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Steadicam inventor’s lasting contribution

President's award Honoree

“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.”