1976 Cinema Products (CP), producer of motion picture support technologies,
introduced Steadicam, a camera control device that profoundly influenced
the look of both feature film and television in the years that followed.
Developed by cinematographer Garrett Brown, the camera support mechanism
was used on thousands of feature films world wide and earned an
Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for technical
wowed cinematographers and viewers alike with its apparent ability
to "float" through space without physical constraints. At the center
of this hand-held "revolution" was the patented use of gyroscopic
motion to counter any irregularities in the camera operator's movement.
For Steadicam was not just a body-brace that strapped a camera to
an operator. It was a motorized, multi-directional, DC-powered mechanical
arm that linked a padded vest on the operator's body with a sensitive
"gimble" used for fingertip control of the camera head's pans and
tilts. Without the gravity-bound lock of traditional camera supports
(e.g. a tripod), Steadicam relied on the operator's physical skills
to move nimbly through sets. Operators likened the task to the demands
of ballet or long distance running.
offered television directors and cinematographers benefits that
were both logistical (speed of use, streamlined labor) and aesthetic
(a film-look that was deemed dynamic and high-tech). The cinematic
fluidity that became Steadicam's trademark was not limited to features.
The device helped make exhibitionist cinematography a defining property
of music videos after MTV emerged in 1981. Indeed, it became an
almost obligatory piece of rental equipment for shoots in this genre.
Most music videos, like primetime television, were shot on film
and the Steadicam became a regular production component in both
arenas. Miami Vice's much celebrated hybridization of music
video and the cop genre (1984-1989) made use of Steadicam flourishes
even as it cloned music video segments within individual episodes.
What critics of the show termed "overproduction" (stylized design,
"excessively lensed" photography, and over-mixed sound tracks),
fit well Cinema Product's pitch that Steadicam was "the best way
to put production value on the screen." Postmodern stylization like
that of Miami Vice defined American television in the 1980s,
and Steadicam became a recognizable tool in primetime's menu of
embellishment and "house looks," the signature visual qualities
of individual production companies. ATAS (Academy of Television
Arts and Sciences), following AMPAS's lead, acknowleged Steadicam's
impact on television with an Emmy.
orthodox production wisdom held that any given technique brought
with it this type of distinct stylistic function, many practitioners
in the early 1980s simply embraced CP's more pragmatic hype: that
Steadicam was also a cost effective substitute for dolly or crane
shots. Not only could the device preempt costly crane and dolly
rentals, and the time needed to lay track across a set or location,
but it cut to the heart of the stratified labor equation that producers
imported to primetime from Hollywood. On scenes demanding Steadicam,
the Director of Photography, the 'A' camera operator, the focus-puller,
and one or more assistants would merely stand aside as a single
Steadicam operator executed lengthy moves that could previously
consume inordinate amounts of program time. Steadicam was, then,
not just a stylistic edge; it was also offered concrete production
popularity of steadicam was also affected by the growth of electronic
field production. By the late 1980s CP had begun marketing its "EFP"
version, a smaller variant better suited for 20-25 pound camcorder
packages like the Betacam, and for the syndicated, industrial, and
off-prime programming that embraced camcorders. At nearly 90 lbs.
loaded and at a cost of $40,000., the original Steadicam still represented
a major investment. Steadicam EFP, by contrast, allowed tabloid
and reality shows to move "showtime glitz" quickly into and out
of their fragmentary exposes and "recreations." As channel competition
heated up, and production of syndicated programming increased, Steadicam
was but one stylistic tactic used to push a show above the "clutter"
of look-alike programming. By the early 1990s, CP also marketed
a "JR" version intended for the home market and "event videographers."
At 2 lbs., and costing $600., CP hoped to tap into the discriminating
"prosumer" market, a niche that used 8mm video and 3 pounds cameras.
But video equipment makers were now building digital motion reduction
systems directly into camcorders and JR remained a special interest
A steadicam and its operator
Photo courtesy of Jens Bogehegn
the miniaturization of cameras might imply a limited future for
Steadicam, several trends suggest otherwise. HDTV (High Definition
Television) cameras remain heavy armfuls, and Steadicam frequently
becomes merely a component in more complicated camera control configurations.
As a fluid but secure way of mounting a camera, that is, Steadicam
is now commonly used at the end of cranes, cars, trucks, and helicopters--in
extensions that synthesize its patented flourish into hybrid forms
of presentational power.
While CP argued that the device made viewers "active participants"
in a scene rather than "passive observers" it would be wrong to
anthropomorphize the effect as a kind of human subjectivity. The
Steadicam flourish is more like an out-of-body experience. A shot
that races 6" above the ground over vast distances is less a personal
point-of-view than it is quadripedal or cybernetic sensation; more
like a Gulf-war smart-bomb than an ontological form of realism.
A stylistic aggression over space results, in part, because Steadicam
worked to disengage the film/video camera from the operator's eyes;
to dissociate it from the controlling distance of classical eye-level
perspective. Video-assist monitors, linked to the camera's viewfinder
by fiber-optic connections, made this optical "disembodiment" technically
possible on the Steadicam and other motion control devices in the
1970s and 1980s, and liberated cameras to sweep and traverse diegetic
worlds. Because running through obstruction-filled sets with a 90
lb apparatus myopically pressed to one's cornea could only spell
disaster, operators quickly grasped the physical wisdom of using
a flat LCD (liquid crystal display) video-assist monitor to frame
shots. Yet the true impact of Steadicam, video-assist, and motion-control
has less to do with how operators frame images, than with how film
and television after 1980 turned the autonomous vision of the technologically
disengaged eye into a stylistic index of cinematic and televisual
unheard of 75% of the scenes in ER--NBC's influential series that
ranked number 1 or number 2 for all the 1994-95 season--were shot
using the Steadicam. Many of these were included in the spectacular
and complicated "one-er" sequences that defined the show, complicated
flowing actions shot in one take with multiple moves and no cutaways.
Citing these astonishing visual moments, trade magazine recognition
confirmed that Steadicam's autonomous techno-eye now also provided
a acknowledged programming edge.
Caldwell, John. Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in
American Television. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press,
Jean. "Lights, Camera: Eye-popping Cinematography, Along With Sound
and Editing are Breaking New Ground in Hour Dramas." The Hollywood
Reporter (Los Angeles, California), 6 June 1995.