"He's a household word in filmmaking," cinematographer Conrad Hall says of
Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown, who is being honored Sunday with the
American Society of Cinematographers' President's Award.
The "wow" factor of the Steadicam -- which combined the mobility of the
handheld with the steadiness of a dolly shot -- was immediately apparent in its
feature film debut on the set of Haskell Wexler's 1976 film, "Bound for Glory."
Brown's first shot was a complex one, beginning high up on a crane, lowering to
the ground, and stepping off and smoothly mingling among a crowd of extras.
"It would make the knees knock on a camera operator today," says Brown. "It
was complicated... bold, so to do that right out of the box was an amazing
operation. Haskell had sent the conventional operator up with me (on the
crane). He said, 'That's funny, your hands are shaking, but the shot is steady.'"
"One of the reasons the shot was so good was that no one paid any attention
to Garrett," says Wexler, "because he's just a guy walking through a crowd, so
no one looked at the camera."
The impossibly fluid shot earned Brown a standing ovation when the dailies
were shown, and his invention would go on to win him two Academy Awards for
scientific and technical achievement, while the Steadicam went on to become an
indispensable tool to filmmakers everywhere.
"It was a mobile way of doing handheld work but not making it look handheld,"
says Hall, whose 1976 film "Marathon Man" became the second film to employ
the radical new invention. "It made it look as if a camera were just following the
people along," says Hall of such scenes as Dustin Hoffman jogging around the
reservoir in New York City.
Brown's invention was an elegant way for the camera -- on a frame worn by the
camera operator -- to go places off-limits to more cumbersome equipment, and
to do it with far more finesse than a handheld camera.
Says Hall -- who, like Wexler, has used the Steadicam on all of his subsequent
films -- "(Brown) changed the way films are made with his invention."
The advantages of the Steadicam over the handheld camera are obvious, but its
advantage over the dolly -- which can only move along tracks -- is also
enormous, allowing for faster setups, more flexible and spontaneous shooting,
and easier transitions between sets or locations.
"It is a more intimate voice in the language of camera and is more responsive,
certainly, and more flexible," says Brown of his invention. "It certainly has
provided the language with a few more verbs, let's say."
Among the visionaries embracing the mysterious new device was the late
Stanley Kubrick, who, after seeing the demo reel, sent off an enthusiastic telex
to Brown vowing, "You can count on me as a customer. It should revolutionize
the way films are shot."
During his yearlong stint on Kubrick's landmark horror film "The Shining," Brown
and the Steadicam got a real workout. "The machine came of age on ('The
Shining'), partly because there's nothing more valuable than the chance to do it
a lot, and we frequently went 50 takes," says Brown. "I really developed a lot of
the techniques that are still being taught
in order to make it as precise as
Stanley wanted it."
Kubrick was particularly interested in exploiting the Steadicam's ability to shoot
low to the ground, as in the scenes where Shelley Duvall is dragging Jack
Nicholson into the kitchen, and when the camera follows young Danny Lloyd as
he pedals around the deserted corridors of the giant Overlook Hotel.
Despite this early success, many in the industry regarded it as a stunt camera
or "specialty act," akin to using an underwater camera or doing an aerial shot,
Brown says. Now the industry has so embraced the invention that Brown
himself long ago lost track of the number of films employing it.
"It's like the 9-iron vs. the 8-iron: It's (often) the right tool for the job," Brown
says. "Unfortunately, it's an invention that doesn't really do anything by itself. It
only works with a gifted operator -- something like a violin. A violin is a great
invention, but it's useless without a good violin operator."