3 Takeaways from Garrett Brown, Steadicam Inventor

Garret Brown, inventor of the Steadicam, fielded questions about his career in the movies for nearly an hour tonight at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. He spoke following a sold-out screening of Blow Out (1981), director Brian De Palma’s political crime thriller. 

After narrating a brief reel of Steadicam work from a variety of films, including many sequences Brown himself shot, Brown opened the floor for questions.

Here are the three most interesting things I learned from Brown’s mini-seminar in cinematography.

The Steadicam’s Superpower: Recreating Human Beings’ Stable Vision

Smooth, fluid camera shots for their own sake aren’t the Steadicam’s great contribution to cinema. Several times, Brown stressed the fact that handheld camera work simply doesn’t replicate the way human beings see the world. 

Brown explained our eyes are hardwired to try and give us information. He had us look at him while vigorously nodding our heads up and down, then shaking them furiously side to side. As he pointed out, we could all keep our gaze fixed on him. But when we wiggled our fingers right in front of our face, our optic nerve simply couldn’t keep up.

The stability of human vision evolved, he said, so we could run away from predators. He joked that the next time we get mugged, we should notice how what we see doesn’t look like a handheld camera sequence, but Steadicam!

Never Be Afraid to Learn from a Bold Master

Someone in the audience asked Brown if shooting The Shining with director Stanley Kubrick had been difficult, since Kubrick was a fervent photographer in his own right.

Brown said that, in fact, working with Kubrick was “like a masterclass” for him. “You’d do a three-minute shot,” he said. “And then you’d have a three-minute review. And then you’d spend three minutes arguing about it! It was great, I only worked a third of the time!”

Joking aside, Brown said he learned so much from Kubrick. He also credited Kubrick with being one of the film directors bold enough to embrace the Steadicam from its beginning, when it was still proving itself. “That’s how it is in any area of life,” said Brown. “The bold ones go first, and the timid ones eventually catch up.”

And Brown’s willingness to learn is lifelong. He taught himself cinematography, in part, by reading “30 shelf feet of books at the Philadelphia Free Library,.” “It never occurred to me to go to film school!” he said.  “I learned how to be a 1940s filmmaker,” because that generation wrote all the books he read.

“Buckle Up” for the Brave New World of AI

Another audience member asked Brown what he thought about the future of filmmaking. Brown noted that, in the hundred or so films he’d shot, he’d never shot a greenscreen or done any digital work. His career was strictly “old school,” using “all kinds of tricks” with analog film, “that lovely, grainy medium we all dreamed about.”

Brown wasn’t disparaging of today’s digital filmmaking—though he did criticize programmers of digital crowds in movies who give all their digital extras “business,” just the way human extras all want to be seen on screen. But he did caution the audience about artificial intelligence “barrelling toward us” in moviemaking.

“You won’t know whether an actor is real,” he said. “You won’t know whether the screenplay was written by a human.” He gave the impression he thinks AI could be a powerful and positive tool in filmmakers’ hands, but he also said he wasn’t sure he was completely in favor of that “brave new world.” “We’d all better buckle up,” he said.

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