Smooth Talk: A Conversation with Steadicam Inventor Garrett Brown

Interviews — Dec 21, 2016
Garrett Brown in our kitchen reenacting a Steadicam-shot scene from Blow Out

In 1975, the cameraman Garrett Brown revolutionized filmmaking technology with the Steadicam, an invention that brought together the agility and immediacy of a handheld camera with the smoothness and stability of a dolly shot. Brown, who has long been based in Philadelphia, traveled a circuitous path to his status as an industry icon, taking various gigs as a radio pitchman, a folk singer, and a car salesman before becoming a cameraman for commercials in the 1960s. He quickly became frustrated with the arduous work required in creating a smooth camera movement, and sought a way to separate the apparatus from the jerky motions of its operator. Experimenting with a variety of techniques and prototypes, he finally landed on the model of what we now know as the Steadicam, which began to win attention from Hollywood after he circulated a reel of footage showcasing its powers.

First used in Hal Ashby’s 1976 Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, the Steadicam heightened the sense of a seamless reality being captured on-screen. Over the years, visionary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, and Béla Tarr have found innovative ways of employing the Steadicam, which is now recognized for creating some of the most iconic moments in film history, from the chilling sequence set in a snow-covered maze in The Shining to the scene of Sylvester Stallone breathlessly running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Rocky. In celebration of the Steadicam’s fortieth anniversary, the Film Society of Lincoln Center has programmed an eclectic selection of films that showcase the creative possibilities that the camera has opened up to filmmakers all over the world.

Just before giving a talk at Film Society last Friday, Brown visited us at Criterion for a chat about the early days of the Steadicam and the often unsung art of camera operating.

I’ve always been fascinated by the careers of camera operators and cinematographers because they get to work on such a wide range of projects. What has that experience been like for you?

I think more about the craft of operating now than I ever did when I was actually doing it. But looking back on it all, it’s clear that operating is one of the key filmmaking skills and an underappreciated aspect of filming. You’ve got the audience’s eyeballs in your hands. And, with the Steadicam, once you’re moving through space with this weightless object, and also panning and tilting, then suddenly you’re not only defining your course and speed through a set, you’re defining the timing of things. I’m pretty enthralled with myself in hindsight for having invented a way to let you be this agile with the lens.

As a camera operator, what has your collaboration process with cinematographers been like?

It varies. The English types are interested in lighting, traditionally, and the operator does the operating, so in that system you get to design shots. In other cases, directors are very influential in blocking shots, as Stanley Kubrick was and Spielberg is. That’s the big issue: the amazing art of blocking, which film students don’t have to immediately think about, thank God, or they’d go mad. It takes a God-like puppeteer’s grasp of everything to lay it out and just get through it without puzzling and head-scratching.

When you first began using the Steadicam, how did people react?

Initially it was: here you are on a film set with what looks like a contraption that nobody recognizes and that barely looks like a camera. In the first couple cases, I was working with the greats Haskell Wexler and Conrad Hall. They’d come right up and talk to the actors in the middle of a shot because they didn’t see a camera, they didn’t know we were shooting. From my point of view, the pressure was relatively low because nobody knew what it was or had any particular expectations.

Was there ever any hesitancy from directors?

The directors who adopted it early on were bold and successful enough to hazard a take in a complicated scene and slow the production down to give my thing a try. In the case of Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory, there was a really elaborate shot that took up a lot of time. I only had one magazine, so for each take, the mag had to come off and be unloaded in the dark room and loaded again. That created a lot of irritation on the set among the assistant directors and people who were responsible for the schedule.

There was a degree of hostility that still prevailed when I walked into dailies two days later. They played hours of Haskell’s stuff, and I sat in the back getting very small. Then this astonishing shot played, and there was a stunned silence at the end. The entire crew of more than a hundred people all leaped to their feet, yelling and clapping and roaring Haskell’s name. I sat in the back and had an odd adrenaline chill. I knew that something seriously had flipped in my existence in that instant. Immediately after that, I went back and forth on Bound for Glory, Rocky, and Marathon Man—all three at once because they were all in production.

At what point did the Steadicam become something that other people began embracing and adopting themselves?

Well, it’s an instrument, and people who had no experience tried the earliest production versions. Some filmmakers, unwisely, would pick it up out of the box and stick it on and do very poorly with it. So it acquired a reputation of being not a successful invention for a period of a month or two until people realized that you need experience with this. I started training people individually. It’s an invention that barely works on its own; you need a human being, or it doesn’t do a damn thing. It’s like a violin; in the right hands, with the right experience, a good violin operator who has done a workshop or two will get some real music.

What was lacking in filmmaking technology that inspired you to invent the Steadicam?

There were dollies and cranes and camera carts, and there was handheld, but there’s a giant gulf between those things and Steadicam. When you undertake handheld, everybody understands it looks shaky, and filmmakers tried to make a virtue out of that, as if that suggested something more realistic. I don’t think so. If you shoot a scene with handheld, the actors in that scene see each other with greater smoothness than you’re allowing your audience to see them. People see with immense smoothness; you walk or run, and it’s like a Steadicam shot.

My father had a very influential patent in chemistry, and though I never wanted to be an inventor, it wasn’t an alien idea to me. You look at this problem: here’s a human, who is always shaky; and here’s a camera, and you want to make it feel like it’s on wheels. That puts the problem in a more orderly form. It was a diabolical thing to figure out, but it yielded a lot of thought.

Now when you see the world, do you see it in the way you would shoot it?

Somewhat. We take for granted that we have a marvelous stabilizer in our heads. It reads what your inner ear knows. For example, look at that speaker [points to a speaker in the room], shake your head violently up and down, and watch that speaker while you do it. See that? It just sits there. If you saw that filmed by a camera, it would be unwatchable. That stabilizer was devised by evolution to keep us safe running away from predators and pursuing our dinner. If your eyesight were shaky when you ran, you’d be devoured, so those guys didn’t make it. The ones who had a vestigial stabilizer made it. At this point we are free to not think about that any more than we need to think about digestion.

You mentioned Stanley Kubrick earlier. Can you tell me a bit about your experience working with him?

When I was living in Philly, my wife and I made a demo reel full of impossible shots. They were impossible because you look at the shots and you know that no technology alive could have done them. So we had a reel that we called “30 Impossible Shots,” and that reel got me a manufacturing licensee. The negative got thrown out by mistake, and I was mourning the loss of that reel for fifteen years. Then, when I was throwing out some stuff, I found a stray print. I had to take it to a color lab in D.C. because it had shrunk, and they had to color-correct it. Everybody, including Kubrick, had seen that reel. Kubrick had sent an earth-shaking telex to my licensee, who had done the f/0.7 lenses for Barry Lyndon. And Kubrick said: “The mystery stabilizer. Thanks for sending the reel. You can count on me as a customer. It should revolutionize the way films are shot.” And then he said, “Oh by the way, a skilled counterintelligence photo observer can tell by the shadow it casts for fourteen frames on the golf course a lot about how it works. You might want to cut those out to protect your patent.” He asked if there was a minimum height at which the camera could be used, which led me to think he might have had the galleys to The Shining and was thinking of those shots.

Did you ever work together on creating the shots?

He knew every shot he wanted to do. I was like the violin player with a great composer and great conductor. I can improvise on the level of performance, and did, but in terms of the broad strokes of where the shots went, I think I only suggested two or three.

In the series that just opened at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, are there any films or scenes that use the Steadicam in a way you particularly love?

I have great affection for shots in almost every film. In Bound for Glory, I did another shot that was revolutionary at the time, in which I moved the camera as a disembodied view over the shoulder of David Carradine writing a letter to his wife. There would be no other way to get the lens in that spot, and that’s when the term “French curve” first occurred to me, because the course of it was an arabesque that was just amazing. In Rocky, the scene in the frozen meat locker where he’s punching slabs of beef—you wouldn’t think twice watching it, but it represented something astonishing. The camera was disembodied enough to slip between these slabs as they were swinging, and if I made a mistake, I had a bit of beef fat all up and down my back. But when I saw the dailies of that shot, I thought, this is something. The shot running up the stairs was great and fun, but there were other, more subtle things in that film.

Do you find that the advancement of digital technology allowed for more graceful long takes or intricately choreographed Steadicam shots?

That game, I think, runs out of value at some point. I love cuts; I’m a big fan of cuts. If you elect to do something in one shot, it stretches all the departments out to the breaking point. So when you see a tour de force like Russian Ark—I loved it, but I was glad I wasn’t the operator, because that kind of movie requires such accelerating levels of difficulties, expanding difficulties, until finally you’re just running on the ragged edge over your last oxygen molecule.

On-set photos courtesy of Garrett Brown

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