A steadicam is a stabilizing mount for a motion-picture camera, which mechanically isolates the operator's movement from the camera, allowing a very smooth shot even when the operator is moving quickly over an uneven surface. Informally, the word may also be used to refer to the combination of the mount and camera.
Steadicam is a registered trademark of Tiffen.
Before the steadicam, a director had two choices for moving (or "tracking") shots.
- The camera can be mounted on a "dolly", a wheeled mount that rolls on tracks or leveled boards. However, this is time consuming to set up and impractical in many situations.
- The camera operator can hold the camera in his hands. This allows greater speed and flexibility, but even the most skilled camera operator cannot prevent the image from shaking, if only minutely. Hand-held footage has therefore traditionally been considered suitable mostly for documentaries, news, reportage work, live action, unrehearsable footage, or as a special effect to evoke an atmosphere of authentic immediacy during dramatic sequences. The gritty police television drama NYPD Blue is quite famous for its use of hand-held camera work as a dramatic element.
A steadicam essentially combines the stabilised steady footage of a conventional tripod mount with the fluid motion of a dolly shot and the flexibility of hand-held camera work. While smoothly following the operator's broad movements, the steadicam's armature absorbs any jerks, bumps, and shakes.
The steadicam was introduced to the industry in 1976 by inventor and cameraman Garrett Brown, who originally named the invention the "Brown Stabilizer". After completing the first working prototype, Brown shot a 10-minute demo reel of the revolutionary moves this new device could produce. This reel was seen by numerous directors, including Stanley Kubrick and John Avildsen. The Steadicam was first used in the biopic Bound for Glory, but its breakthrough movies are considered to be Avildsen's Rocky in 1976, and Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining.
The operator wears a harness which is attached to an iso-elastic arm. This is connected by a gimbal to the steadicam armature which has the camera mounted at one end and a counterbalance weight at the other. The counterbalance usually includes the battery pack and a monitor. The monitor substitutes for the camera's viewfinder, since the range of motion of the camera relative to the operator makes the camera's own viewfinder unusable. In the film industry the armature and weight are traditionally called the "sled", as they resembled a sled in an early model of the steadicam.
The combined weight of the counterbalance and camera means that the armature bears a relatively high inertial mass which will not be easily moved by small body movements from the operator (much like it is difficult to quickly shake a bowling ball). The freely pivoting armature adds additional stabilization to the photographed image, and makes the weight of the camera-sled assembly acceptable by allowing the body harness to support it.
When the armature is correctly adjusted, the operator is able to remove his hands from the steadicam entirely and have the camera stay in place. During operation, the operator usually rests his hand on the camera gimbal and applies force at that point to move the camera. To avoid shaking the camera when lens adjustments must be made during the shot, a wireless remote operated by the camera assistant is used to control focus and iris.
For low shots, the camera/sled arm can be rotated vertically, putting the camera where the sled normally sits and vice-versa; since both camera and display are inverted, the operator still sees a correctly oriented picture. The upside-down image recorded by the camera can be fixed in post-production.
Today the steadicam is a standard piece of film-making equipment, used in many productions. Notable instances of steadicam use include:
- Bound for Glory (1976) was the first feature production to use the Steadicam.
- Marathon Man (1976) was the first feature released with Steadicam shots (although these were shot after Bound for Glory)
- Rocky (1976) used a steadicam during its training montage sequence (including the famous run up a flight of museum steps) and certain fight scenes.
- Halloween (1978) - Director John Carpenter used the steadicam for the infamous opening scene of the film where Michael murders his sister along with numerous other shots during the film.
- Destiny of the Daleks (1979) is credited as being one of the first British television productions to make use of the steadicam.
- Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) used a steadicam for the entire scene where Brian encounters the "ex-leper".
- The Shining (1980) includes several famous tracking shots, notably of Danny riding his tricycle through the lobby of the Overlook Hotel. Both Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese have specifically noted this scene, which would have been impossible with a dolly because the camera was positioned so close to the ground.
- Das Boot (1981): Filming inside the rocking submarine was done with steadicam, often with a slight fish-eye lens.
- Return of the Jedi (1983) used the steadicam with two cross-mounted gyroscopes for additional stability to film the background plates for the speeder bike sequence.
- Come and See (1985) Much of this war movie was filmed with Steadicam.
- Aliens (1986) utilized a steadicam harness to create the attachment point of the fictional M56 Smart Gun used by characters Vasquez and Drake.
- Russian Ark (2002) consists of one uninterrupted 90-minute steadicam shot, with the camera following the principal character as he wanders through the Hermitage, the palatial museum in Saint Petersburg.
- The Protector (2005) has a steadicam fight scene that lasts nearly four minutes where the protagonist fights a large number of thugs, destroys many props, and runs up several flights of stairs. The brief use of digital effects to fix problems caused by a few props that worked incorrectly prevented the scene from being shot several times.
- Atonement (2007) contains a memorable continuous five-minute steadicam shot recreating the Dunkirk evacuation during WWII. The shot used over 1000 extras and had to be completed in one day due to budget constraints.
- The West Wing (1999–2006) is noted for its long steadicam "Walk and Talk" sequences showing staff members walking down hallways.
- Directors Martin Scorsese, Bela Tarr, and Gus Van Sant have made extensive use of the steadicam in many of their movies.