The term steadicam has several senses:
1. in the strictest sense, it refers to a stabilizing mount for a motion-picture camera, which mechanically isolates the movement of the camera from that of the operator, providing a very smooth shot even when the operator is moving quickly over an uneven surface.
2. Many familiar with the general concept use it to refer to the combined assembly of mount and camera.
3. "Steadicam" is a registered trademark of Tiffen for their camera stabilizers.
For the remainder of this article, "steadicam" will be used in the first sense.
For static shots, a motion picture camera is typically stabilized with a tripod, or one of a variety of mounting systems which place the camera firmly on the ground.
Traditionally, for moving, "tracking" shots, a director has two basic choices. Typically, the camera is mounted on a dolly—a wheeled camera mount - that runs on tracks or leveled boards. This has the advantage of permitting smooth camera movement, but takes time to set up, and can be impractical in certain situations. Furthermore, the director must compose the shot's movement so as to prevent the tracks or boards from appearing on screen.
Alternatively, the director can choose to use "hand-held" camera work, whereby the camera operator holds the camera in his hands. This has the advantage of speed and flexibility, and with sufficiently small and lightweight cameras, camera operators can obtain shots that would otherwise be impossible. However, even the most skilled camera operator cannot prevent the image from shaking, if only minutely, due to his body's natural movements. Hand-held footage has therefore traditionally been considered suitable mostly for news and reportage work, or for live action, un-rehearsable footage, or as a special effect, to evoke an atmosphere of authentic immediacy during dramatic sequences. The gritty police television drama NYPD Blue became quite famous for its use of hand-held camera work as a dramatic element.
A steadicam essentially combines the stabilized, steady footage of a conventional tripod mount, with the fluid motion of a dolly shot, plus the flexibility of hand-held camera work. The steadicam's armature absorbs the jerks, bumps, and other small movements of the operator, while smoothly following the broad movements needed to cover any given scene, such as moving over uneven terrain or through a crowd.
How it works
The steadicam consists of a harness, worn by the operator, attached to an iso-elastic arm. This is in turn connected by a gimbal to the steadicam armature which has the camera mounted at one end and a counterbalance weight at the other. The counterbalance usually includes the battery pack and a monitor. (The monitor substitutes for the camera's viewfinder because the range of motion of the camera relative to the operator makes the camera's own viewfinder unusable.) In the industry, the armature and weight are traditionally called the "sled", as they resembled a sled in an early model of the steadicam.
The combined weight of the counterbalance and camera means that the armature bears a relatively high inertial mass which will not be easily moved by small body movements from the operator (much like it is hard to quickly shake a heavy bowling ball). The freely pivoting armature adds additional stabilization to the photographed image, and makes the weight of the camera-sled assembly acceptable by allowing the body harness to support it.
When the armature is correctly adjusted, the operator is able to remove his hands from the steadicam entirely and have the camera stay in place. During operation, the operator usually rests his/her hand on the camera gimbal and applies force at that point to move the camera. To avoid shaking the camera when lens adjustments must be made during the shot, a wireless remote is used to control focus and iris (operated by the camera assistant).
For low shots, the camera/sled arm can be spun vertically; putting the camera where the sled normally sits and vice-versa; since both camera and display are inverted, the operator still sees a correctly oriented picture. The upside-down image recorded by the camera can be fixed in post-production.
Introduction of the steadicam
The steadicam was invented in the early 1970s by inventor and cameraman Garrett Brown, who originally named the invention the "Brown Stabilizer". After completing the first working prototype, Mr. Brown shot a 10-minute demo reel of the revolutionary moves this new device could produce.
The reel was seen by numerous directors, among others Stanley Kubrick and John Avildsen. Avildsen directed Rocky in 1976, one of the first movies to feature steadicam shots (although not the first; the Steadicam was first used in the biopic Bound for Glory), whilst Kubrick would use the Brown Stabilizer in his 1980 film The Shining.
The invention was exclusively licensed by Cinema Products Corporation and later brought to market as the Steadicam. As of October 2000, Steadicam® became a trademark of camera manufacturer Tiffen.