Inventing the Steadicam: Garrett Brown
In the history of motion picture technology, few people have had a more profound effect on cinematography than today's guest, the Oscar® and Emmy®-winning Garrett Brown. Garrett invented an ingenious camera rig called the Steadicam—a stabilising system for cameras that allows smooth, wobble-free tracking shots.
In this episode of the Create the Future podcast, we speak to Garrett about his storied career in cinema, working on iconic films including Rocky, Casino, The Shining, and Raging Bull alongside directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. We discuss how iterative engineering proved central to the Steadicam’s invention, explore the engineering challenges of the SkyCam, FlyCam, DiveCam, and MobyCam, and discuss his latest project, the Zeen ambulator.
- “I thought the Steadicam was a plasticky sort of word […] I wanted to call it the Brown stabiliser and they only barely prevented me from wanting it to be called the Brown apparatus. Wiser heads prevailed and I'm quite used to the word Steadicam, it has become a noun and a verb and adverb.”
- “The only way to make smooth shots in that era was a dolly, crane, and camera car. We have an incredible variety of tools nowadays. It's hard to remember that if you attempted handheld shooting back then, it was gloriously free, but it was very shaky. And I hated the way it looked. I thought that something better had to be possible and I went for it. I went for something that would disconnect the camera from a running, walking, stair-climbing, gloriously free human being.”
- On what shots were impossible before Steadicam: “The answer is almost any shot that travels outdoors that doesn't show that you've got rails. Any shot that went up steps, or a step even. Any shot over rough ground. Even any shot indoors on pretty good floor.”
- “[Stanley] Kubrick was among the bold very early adopters of the SteadiCam. He sent us a telex which has been widely circulated, saying wonderful things ‘it should revolutionise the way films are made’ and ‘oh by the way, if you want to protect it, there's 14 frames of a shadow on the ground that show this about it’. We were horrified […] so we cut out those 14 frames.”
- “The Steadicam started in a plumbing supply place in the mountains of Pennsylvania for $8. They made me a T-bar of pipe, I stuck a video camera on the front, carried the recorder and a couple of plumbers weights top and bottom in the back. If you slid your hand along the pole until it’s in balance, you've got an amazingly stable object. Dreadful by my present very high standards, but a better than anything ever seen in its day.”
- “The human body has an astounding stabilising connection between your inner ear and the muscles of your eye. It's the vestibulo-ocular reflex. And if you look across a room and violently tilt your head up and down […] it's astonishingly stable. The brain is processing all of this, it's eliminating the up and down motion by moving your eyeballs. Therefore, from birth, we effectively have a SteadiCam in our heads.”
- “I think my camera ambitions have been fulfilled. I joke about, cruelly in one case joke about having a MoleCam. A device that burrows onto the ground listening for the athletes and when it thinks it's promising it pops up on the field and can look around with that ground level shot.”
- “I just weirdly enough used magnets for the first time—and I love magnets—to tame the seat belts on this elevating walker chair.”