HOW TO: Steadicam 101

Finally! We’ve gone over gimbals, now lets take it back an era in camera stabilization: the Steadicam.

The Steadicam was invented in 1975 and is now recognized beyond just a company name or device. Nowadays, Steadicam is recognized universally as a person mounted camera stabilization device, to which there have been many following companies and copycats. Still, the name holds up.

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As a camera assistant, you will eventually work with a Steadicam. It will simply happen. Even if you’re just beginning as an AC or trainee, you’ll soon work alongside a Steadicam operator, perhaps on some of those notoriously long takes. They’re just as much fun as they are hard work.

So what do you do when they tell you they’re flying Don Juan the entire take? Or they’re thinking that Missionary is the best position for a shot? What are your options?

Well first of all, they aren’t really asking you. They’ll be telling you how they plan to coordinate the complex movement of their feet, the camera, and the subject. (And you, if you’re pacing alongside them during a shot – whether as a spot or a focus puller)

For you, as an camera assistant, it’s important you’re on the same page as your operator, especially if you’re the one pulling focus. It’ll let you communicate with the operator to coordinate changing needs for the Steadicam rig between setups.

The Different Positions of Steadicam

There are two basic “modes” of Steadicam operating:

  1. High mode: camera sits on top of the sled, between the operators head and torso. This is the most common way Steadicam’s are used.
  2. Low mode: camera sits below the sled, between the operators knees and ground. Often used for close-to-the-ground shots (e.g. tracking someone’s shoes as they walk).

High and low modes aren’t necessarily Steadicam positions, but they are important to know as the two most basic ways to mount a camera on the arm. It’s also worth noting that in high mode, the operator’s monitor sits at the bottom of the pole while in low mode it sits in the mid-to-top of the pole. Think of it like deciding your starting position for your camera.

Further, there are two basic “positions” of Steadicam operating:

  1. Missionary: camera and operator both facing forward
  2. Don Juan: camera facing behind while operator facing forward

For more information on this, I recommend reading Jerry Holway’s excellent The Steadicam Operator’s Handbook. In it, Holway says missionary position includes the arc “from the camera pointing straight ahead to looking across the operator’s body.” Similarly, Holway defines Don Juan as “an arc as the camera looks to the side away away from the arm and pans to the rear.”

Just because a camera is panned slightly to the left or right doesn’t necessarily change its position – though there are certainly grey areas that Holway refers to as “no man’s land.” This is what you need to clearly avoid. Remember, nothing going on in the frame, means that you your shot is DEAD. Dead shots make for dead cameramen. (Let’s look ALIVE fellas!)

Additional Variations

There are, of course, other variations on these basic positions and modes. Here are a few additional terms that you ought to know before delving into this kind of work.

  • Hard mount: When part of the Steadicam is fixed to a vehicle or other rig
  • Soft mount: When the operator, wearing the Steadicam, is shooting from a vehicle or other rig
  • Goofy foot: Operating with the camera on the right (as opposed to the traditional left)

Mix and Matching Positions with Modes

How do we combine this different terminology? So what’s the difference between the “modes” and the “positions”? The mode refers to how the camera is mounted, independent of how the rig and operator moves, while the position refers to the interplay between the operator, the camera, and the rig. Think of this as Starting Position for the Camera versus HOW and the ANGLE that the camera moves as.

For instance, a camera can be positioned missionary in high mode or Don Juan in low mode and vice versa. However, a camera cannot be both in high and low mode nor can a camera be both missionary and Don Juan. It’s one of each.

For a really great demonstration of these concepts, along with sample videos of what they look like on screen, check out this video created by Mike Nelson. For everyone else’s reference, checking out the Steadicam reels of others is a GREAT way to get new ideas and pick up tips on how to do it right:

 

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