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August 8, 2000

A public radio commentary

I'm fascinated by the hidden ways that technology affects us. This is best seen - or rather not seen - in the movies.

Here's an example: In Rocky - the 1976 Sylvester Stallone blockbuster - the boxer jogs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Only a minute long, this scene made movie directors gasp. What amazed them? The camera work following Rocky up the steps, never once was the shot jerky. It was the work of a then new device, called a Steadicam - the brainchild of Garrett Brown. While the shots from this camera are steady, its development was anything but smooth.

While working at an ad agency Brown noticed how much fun the people filming the commercials had. Brown, who had never even owned a camera, decided on a whim to become a film producer and cameraman. He he bought a thousands dollars worth of equipment from a bankrupt producer and went into business. Brown got the idea for his Steadicam while hanging out of a helicopter filming a car commercial.

They'd hired him to film through the windows of a moving car, but from the outside. Finding it hard to hold his camera steady he resolved to make a special holder. On his way home he stopped at a plummer's shop and bought thirteen dollars worth of pipe. At home he built a crude Steadicam - and from then on he used every spare dollar and minute to refine it. But after two years of work he realized his Steadicam was too complicated.

So he holed up in a motel for a week: No interruptions except for room service. He made a last ditch effort to perfect his steadicam. He filled notebooks with wacko ideas, occasionally amusing the maids by borrowing their broomsticks to test his ideas. He realized one of the main problems with holding a camera steady is its center of gravity is too far away to control.

You can see this by comparing a suitcase to a backpack. A suitcase is hard to control - its center of gravity is located far from your body, in the suitcase itself, but a backpack is manageable because its center of gravity is near yours. So, Brown developed a belt that anchored the camera to the operator. Next he need to isolate the camera from motion. Brown took the extension arm of his motel desk lamp - the kind that makes a parallelogram - and attached cables and springs to keep the camera from feeling bumps, all the motion being absorbed by the springs.

Movie directors at first avoided Brown's novel Steadicam; they preferred, on a movie set where every minute without filming costs big money, to stick with tried and true techniques. So Brown used his Steadicam to make impossible looking television commercials until he had a demo reel that wowed movie directors. By the end of the nineteen eighties Brown had shot the forest scenes in Star Wars' Return of the Jedi and the suspenseful rope-bridge scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

For that Brown worked in one hundred and three degree heat, three-hundred fifty feet above a raging river. No wonder he calls using the Steadicam "an artistic, athletic adventure." Noting, it is "a diabolically hard thing to use ... In it's way, the Steadicam" he says" is [like] a violin. Alone, it's just junk; [but] with a good operator, it's magic." He continues "It's my favorite activity", quickly adding "barring one."

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises