Film & TV

What Exactly Is a Steadicam? Understanding the Groundbreaking Camera Stabilizer That Changed Hollywood

Written by MasterClass

Jun 26, 2019 • 3 min read

With its ability to move through scenes and follow actors smoothly, placing the audience in the center of the on-screen action, the Steadicam is an invention that forever changed Hollywood and the film industry. Learn more about what a Steadicam does and why it’s such a groundbreaking filmmaking tool for directors.

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What Is the Steadicam?

A Steadicam is a camera stabilizing system used to capture tracking shots with motion picture cameras. It isolates the camera operator’s movement and makes the shot look smooth and controlled, capturing the action without any wobbles. A Steadicam combines the stability of a tripod with the fluidity of a dolly and the flexibility of a hand-held camera. A Steadicam is a camera stabilizer, so it absorbs bumps and shakes, even if the camera is jostled or moves over an uneven surface, the shot will still appear smooth.

The History of the Steadicam

The Steadicam was invented by cameraman Garrett Brown, who initially named it the Brown Stabilizer. It was first used in 1975 on the Academy Award-nominated Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory. Brown also used it to capture motion in scenes in Marathon Man (1976), Rocky (1976), The Shining (1980), and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983) in ways that filmmakers had never previously been able to. Once directors saw the Steadicam in action, it became a go-to piece of equipment for filming running montages, chase scenes, and fight scenes. Martin Scorcese first used the Steadicam to film Raging Bull (1980).

Prior to the introduction of the Steadicam, directors captured tracking shots using one of two methods: They either mounted the camera on a dolly and rolled it, which takes a lot of time to set up, or the camera operator held it, which often resulted in shaky footage (think: The Blair Witch Project).

How Does a Steadicam Work?

A Steadicam is a portable, wearable device that frees the camera from the natural movement of the camera operator’s body. In addition to the camera, the only other things a Steadicam operator needs are a Steadicam vest for support, an articulated, iso-elastic arm to isolate the camera and absorb shocks, and a sled that holds the camera, top stage, battery mount, monitor, and gimbal stabilizer.

Operating a Steadicam rig is like doing choreography. A Steadicam operator has a set path to walk, which is determined during blocking. Common Steadicam shots include:

  • Walking backward in front of the actors, filming them from the front as they walk.
  • Walking alongside the actors, filming them from the side as they walk.
  • Walking behind the actors, filming them from the back as they walk.
  • Walking through space, showing the audience who and what’s there.

When Do Filmmakers Use a Steadicam?

The Steadicam is an incredible stabilization system that helped evolved the way filmmakers tell stories. Generally, directors and cinematographers use them to capture:

  • Tracking shots: following a character as they move through a scene, or moving through the space to give the audience a tour of everything in their surroundings.
  • POV shots: getting inside a character’s mind and see how the world unfolds from their point of view and mental state.
  • Shots where space is limited: getting close-up footage in a fast-paced action sequence or at a location where there isn’t room for a large dolly setup, such as a narrow staircase.

What Does a Steadicam Add to the Story?

A Steadicam fully immerses the audience inside the story, allowing them to make more emotional connections with the characters and immersing them into a shot. Rather than watching the characters from afar, the audience feels like they’re standing next to them.

Steadicam camera operators have a lot of freedom to move around, which makes viewers feel as if they themselves are freely moving around the world of the film, watching the story unfold in person.

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