He doesn’t live in Hollywood and laymen might not know his name, but 71-year-old Philadelphian Garrett Brown is an integral part of the way cinema and televised sports look today — he invented both the Steadicam and the Skycam. Before Brown invented the former in the ’70s, movie-camera movement was restricted to heavy rail systems. The Steadicam, a vest-like stabilizer worn by camera operators, introduced the possibility of free-roaming shots that could never have been done before — like Danny’s tricycle ride in The Shining or Rocky running up the Art Museum steps. (Both scenes were actually filmed by Brown himself.) Earlier this month, Brown was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame; we spoke with him about his career, running up the Art Museum steps before it was cool and Stanley Kubrick being a pretty decent guy.
City Paper: How did you come up with the idea for the Steadicam?
I had a little film company in Philly in the '70s — actually, it started in 1968. I learned my trade by reading all the film books in the Philadelphia library. Of course, film books at the library are out of date at any given moment, so I became a 1940s filmmaker inadvertently. I went and bought a huge dolly for moving the camera, which I love to do, except the real movie business was headed out on location with smaller dollies, just as I'm trying to be a studio mogul. I had a studio in a barn with my big dolly and microphone booms and all this stuff and my camera weighed 12 pounds. Although I love moving the camera, the absurdity of this pinheaded little thing on top of this monster was obvious, and to make dolly shots outdoors, you had to lay rails. I had five old rusty sections of rail — four straight, one curved. So, absurdly, all my moving shots would go straight for a while, then turn, then go straight, and they all lasted 24 seconds, because thatís how long the spring wind on my Bolex camera would run. I was probably the guy most in need of a camera stabilizer in the U.S., and not knowing any better I went for it.
In 1972, I started doing experiments [on the Steadicam] and had a functional object in 1974. I discovered it worked. It worked astonishingly well, even the early clumsy, big ones, although they were way too burdensome to ever be commercially successful. I finally went into a hotel for a week and looked at all the drawings over again and forced myself to figure out how to make a smaller, lighter one that could actually handle 35mm movie cameras. And the great thing about this was, unlike most inventions, mine could be demonstrated without giving away how it worked. I could show the results — a reel of impossible shots — and just blow away anybody in Hollywood who knew what was possible and what wasn't, and give them no clue how it was done.
Except that we sent a reel to Stanley Kubrick, a very smart guy that he was, he sent back a Telex saying, "Yes, this is great and should revolutionize the way films are shot and you can count on me for a customer," blah, blah, blah, but he said, "You should be aware there are 14 frames in the middle of your demo that show a shadow on the ground that gives you a very good idea how it worked." [Laughs.] So, we went running into the screening room and sure enough, he was right! We had to clip the 14 frames out of reel.
The last shot of that reel was me chasing my then-girlfriend, now-wife, Ellen, down the Art Museum steps and back up. And a lot of people saw that reel, one of them was [John G.] Avildsen, who was setting up Rocky. He found us and said, "Where are those steps and how did you do that?" I ended up, just a few months later, chasing [Sylvester] Stallone up those steps. It was an amazing coincidence.
CP: It's cool that the person who shot that is actually from Philly. It's gotta be one of the most widely imitated scenes of any movie. You can go to the Art Museum any day and people are still running up those steps.
They tell me that it's the second biggest tourist attraction in Philly. I believe it. By the numbers, it might even be bigger than the Liberty Bell. Any hour, day or night, and in any weather. Buses just show up and people go dashing up those stairs, which is really a tribute to the whole idea of Rocky. It's such a fulfilment of a dream, never giving up, all that stuff and people respond to that. That was probably the best of the Rocky series and the second best was Rocky VI [Rocky Balboa], which came back to that kind of heart. Stallone got hugely lucky in the running of those steps scene in VI — it started to snow huge snowflakes, like a gift from the heavens. You never see anything in movies that looks like that. I ran up the steps on I, II, and V. I think he had that scene in every one of them.
So, I started shooting movies with [the Steadicam] right away in '75, I shot three films simultaneously. One of them — Bound For Glory — won the Oscar for cinematography. Rocky won Best Picture, obviously, and the third one was Marathon Man, which was a hell of a good film. The old guys in Hollywood went right out of the block with this.
CP: About working with Kubrick — the most famous shot in The Shining was Danny riding the tricycle around the hotel. That was you who filmed that?
That was me.
CP: For the movie, you had to modify the Steadicam to make it lower?
Yes. One of Kubrickís original questions in the Telex was, "Is there a minimum height at which it can be used?" And the compromise that I made to get light was the lens height range wasn't floor to ceiling, it was originally from about your waist to just about over your head, which is 95% of shots are in that range. Kubrick woke us up to the fact that there was a very useful range below the waist. We managed to invert the thing — hang the camera from the bottom. So, that so called "low mode" was how I shot most of The Shining, because of Danny Lloyd's height and because Kubrick used such wide lenses that he had to keep it level, stick it right in the middle of the shot, top to bottom.
That was an amazing experience. I was on that a year.
CP: How many takes did you shoot of the tricycle scene?
That's a funny story, because I started out to run it. Of course, Danny Lloyd was not only fast on that Big Wheel, he was tireless. And so, I immediately brought in this wheelchair that Stanley had had made by Ron Ford and hard mounted the arm, which took out all the bumps on the floor, so I could ride in style without doing much work, except forcing it around corners. Unfortunately, the long and overweight British grip Winkle [Dennis Lewis] had to push this thing around. We got about one take out of Winkle and one clean sound recording of that wonderful sound — the carpet, then the floor, the carpet, then the floor — and then we couldn't use the sound, because I had the mic on and Winkle kept going, [in British accent] "Fuck me, Stanley! I can't stand it! I can't keep up with the kid! He never gets tired!"
So, we had relays of guys pushing this thing for another 30 takes and Danny could have gone for hours more. [Laughs.] Kubrick did a lot of takes of things, as you undoubtedly know.
CP: Was that ever annoying as a camera operator?
You know what? I was kind of learning my trade as an operator, which was the very best thing that could have happened to me. It wasn't that tiring, because you would do a take, even a 3-minute take, and then there'd be a 3-minute playback. And then there'd typically be a 3-minute argument about where the crosshairs should be and how it should be done. Mainly so [Kubrick] could slow the proceedings down and do it any way he wanted. I loved it. I could have done it forever, even the scene where I walked slowly up three flights of stairs with the heaviest camera that I had, which weighed 60 pounds. I did that 35 times that day, which is like climbing the Empire State Building, and I could have done it forever. Three minutes on, six minutes off — you can do anything.
CP: There's a trend now in movies that's leaning more towards handheld cameras. I wanted to know what you thought about that.
I'm not sure I agree with that. There was a huge handheld vogue. The trouble with handheld, this was before the Steadicam, is we have an amazing stabilizer in our heads. When you walk along, it's like a Steadicam, you don't even see yourself go up and down or side to side, when in fact, you are doing it. If you put a camera literally on your head, it looks very weird, right? We don't see the world with our frame shaking like handheld, so a point of view shot with Steadicam is actually much more appealing than a handheld version. You sort of have to get used to the shaky camera, then ignore it, like all these Lars von Trier films, the handheld films. It comes and goes with eras where they do a lot of handheld. Sometimes they do it to signify terrifying fighting and violence, and I can't say I object to that. At a certain violence level, your view of the world is jerky. But not a big fan of handheld for objective shots, these director's eye view shots, God's eye view — the storytelling shots in movies. They're not somebody's point of view, they're just a disembodied eyeball. I'm not a fan of handheld for that stuff.
And I'm not a big fan of handheld for point of views, because our view of the world doesn't roll, it doesn't shake angularly. I'm kind of not a fan of handheld and when I see it trend in and trend out, I kind of take the long view, because the Steadicam now is available for cameras as small as an iPhone.
CP: How did it feel to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame?
It was astonishing, absolutely astonishing. First of all, it was intimidating as hell, because there's the whole room of past inductees that come out for these banquets and then there's the 10 or so new inductees, five of which are deceased, because most of these Hall of Fame inductees are the classic guys — the Edisons, the Goodyears, Samuel Colt, Steve Jobs — my god, you know? One of the new inductees [Alfred Lee Loomis] is credited with ending World War II, invented LORAN, the navigation stuff. One invented the CDMA chip that's in every cell phone. The guy who invented DSL was one of them. One was the guy who invented the radio telescope; it just went on and on and on. By the time I went on — they had me up last — I was pretty thoroughly intimidated. And I said to these guys, "It's a little tough to stand up here and follow the guy who ended World War II. My audience is a little fluffier than this."[Laughs.]
CP: In a pretty big way, you changed cinema forever. What does that feel like?
It feels really good. It's so widespread now, when I watch a movie, I often don't think of how it was made, I'm able to get into the film. My wife will nudge me in the middle of a particularly great Steadicam shot and it's still a thrill. There's so many brilliant practitioners and it really is an instrument. It's not just a stabilizer. Its principal value is it's an elegant way to move an object in space, which you could never do by hand without the mass and the weightlessness of this thing. You're guiding it with your fingertips and the result is it makes a really graceful, beautiful move. At it's best, it's like a ballet for the lens. It doesn't feel like curing cancer or ending WWII, but it's still an immense amount of fun.
CP: What do you do now?
I stopped shooting in '04. I spend my time inventing new stuff and teaching. I'm leaving tomorrow for Istanbul to conduct the first workshop in Turkey and then back here in Philly for one of our yearly ones at the Yellow Springs studio complex. We've been doing our workshops there for 20 years. Then, back to Munich, then to Rio in August, then to China for our first workshops there in October. I love to teach and I do some lecturing on the movie camera at film festivals and film schools.
It's a very full life. I'm 71. I still feel completely energized. My mother is 100 and my dad died in '97, so I'm hopefully gonna stick around and do this for a while.
An excerpted version of this interview appeared in our print issue.
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