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Steadicam: Taking The Bumps Out Of Movies, Pt. 1

For more than 30 years Steadicam®, a system to stabilise the camera in film and video production has been a mainstay of the industry. But Garrett Brown, inventor of the device has not stood still. So, today there is Steadicam, son of Steadicam, son of son of Steadicam...

By Barrie Smith

In my early years as a TV commercial Director in the mid 50s, I well remember working with cameramen who had been in the industry during WW2 and before.

Some had been combat cameramen, others had shot feature films and documentaries.

The equipment they worked with was magnificently engineered but built like the proverbial battleship.

The mainstay camera of the time was the American-made 35mm Mitchell BNC, sound-proofed, carrying a 1000 foot magazine and fitted with an industrial strength viewing system that gave you two options.

One was to rack over the camera so you could preview and focus the scene through the lens — but not shoot; the other used a parallax-correctable viewfinder that fitted onto the side of the camera, so you could view the scene while you shot, while the lens’ light path went direct to the film.

It usually took two men to carry and fit the Mitchell to a support base, usually a heavy duty tripod or a dolly.

The other camera that was usually used for location work was the German-made 35mm Arriflex, weighing only a few kilos, compact in size and driven by a small set of portable batteries.

Only the cameraman could view the scene while he photographed. This was the world’s first mirror reflex motion picture camera and saw considerable use by German newsreel cameramen throughout WW2.

If a director wanted the camera to move during a shot he could only request a dolly or a crane shot, necessitating mounting a camera on a substantial, metal-built dolly or a wooden platform with rubber wheels called a western dolly — or a crane that could not only move the camera forward but up and down and laterally as well.

But to operate these devices you needed the manpower of the studio grips to push and manoeuvre them around.

A handheld shot was definitely not possible unless the cameraman was willing to use the Arri and fly blind, without the ability to view what the camera was photographing.

The zoom lens, as another way of changing the camera viewpoint did not come into general use for 35mm cinematography until the 1960s.

Then Garrett Brown, a native of Philadelphia, sat down and did some hard thinking.

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