How Steadicams Work
When a person walks or runs, each footstep sends a sizable jolt through the body. For the most part, you don’t register these shocks visually, because the brain automatically adjusts the information coming from the eyes; it smooths out the disorienting motion when forming the visual image that the conscious mind is actually aware of.
Even when an operator is standing still, the camera may pick up a lot of jarring motion. It’s so easy to pivot the camera that even a light push in any direction can translate to a considerable jump in the film or video image.
Some cameras have a built-in adjustment mechanism to compensate for shaking motion, but it doesn’t come close to the natural stabilization system in the human brain. The camera will still record a lot of the motion from the camera operator’s steps.
With the exception of horror movies or bare-bones documentaries, filmmakers have mostly shied away from hand-held cinematography. When a scene called for the camera to move, the crew attached it to a dolly, a wheeled platform that rides on a track or smooth floor. Dollies work great for a wide range of shots, but they have certain limitations. You can’t use them on stairs, for example, and they are hard to navigate around obstacles. It is also extremely difficult to set them up on rough terrain.
In the early 1970s, a commercial director and producer named Garrett Brown began working on alternative stabilizing systems to get around these limitations. Brown wanted to build a highly portable device that would isolate the camera from the operator, as well as improve the camera’s balance, to minimize shakes and shocks.
In 1973, Brown realized his goals with a revolutionary but remarkably simple machine. “Brown’s Stabilizer,” later renamed Steadicam. Larger models steady a camera using only three major elements:
- An articulated, iso-elastic arm
- A specialized sled that holds the camera equipment
- A supportive vest
For more about how Steadicam stabilizing systems work, and how they can work for you, read on.