×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Garrett Brown’s Steadicam Breakthrough Continues to Grow 50 Years Later

In the history of motion-picture technology, few operators have had a more profound effect on camera movement than Garrett Brown. While dollies and cranes were Hollywood’s go-to platforms into the late ’60s, Brown’s ingenious camera rig — dubbed the Pole and later renamed Steadicam — started a photographic breakthrough that’s still growing 50 years later. 

Preceding the prototype’s successful debut in 1972 for ABC Sports (covering female jockey Robyn Smith on a 600-foot uncut walk from weighing room to paddock), Brown sent out an “impossible shots” reel that included a scene of his girlfriend and future wife Ellen ascending the 72 steps at the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with, miraculously, nary a camera wobble.

One of the people who saw that reel included director John Avildsen, and sure enough Brown’s invention landed three colossal projects in 1975 alone: Avildsen’s “Rocky,” Hal Ashby’s “Bound for Glory” and John Schlesinger’s “Marathon Man.”

On “Bound for Glory,” where he was hired by cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the six-foot-five-inch Brown stood atop a Chapman crane three stories high, with the picture’s Stockton, Calif., migrant camp and sprawling mass of 900 costumed extras waiting below. Feeling nervous anticipation at his first time on the set of a major motion picture, he trembled during rehearsal before the shot. “Your hands are shaking,” fellow operator Donald Thorin observed, “but not the camera!”

Slowly descending on the crane while filming the scene, Brown transitioned off the platform with one flowing step at ground level, continuing his unbroken coverage of lead actor David Carradine’s stroll across the shantytown. An artful mix of fluid operation and framing, Brown’s three, 4-minute-long takes received a standing ovation in dailies. Moving-shot parameters were changed forever.

Then came “Rocky” and Sylvester Stallone’s iconic run up the steps where Brown had filmed his future wife. Brown’s footage established a new movie location for cinephiles that’s still drawing fan visits to this day. For the escape-sequence shots of Dustin Hoffman running in “Marathon Man,” he traversed the Brooklyn Bridge numerous times on night exteriors, demonstrating his new rig’s ability to handle difficult coverage.    

The camera operator worked on more than a dozen movies that hit theaters in 1980-81. One of the calls came from Stanley Kubrick, who, when he saw Brown’s original demo reel, wrote to him that the invention “will revolutionize how films are shot.” The promise was realized on “The Shining,” where Brown made the fast-moving tricycle runs of child actor Danny Lloyd a horror classic. “Stanley provided the choreography for the move,” says Brown, “and I did the dance.” 

Steadicam works with a low-friction gimbal combined with a counterweighted post and articulated arm connected to a rigid vest worn by the operator. The device provides a camera person zero center-of-gravity functionality and shake-free coverage with nearly every moving shot.  

Now 76 yet hardly retired, Brown continues to invent. His newest Steadicam innovation (with engineer Steve Wagner) is the M1 Volt. Employing a push-button, gyro-integrated microprocessor and driven by brushless motors, it enables automatic horizon leveling while framing. 

Referring to operating the Steadicam, the Academy Award-winning inventor offered an analogy. “It’s like painting while riding a horse,” says Brown. “One’s artistic, the other physical — but together, they take you to a place.” 

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Game of Thrones

    Ireland Lures Filmmakers With Locations, Expertise and a 37% Tax Credit

    Few locations on earth can match Ireland’s proverbial 40 shades of green. In addition to its restful hues, the island nation also boasts alluring lakes, rugged windswept coasts, small charming hamlets, rustic farmhouses of aged stone, hilltop castles and breathtaking expanses of wild scrubland. Bustling and modern Dublin, Ireland’s capital, will be the largest English-speaking [...]

  • UNDONE Animated Series Amazon

    How Animated Series 'Undone' Used a Mix of Techniques to Tell the Mind-Bending Tale

    When Kate Purdy wanted to tell a story about the nature of reality, she knew she wanted to play with perception and time, fade in and out of memories and give voice to visions that only her main character could see. And it wasn’t long before the executive producer and co-creator of Amazon’s new series, “Undone,” [...]

  • John Wick: Chapter 3

    James Cameron, Keanu Reeves Starring in '2nd Unit: Invisible Action Stars' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Rootbeer Films has completed “2nd Unit: Invisible Action Stars” with James Cameron, Keanu Reeves, Mark Wahlberg and Halle Berry, Variety has learned exclusively. The film explores relationships between actors and stunt performers — a topic at the heart of Quentin Tarantino’s recent “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Joe Mantegna narrates “2nd Unit: Invisible Action [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    'Hustlers' Costume Designer and DP Joined Forces to Create Gritty Glamorous Look

    Mitchell Travers wonders if anything can really prepare a costume designer for working on a movie in which G-strings, double-sided tape and 8-inch platform heels comprise a complete outfit. But from the moment he began to read the script to “Hustlers,” he was in. “From the third page, I said I didn’t care what [any of the [...]

  • Joerg Pohlman to Leave Camera and

    Joerg Pohlman to Leave Camera and Lighting Company ARRI

    Joerg Pohlman is stepping down from the management board of Germany’s ARRI, one of the world’s leading movie camera and lighting manufacturers. The board will now consist of two people: Michael Neuhaeuser and Markus Zeiler. For the past eight years, every best picture Oscar winner has been shot on an ARRI camera; this year’s award [...]

  • Downton Abbey Movie BTS

    How the Production Crew Added Scope to 'Downton Abbey' for the Big Screen

    The feature continuation of “Downton Abbey” reunites the cast and much of the crew of the period TV series with a mandate to deliver more of the glamour, drama and just plain kindness that prompted millions of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic to fall under the spell of the sprawling Crawley family. “We wanted [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content