The steady rise of Steadicam
Whether it's a necessity to follow the blocking a director has chosen, a style choice to show off the three-dimensionality of a scene, or the need to be mobile to follow an unpredictable subject, techniques for camera mobility have been in development almost since there have been motion picture cameras.
The idea of a mechanism designed to allow smoother handheld (or perhaps body-worn) camerawork has its origins in the mid-1970s, when inventor Garrett Brown became frustrated with the weighty grip equipment required to achieve camera motion without introducing the distracting shakiness of handheld operating. The invention would become known as STEADICAM®, and while there have been many imitators since – particularly since the original 1970s patents expired – Brown remains a regular at trade shows, demonstrating the latest refinements to his invention on the booth of Tiffen, who currently build equipment under the Steadicam brand.
Left: Steadicam creator Garrett Brown. Right: Brown with Stanley Kubrick on set of The Shining
The mechanical arrangement is deceptively simple, although making it work well is a matter of finely-tuned engineering and, most prominently, skilled operation. Despite common belief to the contrary, there are no gyroscopes in a Steadicam (although they are an optional extra). Perhaps the lion's share of the work is done by a gimbal, with the camera positioned at the top of a vertical post and a counterbalancing weight - often the monitor and batteries - below, biased very slightly to be bottom-heavy so it tends toward a level horizon. In the full-size equipment, this arrangement is mounted on a spring-loaded arm which serves to both transfer to the weight of the camera to the operator's body and to isolate it from the motions of walking.
Smaller, handheld Steadicam-type camera stabilisers omit the spring-loaded arm, and it's this type we'll concentrate on here as it's the most suitable for small, independent productions and works nicely with DSLRs. They're also considerably more affordable than the six-figure outfits used on high-end feature films. That said, even medium-sized handheld stabilisers will quickly tire the operator's arm out, and there's sometimes the option to buy a small stabiliser either with a support arm and vest, or obtain them as an accessory later. Otherwise, a stabiliser is mainly characterised by its ability to carry cameras of a certain weight, and the ability of the gimbal to isolate the movement of the operator from the camera. This depends entirely on the standard of engineering in the gimbal, a key indicator of quality in Steadicam-type stabilisers at all levels.
There have been Steadicam-branded handheld stabilisers since the Steadicam JR of the early 90s. Tiffen currently offer the Steadicam Merlin, now in its second generation, as well as a microscopically lightweight stabiliser for use with cellphones and GoPros. Merlin is designed to support cameras up to 5 lbs in weight, although as with any stabiliser the capacity is to some extent dependent on the weight distribution in the camera and where its centre of gravity lies.
It's possibly the most adjustable of the small stabilisers – a crucial factor when fine-tuning the balance such that a level horizon can be more easily maintained – and the crucial gimbal is nicely made with six independent bearings. An arm and vest assembly are available for situations involving heavier cameras, where the all-up weight of the stabiliser may approach 10lbs, which is probably too much to carry around in one hand for long. The Merlin 2 itself sells for around £450-500, with the arm and vest around £1500 more.
Possibly the best-known alternative is Glidecam, a company founded in the early 90s with, it seems, the absolute intention of being an option for people with shallower pockets, which it remains to this day. In the context of this article, the relevant product range is the HD series, available in three different sizes to suit various cameras. Two different arm and vest models – the Smooth Shooter and X10 – support the various HD-series handheld stabilisers. Prices seem to be about two thirds of a similar Steadicam-branded product, although the Smooth Shooter arm has only one articulated section, as opposed to the two of the X10 and the Merlin.
Glidecam's engineering is visibly more straightforward, with fewer machined surfaces, although the camera's crucial fore-and-aft and side-to-side trim remains easily adjusted. Glidecam's handheld stabilisers are available in capacities up to 10lbs for the camera alone. This puts some quite medium-sized cameras from people like Sony and JVC into the realms of possibility but would almost certainly imply the arm and vest option for all but the briefest shots.
To move the budget level down another notch, we enter an area where things are defined not so much by manufacturer as price bracket – many of the simplest handheld stabilisers can be below £150, with capacity to carry a DSLR with a small lens. One such option is Hague's Motion Cam series, with even the most capable (the HD Motion Cam, rugged enough to stand 9.9lb cameras) coming in frugally at under £300, a touch less than Glidecam's most comparable offerings. Again, there's an arm and vest option, which goes for about £1000 including taxes and the HD Motion Cam itself.
With so many players in the market, unless you're particularly swayed by a brand name the choice is largely defined by which cameras you'd like to fly, and issues such as the local accessibility of a manufacturer with respect to after-sales service and accessorisation. While the high-end market for five or six-figure outfits remains centralised around half a dozen companies, there's now a huge variety of options for more everyday prices. And that's before we've even considered the perhaps more automated option of a MOVI-style servoactuated gimbal mount, which arguably takes the edge off the ferocious learning curve of any Steadicam, and which we'll be talking about soon, so watch this space…
(Garrett Brown images courtesy of Garret Brown)