The true beauty of Steadicam is its unique ability to allow the camera to become the “eyes of the audience,” transforming onlookers into characters that connect and experience an environment firsthand. This kind of engagement can help good stories become great.
As a camera operator, I’ve always been intrigued by that. I’ve done jib and dolly work, but the way that I got almost total control was the Steadicam. I no longer thought in terms of not being able to do things. So after 15 years experience in the film and video world, I decided it was time to challenge myself with something more specialized. The Glidecam was the first camera stabilizing system I flew, and I bought it on the spot.
I’ve always viewed operating the system as part dance and part camerawork. It’s a blend of anticipating where my feet need to be in relation to my hips and the position of the camera. Maintaining balance while moving through an environment and keeping a level horizon is difficult, and using peripheral vision to identify objects such as curbs, light stands and challenges that could potentially ruin the shot is a skill that develops over time.
The combination of tracking, maintaining balance and navigating obstacles make referencing the system’s on-board monitor difficult during scenes with lots of movement.
To strike a balance between safety and framing, a term I call “lens awareness” becomes critical: the ability to know what you’re shooting by looking forward, following the camera lens, as opposed to down at the monitor.
Mastering this skill has been instrumental in nearly every shoot I’ve worked on, especially when working on OK Go’s video “This Too Shall Pass.”
“THIS ONE’S ALL YOU, MAN”
I first received a call from Los Angeles-Based Director of Photography Yon Thomas, an extremely talented professional and friend, with an interesting proposition. Calls from Yon always lead to incredible adventures.
In 2009, we traveled to Italy, along with Producer Mike Norman to shoot the behind-the-scenes footage of Sting’s winter album, “If on a Winter’s Night” where I walked backwards through the snow for nearly a mile, nonstop, tracking Sting for a music video.
“Would you feel comfortable wearing your gear and having someone lower you about 20 feet, from one building floor to another, while shooting?”
I said yes, but it was not until I arrived on set three weeks later that I truly understood the complexity of the project or the significance of my role in it. Dermott Downs, director of photography, and Producer Shirley Moyer both welcomed me to the shoot by saying, “This one’s all you, man.”
OK Go singer Damian Kulash served as creative director for the shoot, as he does for all of the band’s innovative videos. This would be, by far, the band’s most elaborate undertaking to date: a two-story Rube Goldberg machine propelled by a single toy car hitting a line of dominoes, triggering an over-the-top chain of events with the band in motion, spread across both floors of a 10,000 square foot warehouse.
Oh, and it’s captured by a single shot. No pressure, right?
Damian was the ultimate tour guide as we made our way through set for the first time. The warehouse was alive with frantic energy as people worked furiously to finish the massive machine. Walls were decorated with blueprints, diagrams and whiteboards filled with complex mathematical equations calculating velocity and trajectory for dozens of different items. Every corner of the place was full of contraptions, screws, repurposed toys and “fun junk.”
Damian explained that the band had been working on the machine for the past three months, together with creative engineers from Syynn Labs, and friends, family and even fans, volunteered their time to create the machine. They had put in 14-hour days and worked in shifts to get it built and functioning. It was up to me to make sure I was able to capture their work, and translate that beauty and science to the screen.
Our tour began outside the warehouse, where the first few sequences would take place, and then zigzagged through both levels inside. Our group included the DP Dermott Down, the director James Frost, and department heads from grip and electric. We were all utterly speechless as Damian walked us through the machine. At the end, he said, “Questions?” We looked at each other and thought, “Is he for real? There’s no way this is going to work.”
IS THIS EVEN POSSIBLE ?
While the machine was going through the final round of testing and refinement, it was time to make sure we could shoot it. After all, the designs were built to follow the rules of physics, not production.
Obstacles included 45 to 60 degree ramps, support beams for the warehouse and a makeshift elevator comprised of a pulley system and a harness to lower me down from one floor to another. This is because a Steadicam or Glidecam system is designed to use the operator’s body weight to maintain a center of gravity for the rig, camera, system and operator. An elevator pulley system was built to support the weight of rig plus me, approximately 210 pounds in all.
One of the most difficult components for me was going to be getting my body in the correct position when moving from one shot to the next. Positioning the camera is rarely a challenge, but when it’s attached to a 175 pound man wearing a padded vest, spring loaded metal arm and a safety harness (used for the descent from the second floor), it can quickly become impossible. “Forget about framing, composition and safety,” I thought to myself. “Physically, I don’t know if I’ll be able to shoot this thing.”
I constructed a wood replica to match the height and width of my rig to help the design team modify the ramps and pathways around the machine. I told them, “If you can fit through an area while holding the replica, I’ll make it work.”
We had two days to rehearse — one day with the camera department and one day with the band. I used Damian’s point and shoot camera to film the rehearsals so we could find out how the band members could scurry around the warehouse floor to get from station to station without being seen. And I started working on my “dance moves.”