1) What is Steadicam?
Steadicam is a body-worn camera support systems that isolates the movement of the camera from that of the operator and allows the camera to travel with great freedom over almost any terrain without resorting to conventional track and dolly techniques. Invented by Garrett Brown, the first model was produced in 1976 primarily for film cameras however today there are many models that cover all types of motion picture cameras, broadcast cameras, video cameras, DSLR video rigs and even the iPhone.
Steadicam systems generally comprise three main components:
The sled which carries the camera along with the image monitor, batteries and power and video distribution. The sled is attached via a three-axis gimbal to the arm which is a system of springs that takes out the shock movements; just as a car’s suspension would but also allows the sled to be moved in three dimensions around the operator. This then attaches to the vest which is worn by the operator to transfer the weight of the camera, sled and arm to the operator’s body and distribute it evenly without impeding movement.
With all three the operator can walk and move around freely, with the arm allowing him to move the camera, in relation to himself, in any plane including vertical, allowing full ‘booming’ (up and down) movement. All the time the arm isolates the camera from the operator, preventing movement being transferred from the operator to the image.
2) Can you fit any camera onto Steadicam?
We’re lucky enough today to have a range of Steadicams to operate with most types of cameras. The defining factor for the choice of model is the weight of the payload on the sled that comprises the camera itself, the battery and all other accessories that have to be with the camera.
A Steadicam does not mind what type of camera it is carrying. To it, the camera and accessories is simply a load representing weight and associated mass so, as long as the total weight on the sled is within specified maximum and minimum, it can operate. For example Steadicam Pilot is rated from 0.9 to 4.5kg and is ideal for cameras such as Sony EX1, JVC 250 and Panasonic HVX200. On the other hand these cameras could also work on the Steadicam Ultra 2 but this will also take heavy motion picture cameras such as Arriflex 535 or even an IMAX camera or a 3D rig, although the latter situations can represent an extreme for the operator. Therefore we can cater for any camera within a reasonable weight; naturally the heavier the camera the more work it is for the operator.
3) What’s it for?
When Garrett Brown invented Steadicam he conceived it as a way of releasing cameras from the restraint of dollies, tracks and tripods. He designed a way of moving the camera without introducing unwanted movements that are associated with hand-held camera work.
The actual use of Steadicam is very much up to the imagination of the operator and director. Typically this could involve moving the camera where it would be impossible to have a dolly or track; for example, over rough ground, up and down stairs or slopes, through narrow corridors, etc. It can also be used for fast moves such as running with the camera and still producing stable images.
Because of the nature of the footage it creates, it also makes a very nice tool for producing point-of-view material – imitating what the actor’s seeing – or even a dog’s-eye view. This is because the way it moves makes a very good impression of what the eye sees, very much akin to the way brain translates what the eye sees.
4) Where is it commonly used?
Any current feature film is highly likely to have used Steadicam at some point. In many cases the quality of operation is so high that its use is transparent and so is unnoticed.
It is often used in TV dramas where many strive to create a particular look or to create a certain pace within the production. Light entertainment is a frequent user where it has even won awards for its operation – such as in ‘Strictly’.
Where would sports coverage – particularly football – be without Steadicam? Sky pioneered its use on the touchline. Perhaps this is where people are most aware of its use because of the times the operator comes into shot.
Far less obvious is the fact that Steadicam is used a huge amount for corporate and commercial work where it may give speed of operation for the production company to create a creative edge. For example, it allows staging an interview while walking down the production line rather than the static and less interesting shot in the office.
As with many of the most useful tools that developed in the professional market, Steadicam has also made the trip to lower-cost productions such as the rapidly expanding DSLR ‘5D’ and wedding video business. Here the Pilot or even lighter Merlin arms are a good match for the lighter rigs.
5) Does the operator always have to wear Steadicam?
No. Although originally designed as a body-worn system it may be used with other modes of transport where the arm may be bolted to a vehicle and the vest left in the camera truck. Examples are camera cars and other wheeled vehicles, dollies, boats, and hands-free devices such as the Segway. For example ‘The Shining’ made extensive use of a Steadicam shot from a wheelchair that was able to navigate the narrow corridors of the location.
6) Can anyone operate Steadicam?
Given a reasonable level of fitness anyone can be trained to operate Steadicam. Balance and stamina are more important than any huge strength. But, most importantly, you first need to have the eye and composition skills of a good camera operator. The work involves not only composing pictures but also introducing a new dimension; moving the camera and so introducing a timing factor of subjects relative to each other.
7) How can I learn to become an operator?
Best – take a workshop. Tiffen holds regular workshops at several levels following syllabuses approved by Garrett Brown himself. This is just the beginning of a Steadicam career and it might take hours of practise before you feel confident and efficient enough to take on work. Many very well established operators feel they never stop learning!
8) Do operators specialise in particular areas?
Yes. Many start with the idea of a career in feature films but may well find a niche and a pleasant life with more regular work in areas such as football or weddings.
9) Are other forms of stabilization available?
Yes. Many small cameras have internal optical or digital stabilizers; however there are some drawbacks. Optical versions are very cleaver but they cannot correct in the ‘roll’ axis. Digital stabilizers usually introduce some image degradation. Of course these have their uses but neither have changed the WAY that we shoot, in the same way that Steadicam has.
10) What about other body-worn systems?
Steadicam is a registered trademark product and the name is often misused to describe any type of body-worn stabilizers. Steadicam products are the peak of this technology and are still being driven forward by Garrett Brown and Jerry Holway – both operators and designers, as well as the Tiffen design team. Other body-worn systems tend to be derivations of our older designs and so don’t match Tiffen’s current technology.
11) What’s new?
Steadicam is just 34 years young and continuing development of new ideas all the time. Three new models will be at IBC this year that are designed to meet the needs of an ever-changing market. The Phantom is a very nice economical rig for cameras up to 20kg. Used with the existing G70 arm, this fits nicely into the Digital Cinema or Film area. The Zephyr is a versatile lightweight rig for loads up to 9kg that has an expanding sled with inertial control. The Tango arm is an exciting brand new device –best described like a jib on a Steadicam – allowing movements from floor to ceiling and produce previously impossible shots.
12) Want more?
Visit www.tiffen.com for general information, www.steadishots.org to view some examples of Steadicam in action – including the famous labyrinth scene in The Shining. For those looking for training, take a look at www.flysteadicam.com