this weekThe Swing of Things

November 11, 2004

The Steadicam

Taking unwanted motion out of motion pictures

Despite my lifelong interests in photography, gadgets, and movies, I have never owned a camcorder. If I had one, I could plug it into my computer, download the video I shoot, make impressive-looking movies, and save them onto DVDs. In the abstract, that sounds like a lot of fun, but whenever I try to think through the purchase and use of a camcorder logically, I always get stuck. What if the model I buy is outdated six months later (a virtual certainty given the rapid pace of development in this area)? Would I become one of those obnoxious tourists who see the places they visit only through a viewfinder, less concerned about experiencing new places than about recording them? And worst of all, would I make my family and friends sit through hours of boring vacation footage? I fear that all these things would be true, that they are somehow maxims of camcorder ownership. And so, against all odds, I remain, for now, camcorderless.

Having watched my fair share of video shot by other people, it has become painfully obvious to me that a fancy tool is no substitute for actual skill in videography. Composition, lighting, audio recording, judicious use of camera angles, panning, zooming, and so on all require practice and a certain degree of artistic sensibility; these do not come in the box with your camcorder. And although virtually every modern camcorder has a built-in device to compensate for the jitter caused by small hand movements, long handheld shots—especially those taken while walking, as is natural for camcorder users—typically include a fair amount of bounce and sway, making them look amateurish regardless of any other merits the recording may have. You almost never see such bumpy images on TV or in movies, unless a shot was made that way intentionally to achieve a certain effect. Professional videographers and cinematographers supplement their skill with a great piece of technology called a steadicam to smooth out the trickiest of handheld shots.

Steady as You Go
You can think of the steadicam as an extremely sophisticated shock absorber for a camera. Just as the shock absorbers on your car keep the ride smooth even when the road is not, so a steadicam keeps a camera steady despite bumps underneath. But unlike automotive shock absorbers, a steadicam must also compensate for pan (horizontal rotation), tilt (rotation up or down), and roll (rotation about the axis of the lens)—but only when these changes are not explicitly implemented by the operator. After all, a handheld shot that could only ever point in one direction would not be terribly interesting.

To do all this, a steadicam starts with a large, rigid harness or vest worn by the operator. Because the entire apparatus, including the camera, is typically quite heavy—sometimes as much as 90 lb. (about 40kg)—the vest spreads out the weight as much as possible. This not only minimizes fatigue, it gives the camera a much more solid attachment point than the operator’s arms would provide. Protruding from this vest is a heavy-duty mechanical arm, somewhat reminiscent of the ones used in certain adjustable desk lamps. The arm has two rigid segments (called “bones”), connected by spring-loaded joints. The mechanism is designed in such a way that the bones always remain parallel to each other, but can move up, down, left, and right with the application of a small force from the operator. The camera itself (whether film or video) sits atop a postlike mounting assembly called a “sled,” which is attached to the end of the arm by a free-floating rotating joint known as a gimbal. The weight of the camera is counterbalanced partly by the tension of the springs and partly by other components mounted at the bottom of the sled such as batteries and a video screen that enables the operator to see what is being filmed while watching his step.

All these joints, springs, and weights shift the center of gravity away from the camera itself while providing multiple points where vibration and other unwanted movement can be isolated from the camera. The net effect is that the operator can walk, climb stairs, step over obstacles, or even jog while keeping the “floating” camera perfectly smooth. This makes possible shots that could never be achieved with a tripod or dolly, enabling the camera operator to walk among the actors freely while keeping all equipment out of the shot.

Gonna Film Now

The steadicam was invented in 1973 by cinematographer Garrett Brown, with its mainstream debut in the 1976 film Rocky. Since then, it has become ubiquitous in both film and TV. The most impressive use of the steadicam I’ve seen is the 2002 film Russian Ark, shot in the Hermitage, a former palace in St. Petersburg that’s now a museum. The entire 90-minute film was done as a single, continuous steadicam shot that followed the main character as he walked from one room to the next. Garrett Brown himself also famously used a steadicam to capture footage of California’s Redwood National Park in slow motion as he walked through it; when the footage was played at regular speed, it produced the backdrop for the speeder bike sequence in Return of the Jedi (1983). And steadicams are used to film a significant number of scenes in the popular TV series ER, bringing the viewer directly into the action.

As sophisticated as steadicams are, they are useless without a highly trained operator. It requires a great deal of practice, not to mention stamina, to become proficient filming scenes with a 90-pound weight hanging from your chest. Steadicam operators, who generally work as freelancers and provide their own equipment, are both highly paid and well respected. Professional steadicam equipment is, not surprisingly, quite expensive—though scaled-down versions for use with consumer camcorders can be had for well under US$1,000. That money won’t make your vacation videos less boring, but your camcorder’s “off” switch was designed for just such a purpose. —Joe Kissell

More Information about The Steadicam…

To learn more about the steadicam, see:

If you’re on a severe budget, you can build your own $14 Steadicam following the instructions by Johnny Chung Lee. Unlike a real steadicam, this design provides only a counterweight—not an articulated arm or a wearable harness. But for the money, it’s certainly much better than nothing.

cover art

The odd but beautiful 2002 film Russian Ark is the longest single steadicam shot made to date. Russian Ark Production Notes at Cinema.com provide an interesting look into the making of the film.