Flying Garrett Brown's wonderful new invention, the Steadicam, a Cinema Products Universal Model 1 (c. 1977)
(Greg Altzman, 1st AC. Arri 35BL/400' mag. Operating both hands but 'goofy' due to the arm's design limitations)
My operating history with the Steadicam dates to the Model 1's commercial introduction by Cinema Products in 1977. Everything about operating a Steadicam at that time was strictly OJT and a mimeographed operation/parts manual. There were no SteadiOp workshops yet.
I visited CP after they had some production Steadicam Model 1 kits for sale, and asked Ed (DiGiulio) if I could borrow one. He'd made me a VF extension for my S16 Eclair NPR, and asked if he could use my VF design for his CP16R's, so we had a bit of history at that point.
I learned to fly that borrowed rig at Cinemobile Systems because they had just about every type of camera for me to test the Model 1 with, and I had friends on staff. I soon became a familiar fixture there, running up and down aisles and stairs 'dancing' with this new device.
The Steadicam pictured is a Universal Model I (1) with a CP modified 'blue' spring arm, and I have an Arri 35BL with 400' mag up. That sucker was huge and heavy (I used to call it the "Heavycam" - plus the rig itself was no lightweight!). Follow-focus was by a 1st AC / FA operated box via a tethered cable going to a electromechanical focus unit on the camera.
The arm was non-adjustable, had a payload of about 39lbs, and was much shorter than today's arms, with about half their booming range. My PanaflexL/35BL 'blue' arm could fly a 53lb camera payload. The fixed P-43 monitor (hard built into the sled) was about 3" wide.
The Model 1 was easy to get into dynamic balance, not so easy to static balance. Static balance was critical with this rig because of the large masses involved in flying the 35mm sound cameras. A miniscule change in the top stage CG would throw the rig way off kilter.
I made a dock out of welded "C" stand parts and would fine tune the sled balance on it by using stick on automotive wheel balance weights. Even so, it was often I who made up for the lack of dial-in sled and arm adjustments on those Model 1's by shear strength and will.
the Model 1 into low mode was a real challenge because it was never
designed to operate that way, but I successfully flew that model in
low mode on many, many shows.
From my experiences in auto racing, I knew it's best not to fight the equipment, so once I learned how the rig wanted to be handled (using one hand on the arm to control booming, and the other on the post to control pans and tilts), it was pretty much a done deal.
Some weeks later, Harvey (from Cinemobile Location Systems) called and said they had a few shows that had inquired about hiring this new device, and if Cinemobile acquired one, would I operate it for them when needed? Right place, right time, right skills, and luck!
I was the "house" Steadicam operator (from 1977 to 1984, as an independent contractor) that usually accompanied Cinemobile's PanaflexL/35BL Steadicam packages (unless the production wanted to rent 'dry hire'). However, for much of that first year, Cinemobile would only rent out its Steadicam PanaL/BL packages with their own operator as part of the hire.
In those days, there were no Steadicams/SteadiOps attached to a show like there is today. Most of my Cinemobile gigs back then were just day/half day hires. Some DP's and 1st AC's asked the producer to just rent the hardware alone, thinking all they had to do was strap it on and the rig itself would generate those magical shots they had seen - all by itself.
Most production companies at the time believed the Steadicam to be a self-stabilizing hardware only platform instead of the hardware/human dynamic that it is. I would often receive calls to go operate on shows that had rented their rigs 'dry hire' after the DP or 1st AC realized there was a bit more to this new technology than "just strapping the rig on".
If you watch a movie or TV show from the late 70's to mid 80's, and there's a production end credit that lists "Locations by: Cinemobile Systems" and they have Steadicam shots in the show, the Steadicam Op on that show was most likely me. For some unfathomable reason, Steadicam operators were rarely given screen credit, and that hasn't much changed.
This first commercial Steadicam model looks pretty primitive compared to today's designs and the advent of wireless follow-focus, etc., but it worked, and it worked very, very well.
The arm on the PanaflexL/35BL rigs were short, and along with the centered hard mounted socket block, combined to make operating from the left difficult. I had to operate 'goofy' a lot (that term didn't yet exist) to keep the sled and arm clear of my body and set collisions.
In time, I developed my own flying style with the Model 1; operating two-handed from either side (by flipping the arm), and at a slight oblique angle because of the sled length.
This was quite contrary to what most other Model 1 operators were doing back then, which was always operating from the right side and only with one hand - using the sled post grip. Op's visiting me on set, often called my two-handed ambidextrous operating style as 'nzo'.
I spent many hours strapped into those early rigs, usually wearing a bandana because the vest would chafe over time, and glove, because the arm post hinges loved to bite my hand.
I believe that I'm using an early prototype focus range finder system in the shot below (somewhat like a Panatape), as evidenced by the AC looking at a distance scale/readout.
There really isn't that much difference in operation or moves from this very first commercial Steadicam model compared to the modern (GPI) Pro II and (Tiffen) Steadicams I fly today - an enduring testament to Garrett Brown's superb engineering and excellent basic design.
The entire "mystic" surrounding the Steadicam and Steadicam operators was born out of a necessity to make the rigs do things they were never built to do, and us operators pushing that envelope hard, time and time again. "That can't be done", just isn't in our vocabulary.
Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam, but it's us Steadicam operators that defined it...
I have continued to be a professional film and video SteadiOp over the past 36+ years (and even before), and now specialize solely in digital film and HD video Steadicam work.
Although I think Garrett Brown's creation is a terrific contribution to the tools and art of filmmaking, like a lot of other novel inventions in the motion picture business, it tends to be used much too often (and sometimes... not often enough ;)
Movie audiences are pretty sophisticated, and whether they realize it or not, understand the language of film much better than they are ever given credit for. Each tool we use in the making of a film has an effect on how and what the audience reacts to in its viewing.
DP's (and directors) shouldn't use a Steadicam when a handheld camera or Fig Rig will better impart on the audience the urgency or chaos of a scene (the opposite is also true).
Likewise, for certain scenes, a dolly (or tracking shot) using a gear head is the only way to get the subtle focus and perspective changes necessary to give the scene the impact the director is trying to impart on the audience.
These "older" tools are often dismissed as too dated or time consuming, but lazy (and unimaginative) filmmaking never results in a good film, no matter how avant-garde the tools used in the making of it...
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