Readi, Steadi, Go!

February 28, 2017

exovest_girl.jpgLast year was the 40th anniversary of the Steadicam, which revolutionized filmmaking as much as CGI did a tech generation later. The very first Steadicam shot was realized for Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie pic BOUND FOR GLORY (Steadicam shots in MARATHON MAN and ROCKY were filmed later but released earlier), and within a year or so the amazing contraption became available to everybody. Even to us in Mississippi, where I was the first producer in the state to rent a Steadicam, for use in a tv commercial. The leading edge is sometimes the bleeding edge: I wound up wasting money, but I learned a lot in the process.

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Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown (l.) with Stanley Kubrick and Danny Lloyd on the set of THE SHINING. The Steadicam absolutely made that movie.

A cinematographer named Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam and operated it for each of those movies. The “cam” part of the trademark is a tad misleading. There’s nothing special about the camera itself, which is the very one you already owned. It’s the rig that rocks. The camera operator wears a vest attached to a series of gimbals and counterweights so ingenious that when you adjust everything just right — it’s different for each operator — the camera sort of floats. You can guide it on the gimbal with one finger. Yet the weight of the counterbalance and camera maintains a stubborn inertia, as a bowling ball does when you try to shake it quickly. So minor movements of the operator don’t affect the camera’s orientation. You can take it down to ground level and operate from above. You can walk with it and get an unusually smooth shot. You can run with it. Dash up a flight of stairs (ROCKY). Follow your subject down a hotel hallway or inside a hedge maze (THE SHINING). Walk through a set, twisting and turning as smooth as silk, for a complicated “impossible” shot (BOOGIE NIGHTS, GOODFELLAS). You can even simulate high velocity, as in RETURN OF THE JEDI, for which Brown shot the speeder-bike chase by walking through a redwood forest cranking at only one frame per second instead of the normal 24.

Or you can take a Steadicam up in a helicopter, which is what I did.

That first shot in BOUND FOR GLORY had DPs all over Hollywood abuzz as soon as they heard about it. It began with Garrett Brown shooting from high up in an elevated crane, which slowly boomed down until he could step off and walk forward through the set, all in the same smooth motion. It didn’t look “hand-held” — even the best operators can’t prevent the camera from shaking a little — but what kind of quantum-physics crane was this? Veteran camera operators tended to be rather beefy guys — sort of natural-built Steadicams — but this changed everything and flung the craft open to anybody who could walk a straight line. Panavision marketed its own “Panaglide” stabilization system, and Dean Cundey used it to perfection in HALLOWEEN, especially in the bravura swooping, twisting killer’s-eye-view opening shot.

garretbrown-2aFor our advertising client, a junior college, we wanted to show prospective students that there was a world of possibility at this one institution — both solid vocational training and excellent prep toward finishing a degree at a four-year school. To seize tv viewers’ attention, I imagined doing a reverse BOUND FOR GLORY shot. We’d bring representative gear and people from as many departments as possible outside into a large open space on campus — bigger than a “quad,” but still surrounded on three sides by buildings — to illustrate the school’s vast array. After cutting and dissolving in closeups without revealing where we were, we’d fix on one setup and then pull back, up, up, up, higher than any crane, until we could see the whole tableau from the air. We’d achieve that last shot using a Steadicam.

I did everything I could think of as a producer: organizing the complicated process, setting up weather options just in case, renting the harness a couple days ahead so our operator could get used to it. Shooting day dawned bright and clear, and we’d already begun setting up before sunrise. Our chopper arrived on time and we strapped the operator in so he could lean out the open passenger door. We experimented with a couple of passes and ran into two problems nobody had anticipated.

First, it turns out a Steadicam works better when the operator himself is actually in motion rather than sitting still in a moving vehicle. The shot looked smoother than we could have otherwise gotten, but it wasn’t as mind-blowing as we’d hoped. A little practice, and we learned that slight impromptu camera motion on the way up helped sell the “impossibility.” But by then we’d already stumbled upon the second problem.

There was a little breeze on that bright sunlit day. Not enough to make flying dangerous, but just enough to create a modest crosswind once we passed the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, which were protecting the people on the ground. Try as he might, our pilot couldn’t avoid a slight horizontal motion as he adjusted for the wind change. We hated it, but there was nothing to do except keep trying until we got lucky, so we did, and on one take we did. We’d hoped to do the final move three or four times starting with various departments to make alternate versions of the spot, but we had to settle for the good one in the can. It was nice, but we would have gotten pretty much the same result by bolting the camera down and packing it with sandbags and stuff to muffle shimmy. Then again, as a friend of mine likes to say, it’s all part of life’s rich pageantry.

These days that shoot would have been a piece of cake. We’d have used a drone and beaten the breeze by pulling the shot fifty times instead of fifteen. But in the late Seventies such niceties didn’t yet exist. What did was the baddest piece of gear around, we had it, and we absolutely loved going steadi with our new friend.

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The Steadicam map for the opening shot of BOOGIE NIGHTS, which lasts 2 minutes and 45 seconds.


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