If there is anything one could learn from Danny Boyle and Alex Gibney’s new films, to be a revolutionary inventor you have to wear black turtlenecks and be, well, a bit of a jerk. Which sure makes you feel good about yourself, even though the only thing you ever built was a shaky Jenga tower. Then you meet Garrett Brown and it’s back to ice cream and sobbing over your own insignificance. Damn overachievers.
“I wasn’t prepared for the idea that Stanley might do so many takes” – sighs Garrett Brown when recalling his experience on The Shining. “I arrived in a sort of an awkward position and I was waiting for him to yell cut. And he just let it roll. That’s why we teach our Steadicam operators something we call “The Look”. Directors don’t want to torture you and they don’t like to be distracted by seeing your tongue sticking out. No matter what’s going on, if you are exhausted, wounded or inadvertently defecating, it doesn’t matter – on your face there should be a look of serene contentment.” Funny – that’s exactly what we do when we write.
What was the greatest invention of the last century? Was it the pill, personal computers or, as argued by many, tights? Given that this is Camerimage and not that many people care about the wellbeing of their bodies – it will come to haunt you, mark our words – how about the Steadicam? Just think about it: no Copacabana entrance sequence in Goodfellas, no Russian Ark one-shot marvel, no foot massage debate in Pulp Fiction (and while we’re at it – it was his wife, man. You can’t be expected to have a sense of humour about that shit). Although we have a nagging feeling that had Brown decide to go with its original name, it might have all gone a bit awry. The “Brown Stabilizer” (!) just doesn’t have the right ring to it.
All the best stories start the same: in the early 1970s, Garrett Brown had an idea. “I taught myself filmmaking by reading dusty old books in a library. They were all out of date, so I basically taught myself how to be a 1940’s filmmaker” – laughs Brown during his jam-packed seminar The Moving Camera: Why Is One Shot Better Than Another? Just like his kindred spirit Abel Gance, he loved moving the camera. But that turned out to be quite a problem. “When I got into this business, if you wanted a smooth-moving shot you had to use a dolly or a camera cart – end of story. I was probably the most motivated to invent the Steadicam. I needed one more than anybody else.” He kept working on perfecting his invention for almost 2 years. “There were 2 or 3 tries that were not very good. One was 70ft long and you couldn’t smoke anywhere near it. That story has been beaten to death, but I literally went to a motel for a week, disabled the television set and went over every sketch that I had. Sometimes you just have to give it another go.” And then he made a reel of the “30 impossible shots”. That is, the ones that used to be impossible – like running up and down the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Sounds familiar?
“We took the reel to Hollywood and it knocked them flat; here is an invention where you show the effect of it without showing the cause. Which is a little like demonstrating the results of a machine gun to a Roman general. [John] Avildsen called us and said: Where are those steps and how did you do that?” – says Brown. “So I ended up shooting Sylvester Stallone running up and down for Rocky. It was an astonishing coincidence.” Some would call it destiny – in 1979, when Rocky was released to universal acclaim, Haskell Wexler himself decided to use the Steadicam for the very first time in a film called, rather prophetically, Bound for Glory. Good move, as he won an Oscar for his troubles and introduced a device that changed the industry forever. “It was an astonishing leap of faith from Wexler. I was shaking and he just looked at me and said: That’s odd. You are shaking but the shot is steady. One take was interrupted by an extra who just came up to talk to David Carradine because he didn’t recognise that this was a camera. He probably thought I was some guy walking around with a sewing machine. After that I had more fun than any human being should ever be allowed to have.”
After shooting his first three films with the Steadicam, in 1977 Brown received a patent for his device, followed by an Academy Award for Technical Achievement. The lists of films he has worked on since reads a lot like IMDb Top 50: Raging Bull, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Xanadu (ok, that’s us being mean) and even Return of The Jedi. Remember that speeder bike chase in the forest? Of course you do. And if you don’t, go and see it. NOW. “Evolution has provided us with this great computer in our head for the purposes of stabilising our view when we are running away from the things that want to eat us or attacking people we should have left alone” – states Brown. “So why should our actors see each other better than the audience sees them? Why should you reduce their ability to perceive it? I admit – there are a lot of reasons to shoot hand-held. I just wish somebody would tell me one of them.”
Predictably, he didn’t stop there – hell, he didn’t even slow down. He invented SkyCam, a cable-suspended camera system used mostly during sport events, SuperFlyCam, DiveCam and SwimCam, without which the Olympics would seem even more boring. And yet for all his technical wizardry, Brown insists that deep down it’s all about… people. “You don’t want it to be a cartoon. Spielberg gets it; that shot in Jurassic Park when the Tyrannosaurus is coming and we see nothing more than the surface of that glass of water – it’s one of the great thrills in that film. You can reach for something real. These digital guys have to always top each other and that’s a very dangerous thing. I love what this stuff represents, but in the end it’s all about the human side of the business – that’s what we go to the movies for. When the acting comes alive – that’s the bit you care about.”
“Inventing is a hazardous occupation. But whatever struggle you are going through, it’s all an adventure. Making a film is an adventure. A good marriage is an adventure. It’s looking at your life thinking how you want it to be and figuring out a way to make it. When people at customs would ask my profession, my wife always wanted me to say cameraman, because “inventor” was sort of nerdy. But I have gotten used to the idea.” Not bad for a guy who once tried to be a folk singer. Told you – damn overachievers.