Thanks to the Steadicam, many movies have been blessed with some fantastic shots. Brian DePalma swears by the Steadicam (check out the opening scene of Snake Eyes, for instance), and the making of Russian movie Russian Ark (which consisted of one long, ninety minute shot) was only possible thanks to the Steadicam. Dan Kneece, a world renowned Steadicam operator, is President of the Steadicam Guild, an organisation dedicated to the promotion and education of the art and craft of the Steadicam. In other words, the perfect person to ask what a Steadicam actually is.
Q: Maybe an obvious question, but can you explain in a few sentences what exactly is a Steadicam?
A: The Steadicam is a camera stabilizer that is essentially a pendulum mounted in a gimbal separated from your body by a spring loaded arm. A vest or harness connects the arm to the Operator's body. Any camera with video output capabilities within the weight capabilities of the system can be mounted.
Q: What is it that a Steadicam operator does?
A: A Steadicam Operator assembles and adjusts the Steadicam and then mounts it to his or her body to allow movement of the camera through space. This is the basic physical aspect. In reality there is much more to it. The wearing of the Steadicam can be taught in a few hours. Becoming a good Steadicam Operator can take a lifetime as you must be a good Camera Operator in addition to being a good Steadicam Operator. Framing and knowing when to move and what choices to make during a shot are key. Watching as many films as you can help you to develop an eye.
Q: After the introduction of the Steadicam, have there been many innovations to improve the format? Or was it more or less perfect to begin with?
A: There have been many advances over the years in all areas. The basic system concept is the same, but it's execution is very different. Same for the many accessories we use with the Steadicam. The areas of video assist and remote focus being the most prolific.
Q: The Steadicam was invented in 1970. what were the thoughts of the inventor, Garrett Brown, for doing so?
A: This is a question best asked of Garrett. The story as I remember it is he wanted to be able to move the camera in ways that were not possible before and he devised various methods for doing that.
Q: When the Steadicam was introduced, was it immediately embraced by the industry? Or did it have to prove itself first?
A: The Steadicam was originally seen as a gimmick or a stunt camera. History has proved it to be much more that just that!
Q: Judging from what I have read on the use of the Steadicam, it looks like it can be physically demanding on the operator. Is this the case?
A: As the late Ted Churchill once said a hard day with the Steadicam can leave you "Shivering like a chihuahua passing a peach pit". Yes it can be a very physically demanding job, but it is also very cerebral.
Q: How difficult is it to operate a Steadicam? From the pictures I have seen, it looks quite complicated. Or do appearances deceive?
A: As Garrett puts it, Operating the Steadicam is about as difficult as Operating a geared head, but then there is the physical aspects as well which tend to add a bit don't they?
Q: You are very active in the Steadicam Guild. what exactly is your role and what is the purpose of the guild? Is it mainly there for Steadicam operators themselves, or do you feel like you also want to be involved with educating others on the Steadicam?
A: I was the lead factory Steadicam instructor for Cinema Products for about five years so yes I do believe in passing on the knowlege. This is where the Steadicam Guild comes into play. Its purpose is to promote and educate those in the art and craft of the Steadicam around the world. Since film is a universal language we feel Steadicam should be also.
Q: Since it's introduction, the Steadicam has been used in many innovative shots. Do you think motion pictures would visually be less interesting if the Steadicam wouldn't have been invented?
A: Most definitely. But people always find a way to do things they want to do. I'm sure at some point in the future images will be just tapped out of our brains and recorded in some way. Brainstorm and Strange Days address this concept.
Q: What would you say are the requirements for somebody who wants to become a Steadicam operator?
A: Take a workshop. The Noble Instrument has a way of accepting many different types of people. Of course, you would have to be in decent physical shape and have the determination not to let the machine beat you. I does take some devotion to master this device.
Q: As a Steadicam operator, you have worked with a lot of different directors. Which of these directors do you think grasped the potential of what a Steadicam can do the best?
A: In the beginning almost no one got it, but now people are aware of the concept and use it well most of the time. I have been blessed to work with brilliant directors such as David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino in my career and they instinctively know how the Steadicam can enhance their films.
Q: Whenever you are working on a movie and you feel that a director is not making the most out of the use of a Steadicam, do you ever give suggestions to improve this?
A: Yes, but you have to do it very carefully. An English assistant named Cedric James once told me he never made suggestions because sometimes they take them and if they go wrong you're the guy that made the bad suggestion. Important to remember. Make as few as necessary and make sure they're good ones.
Q: Would you have liked to have been involved with the Russian movie Russian Ark, which was basically one long, uninterrupted steadicam shot?
A: Tillman Buttner did a wonderful job operating that movie, but I feel now that it's been done there is no need to do it again. I was involved in Rodrigo Garcia's film Nine Lives which is nine Steadicam shots between 11 and 15 minutes long each. Beautiful and moving, but very difficult to do over and over for the 17 day schedule. Great film though. Won the Golden Leopard at Locarno.
Q: What was the most beautiful shot you have personally worked on? And what was it about this shot that makes it stand out?
A: There are so many. Some are very famous. Still the last shot in Nine Lives with Glen Close and Dakota Fanning stands out recently. Though it is not perfect, it is emotionally moving every time I see it. Even when I read the script it was that way and I knew I had to fight to bring it to the screen in a way that would do it justice. I think we succeeded. Great scene. Great film.
To read more about Steadicams, check out the website of the Steadicam Guild.