The Steadicam Shot
Operating a Steadicam is one of the most difficult jobs on a movie set, but it is also one the most rewarding. For a typical Steadicam shot, a cameraman must follow a predetermined path, while simultaneously adjusting the camera and avoiding any obstacles, all the while supporting more than 60 pounds of camera equipment.
The job requires a good deal of physical stamina and technical skill, but it also calls for a good sense of shot composition. The director plans the shot, but the Steadicam operator makes it happen.
The best technique for Steadicam operation depends entirely on the nature of the shot. To film a simple conversation between two actors, an operator may try to replicate the even feel of a dolly shot, keeping the camera perfectly level and moving it slowly around the action. For a "flying sequence" over low ground, the operator might intentionally tilt the camera from side to side, creating a soaring effect.
One of the most common uses of the Steadicam is to track actors as they move around obstacles or rough ground. Typically, the operator will walk ahead of the actors, shooting them from the front as they walk and talk. For this sort of shot, the operator may walk backwards through the scene, with the help of other crew members. Or he or she may walk forward, with the camera pointing behind him or her. For these shots, and most any other shot, the director, the crew and the operator will all work together to figure out the best approach.
Most professional Steadicam operators work freelance, renting themselves as well as their equipment out as a complete package. When a scene in a film calls for a Steadicam shot, the filmmakers will select a Steadicam operator based on his or her past work. Most established Steadicam operators are members of the Steadicam Operators Association (SOA), founded in 1988 by Garrett Brown. In addition to representing hundreds of Steadicam operators, the SOA holds regular Steadicam training workshops. Tiffen, the company that manufactures Steadicams, also organizes training sessions.
Steadicam operators have helped create some of the most memorable shots in film history. In "Rocky" (1976), one of the first feature films to use Steadicams, operator Garrett Brown let the audience follow Sylvester Stallone as he ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. This shot, one of the most memorable in the movie, would have been nearly impossible before the Steadicam. In "The Shining" (1980), director Stanley Kubrick used a Steadicam shot to zip down the hallways of a haunted hotel, and another to follow Jack Nicholson through a snowy hedge maze.
Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson and many other directors have used extremely complex Steadicam sequences to establish mood and setting. In "Goodfellas" (1990), Scorsese used a Steadicam to bring the viewer into the bustling Copacabana restaurant. In a single five-minute shot, the audience follows Ray Liotta in the back door, through the kitchen and up to the bar, stopping to meet patrons all the way. It's one of the most mesmerizing sequences in the movie.
Steadicams are also used in special effects sequences. For the speeder bike chase in "Return of the Jedi" (1983), operator Garrett Brown walked the camera very slowly through parts of California's Redwood National Park. The special effects crew sped this footage up and combined it with blue-screen footage of the actors on bikes for one of the most exhilarating chase sequences ever filmed. Without a Steadicam, the footage would have been way too shaky when it was sped up.
Steadicams have given filmmakers and movie-goers alike a new freedom of movement. With a Steadicam, a director can float the camera (and, by extension, the audience) into a forest, through a crowd of people, or down into a cave. In TV shows like "ER," Steadicam shots put the audience in the middle of the action, as if they were another character in the show. This simple machine has truly changed the world of filmmaking forever.
For more information on Steadicams, including video footage of Steadicam operators at work, check out the links on the next page.