Smooth operators; a brief and fascinating history of Steadicam operating in Australia – by Patrick van Weeren
Garrett Brown invented Steadicam in Philadelphia in the mid-Seventies. The first feature film to use the camera stabiliser was Bound for Glory (1975, cinematography by Haskell Wexler ASC), about the great depression. However, the Steadicam shots most people remember are in a film about the dangers of social isolation. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980, cinematography John Alcott BSC). Australians followed up with the new technology swiftly.
Cinematographer John Alcott BSC was already familiar with head of Cinema Products Ed Di Giulio, who collaborated with inventor Garrett Brown in manufacturing the Steadicam.
Di Giulio helped Kubrick and Alcott by motorising and converting a 16mm Angenieux zoom lens for the opening of A Clockwork Orange (1971, cinematography John Alcott BSC). He also adapted a Mitchell camera to hold rehoused (NASA) Zeiss f0.7/50mm lenses be used for Barry Lyndon (1975, cinematography John Alcott BSC). This film won Alcott an Oscar. When Stanley Kubrick, contacted Di Giulio about the Steadicam, nobody expected the intensity with which he would use the new device but insiders certainly expected some cinema magic.
When Garrett Brown, now an Oscar winner himself, was in London to attend Film’77 he was asked to visit Kubrick at the Elstree Studios to demonstrate the invention. After a second visit, filming started in 1978 and would take about a year.
The introduction to Steadicam in Europe wasn’t as smooth as in the United States. Stanley Kubrick’s perfectionism pushed Garrett and his new machine to the limit. However, the introduction in South Africa seemed even worse. Chris Haarhoff SOC (Famed operator on Bird Man (2014, cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki AMC ASC) received two flight-cases in the middle of the Namibian outback with a typed-up instruction manual. The director thought this new machine was ‘so cool’ that Haarhoff attempted to make it work, unknowingly creating a career which brought him to Hollywood. Similar pathways happened from Australia.
Steadicam came to Australia via a road show in the late Seventies with Ed Di Giulio and a ‘Panavised’ version called the Panaglide. Cinematographer Toby Phillips remembers the arrival of Di Giulio and the Steadicam at a Norwood cinema in his hometown Adelaide. Phillips was immediately hooked and film directors and producers in Australia got inspired by the new possibilities it brought.
Cinematographers such as Bill Grimmond ACS on the television movie Cass (1978, cinematography by Mick Von Bornemann ACS), Vincent Monton ACS on Thirst (1979) and The Blue Lagoon (1980, cinematography by Néstor Almendros AEC ASC), Russell Boyd ACS ASC on the television series A Town Like Alice (1981), John Seale AM ACS ASC on Gallipoli (1981, cinematography by Russell Boyd ACS ASC), and a few more Australians started using the new stabilisers. However, the profession of Steadicam-operator wasn’t born as such. The idea was that regular operators and cinematographers follow the 30-page instruction leaflet and figure it out for themselves as if it was as easy as changing a new roll of film.
In the meantime, Toby Phillips had moved to Sydney and found a Steadicam dormant in the kit room of his new employer at Channel 9. He remembered the Steadicam from the presentation in Adelaide. He happily used it when assigned the exterior camerawork on the TV series Young Doctors. A few years later he asked his boss for a flight ticket to Los Angeles to do a Steadicam workshop. When this was denied, he quit his staff job at Channel 9 in Sydney and was on the next plane to LA.
Phillips trained with Garrett Brown at one of the first LA based workshops, Brown didn’t only teach people how to operate, he created a tight camaraderie between Steadicam operators from all over the world. Upon his return , Phillips started working as a freelance Steadicam operator in Sydney on films such as Next of Kin (1982, cinematography by Gary Hansen ACS) and Desolation Angels (1982, cinematography by Ellery Ryan ACS). When Phillips joined the late Gary Hansen ACS, the director Tony Williams wasn’t too keen on Steadicam. “I had been burned a few times using Steadicam with inexperienced operators on commercials,” says Williams. “Toby assured me he could have his rig ready to go; faster than the grip could lay dolly track. We put him to the test.”
Toby’s fitness was a great bonus when it came to running flat out down corridors, backwards, down stairs or racing forwards up staircases. “One shot required the camera to move down a corridor and into a close up of an actors’ eye. We found it too tricky to pull off using a dolly, so Phillips shot it on Steadicam,” says Williams. “We ended up shooting in reverse, starting on the close up of the eye then pulling back. It meant the actors had to walk backwards during the shot and this added a surreal effect that benefits the suspense of the scene.”
Following Brown’s vision, Phillips helped to set up the first Steadicam workshop in Australia with Brown as lead instructor. This classic workshop in June of 1984 created many of the early Australian operators. Harry Panagiotidis and Ian Jones ACS were fellow instructors; both had trained with Brown earlier in the United States. Phil Balsdon, Louis Puli SOC, Robert Agganis, Colin Skyba and now ACS cinematography members, Phillip Cross ACS, Danny Ruhlmann ACS, Jeff Malouf ACS and the late Andrew Lesnie ACS ASC were among the students.
“There is something about the Steadicam-operator community that creates a bond due to these workshops,” says cinematographer Louis Puli SOC. “We were very much influenced by American cinema. Directors would see Steadicam and want it on their film in Australia. It was a steep learning curve in the beginning where everybody moved cameras because they could, not because they should.”
For Phillips, nowadays an acclaimed cinematographer himself, it was great to be an early adopter and work in Australia and the US. “There was a lot of respect in the early days and it made it possible to break the barrier between operator, cinematographer and director,” says Phillips. “Being able to design shots and really integrate the Steadicam. It is great when you have a circle of trust. I never hold back when chatting to the actors. There doesn’t need to be any strict rules with Steadicam for actors. With hand-held, you can’t see where you’re going for a big part of your peripheral vision and with dolly you can be limited by the track.”
Phillips, remembers using the Steadicam with Mike Nichols and the late Michael Ballhaus BVK ASC on Postcards from the Edge (1990). “The trust and freedom you can give actors is a great benefit. We were just together in the room and there was no stopping her performance for cuts or over-the-shoulder shots. The shot would evolve organically. It was cut in the edit but the performance was free and Meryl Streep didn’t have to stop and start, building and finding the same energy again and again.”
Phillips also recalls the fifth take on an emotional scene in Born on the Fourth of July (1989, cinematography Robert Richardson ASC). Tom Cruise’s character’s mother Caroline Kava suddenly pushed passed the camera and slapped Cruise in the face. “I was already in the hallway and she pushes past me and I spun my body around,” he recalls. “I was trying not to mess up the shot and fix it. Tom was shocked and the actors kept going. The response of the actors and tension in the room was palpable. By the time the magazine ran out of film I was crying. I really enjoyed that kind of thing, to expect the unexpected, if you dial in to the performance it takes over from the clever technical stuff.”
When the production ran over, Phillips passed the job on to fellow Australian Ian Jones ACS. “I got my big break with Dean Semler ACS ASC on Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985),” he says. “Phillips had to leave early as well. Having worked with Philip Noyce and George Miller I was used to operating dozens of takes back-to-back and perform. When I got to Oliver Stone’s set, I really had to judge quickly if the working method and culture was similar. Luckily, they operated on the same amount of takes. Although sometimes it was hard to know what Stone and Richardson wanted.”
“You come in as an outsider and you have to adapt and make their formula work,” Jones continues. “Richardson is such a good operator himself that he’d notice every nuance and they expect you to adapt for every take. They are looking for ‘something extra’, but they won’t tell you what it is. You’re expected to do it and hope the timing works out. With Steadicam you have to limit the unlimitedness and commit to your framing.”
Six years earlier Harry Panagiotidis was working for Channel 10 and when the industry moved from film to video, he wanted to stay in film. Panagiotidis decided to take a course to change from 16mm to 35mm in Los Angeles. Once he paid for the flight, he added a Steadicam workshop to the trip and bought the first privately owned Steadicam in Australia. When doing the course, he didn’t expect the machine to be so difficult.
“At first I thought I made a big mistake,” recalls Panagiotidis. “I called home on the first day of the workshop and said, ‘Sorry darling, I just spent half the mortgage on a rig and it isn’t working out’.” Panagiotidis ended up being very successful as a Steadicam operator on major motion pictures. “Once I started teaching, I noticed the same response with many students, the first few days are daunting. The learning curve of the Steadicam is similar to a musical instrument. Actually, most of us cut our teeth on music videos in the Eighties. I was spending hours in the rig and doing all types of crazy stuff for directors such as Richard Lowenstein. When you have clocked the hours, you’re ready to adapt to drama, where it is almost a completely different game.”
In the mid-Eighties the Steadicam wasn’t considered a gimmick anymore. Then operators got better. Phillips worked for Keith Wagstaff ACS on Coolangatta Gold (1984). Panagiotidis remembers, “The work he did in that banana plantation scene is really impressive.”
“We shot with long lenses on that film,” explains Phillips. “It was hard on the focus pullers. We had a re-housed 300mm NIKKOR on the Steadicam from the back of a truck following the lead actor running downhill with bananas. I would whisper to the first AC ‘tighter’ or ‘further’ when the actor moved in or out while running between the trees. We pushed the limit with 75mm Anamorphic and 100mm on the Steadicam. Luckily, I had worked with the director Igor Auzins before and it was a great collaboration. When working with these long lenses you really have to learn to remember which frame size equals which distance so no matter how the performance changes, you know your distance remains the same so the focus puller has a chance.”
“I love it when the cinematographer pushes you,” says Panagiotidis. For example, with Dion Beebe ACS ASC on Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke (1999). “It’s just a pleasure when you get pushed to make every shot better. Not necessarily long shots, I get a lot of satisfaction in simple shots that get the story going. The long Steadicam shots are famous but sometimes I call them jokingly a ‘club sandwich’. They look good but don’t always taste that well”.
It’s not all about operating, it is people skills as well. Learning how a director of photography wants to light before you accept a director’s camera movement builds the trust between you and both your cinematographer and director. In the beginning many grips were also hesitant about Steadicam and it took a while before the relationship built up. Nowadays most people understand that the combination creates speed and agility. Not to mention the great combinations with cranes, western dollies.
Panagiotidis had key grip Grahame Litchfield on Quickly Down Under (1990, cinematography by David Eggby ACS) “We were filming a 6ft-4 Tom Selleck, with cowboy hat, and mainly on horseback,” says Panagiotidis. “Within the first day of shooting we figured out we couldn’t get the height. Litchfield sourced an 18-inch driveshaft that fitted perfectly as a long post to fix the problem. We still call it the “Selleck post’.”
On Silver Brumby (1993, cinematography by Mark Gilfedder) Panagiotidis made a ‘slave-cam’ from a scaffolding platform that would be carried by four grips with the Steadicam operator on top of it getting to the height of Russel Crowe on horseback. When working with Peter Jackson on second unit for Mortal Engines (2018, Simon Raby NZCS), Jackson mentioned it was too smooth and to ‘rough it up’. “Incredible,” says Panagiotidis. “I spend thirty-years to make it smooth but for him we’d throw the rig out of balance and loosen it up by adding vibrations. In the end the story dictates.”
Television stations such as Channel 7 and 9 invested in Steadicam early on but it took a while before the use was feasible in live television. Martin Lee was the first to start using live video feeds on the Steadicam.
“I was always trying to keep the camera mobile,” says Lee. “When the engineers at Channel 7 were shown the rig in the US, they called me one night. ‘There’s this new thing, a body mount, would that work for you?’ At the time I was walking around with assistants and backpacks of video gear weighing seventy pounds. It seemed like a good idea.”
They bought two rigs and an extra arm, thinking it could double as a helicopter mount. “It worked really well for the drama series,” Lee continues, “but with video being in its infancy I needed help from engineers and electricians such as Jim Clifford and Sam Watts. They became my best friends and helped me to make it work for live television in those days. We really pushed the boat out.” When meeting up at the 1988 workshop in Rockport Maine, ten years after he picked up the rig, he surprised colleagues with the development and especially the long lenses that they used. Overall Australian Steadicam operators seemed to work with longer lenses than the norm. Both in film and television.
In the Eighties most operators stuck to wide-angle and mid-range lenses. The iconic shot in the maze from The Shining was a 9.8mm and an 18mm when following the famous tricycle over the carpets of the hotel lobby. The 24mm and 35mm seemed to have been the workhorse and still are nowadays. Both Martin Lee in television and Toby Phillips on features frequently worked on a 50mm equivalent or above pushing the limits of the equipment and perfecting operating skills.
Lee especially remembers the efforts of director Leigh Spence on A Country Practice. “He was an early adopter and really embraced the Steadicam. Once we got it on the show we really had fun with it, moving up ladders, through fences and closing them behind you and all sort of gags,” says Lee.
Ian Jones ACS commented on the change from operator to cinematographer. “You learn a lot as an operator and having the experience with camera movement gives you the confidence to step away from the classic three step scene coverage,” he says. Jones was cinematographer on Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes (2006). “The Steadicam was a great part of the film. I had Greg ‘Mango’ Gilbert operate for me. The choices for camera movement in the film just hit the right tone.”
“The Steadicam can take the lens where it is supposed to be but just with more freedom, fewer restrictions,” Garrett Brown mentions in an historical interview about his invention. “There is an optimum place for the lens over time. It’s not just always a straight line or move. It is often more like a French curve with changing rhythm and speed based on emotion. Often the stopping and starting is much more interesting than the move itself.”
There’s something different about a move done by a machine vs a human touch. Steadicam fits right in between hand held and strict linear feel of gimbals and dollies. Now with the hybrid solutions from the gimbal development the Steadicam can also perform way more linear motion than beforehand if needed. At the age of 45, Garrett Brown’s original Oscar–winning invention is still an integral part of the toolbox of cinematographers in commercials, feature films and television productions all over the world.
Today more than thirty Australian Steadicam operators are working all over Australia and most directors are using it regularly. According to Panagiotidis, American crews used to bring their own operators. You have to have a very close bond with the director and cinematographer, but in the last fifteen years the standard of operating in Australia ended up being more than sufficient. With Australians working both side of the pond at high level even the foreign crews use local operators more and more when shooting in Australia.
Special thanks to Erika Addis, Jerry Holway SOC, Ian Jones ACS, Ben King, Martin Lee, Harry Panagiotidis, Toby Phillips, Louis Puli SOC, John Seale AM ACS ASC and Suzy Wood for their contributions.
Patrick Van Weeren is a cinematographer from The Netherlands who has recently moved to Australia. He is a former writer for Dutch photography magazine ‘Focus’.