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Q&A With Steadicam Oscar Winner Garrett Browne
18 Sep 2008 : By Roisin Cronin
Garrett Brown the Oscar-winning inventor of the Steadicam™ recently attended and gave a workshop at the Dingle Film Festival. He has worked on nearly 100 films including the ‘Rocky’ series, ‘The Shining’, ‘Return of the Jedi’, ‘Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom’ and ‘Casino’. IFTN caught up with this revolutionary of filming to discuss his move from folk singer to Oscar winner, his most challenging scene to film and what camera he would love to invent.

The Steadicam has been embraced by filmmakers worldwide for its ability to isolate the operator's movement from the camera, allowing for an extremely smooth and even shot. As well as being Steadicam operator on some of the biggest blockbusters of the past 30 years, Garrett holds fifty patents worldwide for camera devices which include the new Steadicam Merlin, a miniature version for camcorders; Skycam - the robot camera that flies on wires over sporting events; and the Mobycam, Divecam, Flycam et al that pursue athletes worldwide. Garrett also founded, the Steadicam Operators Association, Inc. (SOA), in 1988.

IFTN caught up with the multi talented inventor and cameraman on his attendance at the Dingle Film Festival last weekend where he gave his world famous lecture on “The Moving Camera”.

Garrett, what brought you to Ireland and to the Dingle Film Festival?

I was called, by Maurice Galway (Director of the Festival). How they thought to call I don’t know, but the idea sounded very appealing. As we began talking I mentioned to Maurice that I do this lecture on a moving camera and that I have done it in film schools and festivals all over the world and they expressed some interest in that. So that is what I ended up doing here, it’s a very simple idea really - the idea of a lecture; it’s why I love the moving camera; why is one moving shot great and fantastic and why is the other often boring or nauseating?; and what makes a good shot – it’s a simple idea. The lecture is rather fanciful entitled “The Art of the Moving Camera”.

How did you become involved in the film industry?

I was a folk singer in Philly during the 1960’s when The Beatles came along. Our so called folk industry was really folk singers wearing blazers and being entertainers basically, not like the local chaps I see playing here around Dingle. When all that went, I realised I wasn’t qualified to do anything. I had left school to be a singer and I ended up selling Volkswagens. But I loved the movies and I always thought I would get into the movie industry. My way of doing things, it was ludicrous actually… I went to the Philadelphia Library for three months and read 30 or so film books. What I came out with was that I knew the entire lingo. I could say all the words but hadn’t actually done anything and of course all the books were out of date. So I came out of the library a practically qualified 1940s film maker. There wasn’t any up-to-date books so when the movie business was heading out on location all round the world I was building myself a little studio in a barn and buying big old dollies, mics, booms, lights and things like that.

So you started buying equipment for your studio before you actually started working in the film industry?

Yes that is right. I couldn’t actually get a job with any of the local film companies as they could tell I wasn’t the real thing. I eventually started my little film company and persuaded people slowly to give me some work and sort of learned in one week what I needed to know the week before.

I immediately loved moving the camera but moving the camera was very painful with my heavy dolly and rusty rails. This set me off thinking off disconnecting the human being from the camera so that the camera could be smooth.

Once you came up with the idea of the steadicam and created it, how did you circulate it’s inception into the film industry?

Once I finally figured it out, prior to that I had made my living making commercials and films for ‘Sesame Street’. We had by the time it came along some good skills, so we made a demonstration film that had thirty impossible shots on it because this invention had the charming property that you could show what it could do without giving away how it did it. I could show someone a film and they would say that’s impossible.

For your demonstration film, what exact shots were included in it?

We did things like running flat out in places where you couldn’t lay any rails, so they were jumping off things and moving around in places where clearly no rail could be placed. There was one shot of myself chasing my then girlfriend, now wife, Ellen down to the Philadelphia Art Museum and back up again. The future director of ‘Rocky’ then saw the demo.

How did he come about to see the film?

The film was shown in LA and got me a deal with a manufacturer to make the Steadicam and it created a lot of excitement. Stanley Cooper sent us a wonderful telex that said it would revolutionise the way films were shot and you could count on me as a customer and so on… People’s reaction to the demo was wonderful and miraculous. It fell into the hands of John G. Avildsen who was getting ready to direct ‘Rocky’.

John found my wife by recognising someone in the background in our demo. He got on to Ellen and said; “How did you do that?” and “Where are those steps?” So that is how the steps ended up in ‘Rocky’ because he saw it on our demo. I ended up a few months later chasing Stallone up the same steps so it was amazing. In that era the steps were nothing special, they were just there. Now they are a celebrated article - people run up the steps and jump around up at the top and now bus loads of people from Australia stop and it has become quite a phenomenon.

What was the most challenging scene for you to shoot?

I think my all time favourite was a rather obscure production; I shot the entire last act ‘La Traviata’, a live production of the opera from Paris in 2000. I made it a continuous 25 minute shot of the last act. It was so moving and interesting so I think all my old time favourite shot was when I was 58 years old. I have a lot of affection of the ‘Rocky’ stuff and for some shots of ‘Return of the Jedi’.

What preparation went into shooting that 25 minute scene?

We were actually there a whole month. I shot the entire opera and did three minutes shot here, four minute shot there and two minute shot here. It was done on location - and a location lit by one of one of the great cinematographers Vittorio Storaro, and with Giuseppe Verdi conducting. It was an all star operation. It was so beautifully done and so nervy when you think you are on location and you are doing this live for near on half a million people watching. I had not done anything live before, I had only movies. It was quite frightening but when it all works out the things that frighten you are the things you cherish.

You have also developed other cameras …..such as Divecam and Skycam. Where did the premise for these cameras come from?

Yes those were funny - they were inventing on queue / demand. Somebody called saying, “how would you do that?”, “how would you do an underwater shot of swimmers?” It can’t be distracting, it can’t be visible so inventing on demand is like inventing the space shuttle, it has to do a lot of specific things and not screw up. I get a lot of calls like that and some of them we do.

Was it in between filming that you sat down and developed these cameras or were most of these developed on demand?

Usually I would turn down a movie or two and work on these things i.e. Skycam which flies over football games in the US and has flown over the FA Cup in the UK. It was a seven year project but some of them are less time…I think I had a few months off to do an underwater one.

What camera would you be most proud of?

That’s like asking a parent which kid they would like! You would have your difficult kid which would be Sky Cam, your goofy fun kid which would be Dive Cam and you’re kind of mad bizarre but very pleasing kid and your original oldest kid which is the original favourite Steadi Cam, so in those terms it a very bizarre family of gadgets. It is a family of cameras in some ways – the common thread is moving the camera.

Who else would work with you, when you are developing cameras?

A roaming crowd of hiring alot of people to work on the project, like a group of 30 people or more and other very gifted souls – I am not really a machinist or an engineer so I have to hire people to help with engineering and things like that.

Have you any further ideas for a new camera?

I still have something I would love to do.

Can you share your idea with us?

I am dying for someone to call me and ask me to do a camera that travels around the racecourse with the horses as I know exactly how I would like to do it. I’d love to have a camera hidden underneath the rail, the infield rail all the way around the racecourse that was roaring along but almost invisible to the horses. Just a tiny spot of glass popping up and going along at that height which is about 2½ feet and maybe 15 or 20ft ahead of the horse who happens to be in the lead because that is one of the most astonishing angle on horse racing you would ever see. The excitement of that shot would be like the chariot race in ‘Ben-Hur’ or if you saw ‘Sea Biscuit’ they made shots like that but they did it with very elaborate rigs and camera cars doing it over and over. To be able to do it for every race on queue in the race course and put the results up on monitors - that is beyond amazing. Then of course we keep our eyes on robotic flying objects because there is bound to be great opportunities for flying camera.

For example, I just debuted something literally like a dragon fly with four wings that has a tiny little camera. Now it might take another decade till the technology gives you good images from something like that but can you imagine being able to see something like that flying around - a helicopter the size of a plane card?

Will you be working on any films in the future?

I retired from filming this year. I still like doing it but I just got tired of waiting in advance and being told what to eat and all the nasty parts of the business, I’ve done it all and I think it’s OK, I can stop now. I am still working on the gear and my great joy now is teaching people how to use the Steadicam. However, I would like to do another opera and there is talk of doing a second one. If that crowd rang me I would be there!

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