The Brown Stabilizer


Garrett Brown is best known as the Oscar-winning inventor of the Steadicam®. He has shot with it on nearly 100 movies including Rocky, The Shining and Return of the Jedi.

Garrett holds 50 patents worldwide for camera devices which include the new Steadicam Merlin, a miniature version for camcorders; Skycam, the robot camera that flies on wires over sporting events; and Mobycam, Divecam, Flycam et al that pursue athletes worldwide.
As if this isn’t enough, he has recorded for MGM as a folksinger (www.BrownandDana.com), sold Volkswagens, directed TV commercials and made films for Sesame Street. His voice was the other half of that well-known ad-lib duo on radio in the US for Molson and American Express (www.TwoVoices.com) which was named by Ad Age as one of “100 Best Ad Campaigns of the Century.” (I have to confess to spending too much time listening to these commercials!)

Now, we did consider publishing the history of the invention, it’s an amazing story but it’s been done several times before and we just don’t have the space to do it justice. We then considered printing the operation and technical information behind the Steadicam.
That was before we realised just how approachable Garrett is. Very kindly he offered a Q/A session and so tv-bay has quizzed Steadicam users in the UK who have put their rigs down for a moment and come up with some questions for Garrett which provide a great mix of operational and technical lore, plus some amusing Steadicam history.
Who came up with the name “Steadicam” and what did you call it whilst in development?
I wanted to call it the ‘Brown Stabilizer’ which was not as egotistical as it sounds -- I mean Rudolph Diesel didn’t call his invention the ‘Oil ‘n Go’, right? Ed DiGiulio came up with ‘Steadicam’ which seemed to me like a fake, plastic name, but of course now it’s simply a word, a noble word, meaning exactly what it says (and every day I’m grateful that we didn’t call it the bloody Brown Stabilizer!)
Is the story about locking yourself away in a hotel room for a week to work out the invention true? Did you have a patent before actually building the first Steadicam, and how difficult was it to keep things quiet at this time?
After two years I had a big, crane-like prototype that worked, but it was too heavy and clumsy to be sold. As a last resort, I checked into an isolated room at a local motel and spent 24 hours a day thinking, making lists, studying old drawings, running down corridors with broomsticks and searching in my dreams for any possible way to make my would-be invention light enough to carry a 35mm film camera -- and after 7 days, improbably, I had it! The patent came later, and until the moment it was filed we made everybody sign blizzards of secrecy agreements! It's still amazing to me that my motel 'retreat' worked, and that the original design is still in use, still functions exactly the same, and is still the best way to isolate (and hold) a camera!
Go to http://www.garrettcam.com/links.php and click on ‘Camera Operator Magazine part II for the whole bizarre tale.
Can you tell me about the first showreel, I've heard that Stanley Kubrick managed to work out what you had come up with simply from the shots?
I believed that the effect of using the prototype could be demonstrated without providing any clues, so we made a seven minute demo film with dozens of never-before-seen shots including one that has passed into film history -- I followed my then-girlfriend (now wife) Ellen down the long steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, and back up! One screening of that demo produced a license deal in LA, and the future director of 'Rocky' soon saw it and called to ask “where were those steps?” and “how did you do that?” Meanwhile, we had gotten a telex from Stanley who advised cutting out the 14 frames where a shadow on the ground might lead a “counter-intelligence photo interpreter” to figure it out. We were astounded!
I heard this showreel was lost for many years and has been re discovered in a basement and restored... a few lucky people have seen it... are there any plans for showing it more publicly?
The negative was inadvertently thrown out by the factory in LA, and we mourned the loss of this amazing piece of film for years. I was getting rid of some old film cans and opened one that was unexpectedly heavy and there was an intact print which we have since restored and shown at film festivals around the world! It’s great fun to have it back!
If you are effectively isolated from the camera, how is Steadicam best controlled?
Per the original patent, Steadicam is a 'four part invention:’
-Expand the camera equipment (like batteries, magazines, etc.) to make it inert.
-Grab its center of balance with a 'gimbal' for angular isolation.
-'Float' it in space with a mechanical arm attached to a wearable harness.
-View the image remotely so your eye isn't in contact with the camera.
Put on the 'vest’, attach the the spring powered 'arm', pick up the expanded camera via the 'gimbal' and voila! -- the camera’s angle and position in space are isolated from your motions, yet controllablewith a fingertip touch. As long as you don't bump into anything it floats beside you as if in space, and you can run, climb stairs or ride vehicles and the shot looks as smooth as if on a dolly.

How many CP / Tiffen Steadicams do you think are in use at the moment?
Thousands! Tens of thousands, if you include the old Steadicam JR and the new Merlin!
What initially prompted you to spend so much time and effort producing a handheld stabilizer?
I loved camcorders, but wasn’t about to go back to handheld shooting! The Steadicam JR came out in 1990, but made in plastic (I lost the argument to make it out of metal like my original prototype) but now, finally, our new Steadicam Merlin® is everything I wanted: precise, rigid, light and versatile, and it works with camcorders from .5 to 5.5 lbs. (up to 8 lbs with our new ultralight arm & vest). Amazingly, if you’re careful, you can make shots that are indistinguishable from those done with our ‘big rigs’!
What is the most extreme or challenging place you know of a Steadicam being used?
We have shaken our heads for years over stories from hellish locations, but my personal candidates are the rope bridge sequence from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and… drumroll… The maze sequence from The Shining which involved running through deep, boot-rotting salt at 100 degrees F. and breathing oil smoke for two months, not to mention it was a terrible fire hazard with ultra-dry pine boughs and Styrofoam hanging over Stanley’s thousand-watt lights! It was a complete, actual maze and we were perpetually lost so we could never have found our way out! Picture that bit of wireless video assist tape!
If you were to give one piece of advice to someone considering using Steadicam what would it be?
If you’re considering becoming an operator, DO IT!
If you’re a ‘client’, remember that it’s not just a tool, it’s an instrument, so check references and look at reels to find yourself a really good operator. Then of course collaborate with him or her to be sure that you use it well and get your money’s worth!
If I wanted to become a Steadicam Operator how would I go about it?

Take a workshop! (They are taught in the UK by the great Robin Thwaites, of Tiffen Europe -- see the various Steadicam-related websites for details), then network with other operators, offer your services for student films and ‘freebies’, begin assembling a reel and start acquiring your kit of gear and accessories. Fortunately used Steadicams and/or inexpensive knock-offs can be acquired reasonably and traded up as you begin to get ahead.
How do your regard other Operators, were they competition to you or do you see them more as part of your Steadicam family?
When I taught my first workshop, Ted Churchill famously pleaded, ‘Don’t show anyone else how to do this,” but I quickly realized that if, for example, there was only one violin player in the world, he or she would be in a circus! 100,000 violinists, however, form a huge pyramid, and the good ones get the big bucks and the limos! The combined energy of thousands of Steadicam ‘players’ is the reason for our ever-expanding market and the motive for our efforts to keep improving the equipment and the quality of our teaching!

What's your view on the mass of similar products that have appeared now that your original patent has expired?
I’m fine with them (now!); that’s how the patent system works. We only need to try, by dint of hard work and new patents, to keep Steadicam at the top of the heap!
Steadicams seem to be mostly associated with film. I am considering using one for video; any problems you foresee? How do you feel about Steadicam use in Television; and by the way has it degraded the art?
No, great, and no! Steadicams are available for video cameras of all sizes and you don’t have to contend with video tap images, shifting film rolls, reloads after four minutes, etc. etc. With better and better Hi-def cameras and today’s post-production wizardry, we give up less and less to shoot video. And the latest HDV camcorders are simply amazing!
It’s been 6 years since the Steadicam Ultra was marketed, what improvements does the new Ultra2 have to offer? Could you explain the idea of an 'Iso-elastic' arm, all the competitors products don't seem to offer this feature?
The Ultra2 is so advanced vs the original Ultra, not to mention various other rigs, that I must refer you to the web for the complete story. If you’re interested, please see the quick-start guide (or download the Ultra2 manual) at: http://www.steadicam.com/images/content/Ultra2%20Foldout_4pgs_sm.pdf
‘Iso-elastic’ refers to the optimum lifting curve for a Steadicam arm. Beginning with the ‘Master’ and ‘Ultra’ arms, this patented feature has now been further refined and made user-adjustable, and the new G-50 and G-70 arms can now lift transparently and effortlessly throughout their entire 32 inch lifting range.
Do you still use Steadicam, or have you really retired?
I retired this year. I still love the work, but I’m through with riding in vans and being told when to eat!
When you go to the cinema, do you watch the movie or the cameraman’s techniques?
I can’t help it. I always mean to inspect the work, but I end up watching the film!
What is your own favorite Steadicam shot?
After 100 movies, and enough excitement for three lifeties, I was finally asked to work on a live production of 'La Traviata, shot ‘film-style' by Vittorio Storaro on location in Paris in 2000. I was 58 years old and unsure that I could even remember the hundreds of cues much less get through my dozens of long shots, particularly the very last one -- 23 minutes, a single uncut take in an apartment overlooking the Seine, as 'Violetta' expires at midnight in the Alfredo's arms.
By the end, I had entered into a kind of exalted intimacy with the singers, beyond fatigue, beyond technique, into a realm that I had never before even glimpsed. It was a career (make that a lifetime) high.
Besides your own, what other device exists today that you wish you had invented?
The Wheel!
Do you have final wisdom to impart?
Good luck and always remember to ask for a full-card above-title credit as follows: “A Steadicam® Film by (insert your name)!”
Brown Stabilizer
Brown Stabilizer
The Shining
The Shining

Tags: steadicam | oscar | rocky | the shining | return of the jedi | iss014 | N/A
Contributing Author N/A

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