In 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 achievement.

Steadicam 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.

Steadicam 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.

Although 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 economies.

The 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 resource.


A steadicam and its operator
Photo courtesy of Jens Bogehegn

While 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 authority.

An 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.

-John Thornton Caldwell


Caldwell, John. Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Oppenheimer, 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.