates framed a shot too tightly or loosely at the top of the frame. The Italians would call out “Aria in testa!” which literally means “air head,” when one of their countrymen violated the head room rules, and soon we all adopted this mild rebuke.

Garrett urged us to get to know what Steadicam could do, and what it couldn’t do: “Directors will conceive shots that are not appropriate for Steadicam. Sometimes you just have to say, ‘It doesn’t do that.'”

One day over lunch, Garrett swore us all to secrecy and showed us photos and footage of another device he was inventing. For test shots, he and his cohorts had sunk four telephone poles into the ground to form a huge rectangle at the corners of a football field, then strung wires from the poles in a giant X, and suspended a remote-controlled camera from the wires. The project was still experimental, but Garrett thought it could be useful for covering sports. He called it SkyCam.

During class time, Garrett explained some of the scenes in The Shining. For the low-angle shots following the tricycle, he hard-mounted his Steadicam to a doorway dolly, with the rig in Low Mode. The chase on the stairs was a prime example of Steadicam doing what it does best — floating the camera over uneven surfaces.

As for the iconic chase through the hedge maze, we had noticed as we studied the scene that the camera sometimes followed the boy down certain paths, then managed to back out of those paths without making new footprints in the snow. Garrett explained, to our amazement, that he had shot those sequences while wearing stilts. That way, he could step where the boy had stepped, in both directions, without leaving new marks in the snow. Remarkable agility!

Learning Steadicam did feel a bit like a dance, or a martial art. Garrett stressed the need to stay in shape and stretch out before and after using the rig, but insisted it wasn’t necessary to be a big guy like me. Though Garrett was taller than my 6′ 4″, Ted Churchill was considerably shorter and more wiry and was clearly a great operator. Rather than size, it took hours of practice, preferably every day.

Steadicam was not the kind of tool one could rent for a day or two and hope to use without training. With diligent work, it wasn’t too difficult over time to achieve a basic competence with the device, but it took a lifetime to master it. He urged us to stay centered, always balanced on two feet, staying aware of our centers of gravity, especially at starts and ends of shots.

For our final test, we followed an actor through a continuous shot, as he walked through a prescribed course, indoors and outdoors around our class building, then over the deck, up across a picnic bench and table, back down to the deck, then sprinting across the patio, before landing in a closeup of another actor sitting in a chair, delivering lines.

When my turn came up, I got through much of it without incident, even keeping the actor in frame most of the time as I crossed the picnic table. But my landing after the sprint left me heavily unbalanced on my front foot, fighting the urge to sneeze and wipe sweat, in a closeup shot with too much head room, wishing I could ease back into a more balanced position. “Now hold that closeup for ten pages of dialogue,” chuckled Garrett, as sweat dripped down my nose.

When the class was over, I brought two of the Aussies and one of the Italians home for a short visit to San Francisco. In the ensuing months, I tried to improve my shaky proficiency in Steadicam. There was at that time only one rig available for rent in San Francisco, at Adolph Gasser. Though they were willing to lend it to me from time to time for practice, it was an older Steadicam and not in great shape. I was busy and didn’t pursue practicing.

But I’ve kept my appreciation for Steadicam’s unique camera movement opportunities, and I’ve always incorporated a session with certified Steadicam trainer Kevin Braband into the curriculum for my Advanced Cinematography class at San Francisco State. We show iconic Steadicam shots from Rocky, Good Fellas, and Bound for Glory, and all my students try on the rig and sample the experience.

Garrett debuted SkyCam for the Orange Bowl broadcast at the end of the year I took his class. Audiences were excited by shots they had never seen before — starting directly over the offensive huddle, pulling up as the huddle broke, following the quarterback as he dropped back and scanned the defense, then flying downfield with the ball, as he passed to a sprinting receiver near the end zone. Since then, SkyCam has become a staple for shooting concerts and football and basketball games.

The original Steadicam has morphed into a variety of models for cameras of all sizes, each configured a bit differently. These include the Merlin, currently available for cameras up to 5 lb (without a vest) or 7.5 lb (with vest), and the Smoothee, for iPhones and Flip cameras, as well as the Pilot (up to 10 lb), Scout (18 lb), Zephyr (23 lb), Flyer LE series (20 lb), Archer 2 (26 lb), Archer 2SE and Archer S (30 lb), Clipper (35 lb), and Phantom and Ultra models (48 lb).

Garrett has invented other specialized camera devices to follow athletes during competitions in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games. MobyCam tracks alongside swimmers as they race down the lanes of the pool. DiveCam follows the acrobatics of the divers through the air, then plunges down into the water with them. Other inventions include FlyCam, Super FlyCam, and GoCam. Somehow Garrett also found time to operate Steadicam in over 70 movies and to voice a long series of radio ads for Molson’s Beer. Ted Churchill, I was said to hear, was killed in a car crash a few years after our class.

Garrett Brown (left), with the author

Tiffen now manufactures and sells Steadicam under license. I caught up with Garrett briefly at the Tiffen booth at this year’s NAB Show. The booth was a beehive of activity, with people trying on and walking around with different Steadicam models, and a guy with a Steadicam on a Segway, an interesting blend of technologies.

Trying on the rig

Among other new products, they were displaying the Tango, a new Steadicam accessory, a handheld camera boom arm with 9′ reach, which attaches to a vest through an articulated arm. It’s made for miniature HD cameras, maximum payload 8 lb.

Tango arm, from the Steadicam end
Tango arm, from the camera end

Garrett told me he hasn’t been operating Steadicam for movies lately, tired of “riding in vans and being told when to eat.” I looked around at the proliferation of products around us, the output of this most creative mind. I thought of the many students, like myself, whom he trained over the years. I considered his other cool inventions, which have revolutionized the coverage of sports and music. I knew that even if he never worked on another film, he would keep innovating and tinkering.

What a legacy. And now, the Perfect Master has passed the torch.

3 thoughts on “NAB 2011: Mr. Brown’s Marvelous Machine: Garrett Brown & Steadicam”

  1. Bill, What a treat to read your NAB report… brought back some terrific memories. Of course you’re way to kind and remember those ‘interesting times’ through distinctly rosy glasses, but that workshop was memorable — even among the hundred or so I’ve taught — and took place at a crucial moment in my inventing career. Thanks!

    Regards, Garrett

    1. Garrett: Thanks so much for your comment. The class was a great experience, even at the time. The rosy glasses only added a bit of gloss to a fun week. Thanks to you too!

  2. I have never seen “The Shining” and from your description after seeing the movie, I don’t think I ever will. However, I was very impressed with this article describing the Steadicam. It’s an amazing invention and Garrett Brown is an amazing inventor. His SkyCam was what I was referring to in my comments on your Innovision article. The picture of the two of you was very good and it was fun to see someone much taller than you.

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