Directing: Steadicam

Someone once described Steadicam to me as 85% choreography.  I’m not sure I agree with the percentage as any scene still requires the right performance, but directing Steadicam does require considerable amount of choreography and is a definitely skill that helps if you understand dance and movement.

I’m not a dancer but I’m a fan.  The combination of the right choreographer, the right dancers and the right music, particularly in an emotional contemporary piece can floor me.   I love a powerful static shot, and the right movement – or not- depends on the project at hand, but for the most part, I find myself at my directing best when I’m using the Steadicam to manipulate rhythm and style to sustain the emotion of a scene.

Steadicam is familiar to audiences through Film & TV – the flamboyant opening scene of “Boogie Nights” (Writer/Director: Paul Thomas Anderson) that sets the tone of the 70s disco & glitter through the Steadicam leading the audience to see that world through the eyes of Mark Wahlberg’s then naive character; the masterful walk and talks through the entire seven seasons of “The West Wing” that allowed the viewer to get a glimpse into a then fictional White House where the right guy for the job,  a non-Anglo, gets elected President and the ‘bromance’ wheeling & dealing & loving of the “Entourage” boys.  With a Steadicam, you can float the visuals – anything and everything from low-mode where the camera can capture anything even millimetres off the floor, to high-mode where the contraints are down to the height of the Steadicam operator.

With Steadicam, you can literally block the scene to capture those dramatic beats of a scene.  ie. The fluidity and economy of shots the Steadicam affords makes it a strategic choice for many project particularly when up against challenging time constraints.  Rather than shooting a master shot and multiple close-ups, Steadicam allows you to work out those close-ups you want to capture then move organically within the scene to reveal the close-ups.  Perhaps not ideal for TV where the producer or EP would prefer lots of choices in the edit, but where you’re up against the clock, Steadicam is an efficient way of adding movement and pacing within a scene.

The difficulties with Steadicam is that getting the choreography or blocking right so there are no ‘dead spots’ is tricky without practice.  It’s always best to use characters to motivate the Steadicam movement.  It makes no sense to just move from A to B without there being a character or action that drives the camera to move from A to B.   For example, if it’s the opening shot that needs some sort of motivation to push in from a wide to a CU of your actors, it could be as simple as using the character walking in as your motivation or using extras to walk past frame to get you to the CU.

It’s also not recommended to substitute Steadicam for sticks when shooting a static scene as Steadicam will by its very nature ‘drift’ which can be a great look but incredibly difficult to maintain static – unless you have a highly experienced Steadicam operator – but even then, it’s important to remember as Director that even the lightest Steadicam weighs several kilos, so given the rigorous demands of any shoot, it makes no sense to waste energy (and goodwill) asking a Steadicam operator to shoot a static shot when that’s what the tripod is designed for.   I got into trouble so many times from my 1st AD when I was first using Steadicam for not allowing my Steadicam operator to rest his rig between shots.

Another thing to keep in mind as a Director is that the operator does not have eyes in the back of his/her head.  Sounds pretty obvious, but you’re asking an operator to walk backwards to capture a walk and talk that moves forward, then spin around – fast- to follow a character, before spinning around and curving around and around backwards, upstairs, downstairs etc to get your shot.  Logically, it’s faster to move forwards where they can see where they’re going.  Backwards, they have to trust their assistants to literally have their backs and stop them from tripping over cables etc.  It should also be noted that up and down movement is limited by the length of the Steadicam arm and it takes time to get form low mode to high mode.  Even changing lenses will take more time as the operator will have to reconfigure his/her Steadicam to accommodate the change in weight.

My style of directing is helped immeasurably by Steadicam because I think in terms of movement scenes.   But not all projects need Steadicam.  Every project is different and it’s the challenge of interpreting it using different tools that help you stay current.  It doesn’t always work – but it’s important to experiment so you don’t get stale.  It took me a long time to realise that with the right crew and experience it’s easy to create pretty pictures, but a lot harder to make something memorable through performance and emotion.

CASE STUDY 1: Excerpt from “Sugar Inc.”, Short Film

“Sugar Inc.” was the first project I directed using Steadicam.  I wasn’t experienced enough to know that at the time, but the way I had written the scene leant itself to the fluidity of the Steadicam.   I had never even seen a Steadicam before that point, but after that first experience, it’s been my ‘tool’ of choice as a director for most of my projects since.   I loved the pov movement the Steadicam afforded you as a director and how you could block a scene, then let the actor do what they do best – I felt there were more moments of ‘magic’ as you, as a viewer, can be given a glimpse of both perspectives.

It was a little dizzying for the actors though – I didn’t think through how many times we’d have Master Chef go round and round Allie which also meant careful blocking so we were in the same mark each time for a particular question/answer.

CASE STUDY 2: Jenny Craig TVC “Too Many Cooks”

This is from a one-shot Steadicam TV Commercial.  I didn’t plan it that way, but when my cinematographer, Ben Allan ACS, saw my storyboards, he suggested shooting it in one take as I’d basically boarded movement to movement anyway.  Harry Panagiotidis was our Steadicam Operator.  As one of the most experienced and skilled operators, Harry just looked at the boards and went “Sure – I can move in from CU on Huey, squeeze into here from there and there, slide along the bench around two corners, whip around and get back to Huey here in a WS, then walk backwards to get Huey back in frame in a MS…”  Harry then looked at Ben and laughed “You’ve got the harder job – you’ve got to figure out how to light the shot”!

CASE STUDY 3: Excerpt from Music Clip “Rescue Me”

This is from a music clip for singer/songer Paul Winn.

The feel of the clip was reminiscent of Old Hollywood romance meets modern city.   While I mostly shot off a tripod, I used Steadicam for the climactic scene where Paul is looking for the girl,  finds her feathers on the ground, then searches into the distance.  The song was beautiful and evocative with a melancholy, languid pacing and I wanted to use Steadicam to ‘breathe’ this section and convey the classic romance and subtlety of the music.  I felt using sticks would have ‘hardened’ the scene.  Also, because we shot the entire music clip in 4 hours, Steadicam also saved us so much time as I was able to capture all the action in one shot.  The Steadicam shot is at the end of the except.

CASE STUDY 4: Extended footage from “NDCO”

Steadicam is the perfect tool to capture dance or sport – not so much in situ but rather where you can choreograph the movement.  In the first series of clips, Gemma, our dancer, dances both classical ballet and more modern contemporary.  We were shooting in the kitchen of our office so space was limited to move in and around Gemma so we carefully blocked the shots so that we captured just that section of movement necessary for each shot needed  to edit together the scene.

In the second series of clips, I was looking to create dramatic, sweeping,  flamboyantly in-your-face shots of the basketballers.  I loved the way Steadicam could be used to speed along the ground (Ben was literally running to get this shot), then slow to pan to reveal the basketballers.  I also loved the perspective Steadicam could get as we moved in and around the basketball game.

Again, Steadicam worked best as we were working with movement and allowed us to shoot ‘off the cuff’.  While Gemma was a dance professional, our basketballers were friends catching up for a shared love of basketball, so I couldn’t use marks to capture specific shots.  Steadicam helped us weave into the action and be ready to capture certain shots whenever we could.

Steadicam: The Future?

I wrote this over the course of the last couple of months in between projects – and never imagined not using a Steadicam in the near future, but a link to MOVI, a new rig that’s described by Director Vincent Laforet as “the closest I’ve ever felt like being able to fly”.  Ben calls the MOVI “basically a handheld Wescam”.  Very exciting stuff and seriously revolutionary.  We both watched this demo link in awe, gasping at the sheer freedom of shots this opens you up to.   Suffice it to say, we’re looking forward to it’s official release – both in full and compact form.


Case Study 1: Sugar Inc.

Production Company: Tsuki Films • Producer: Edweana Wenkart • Associate Producer: Rosie Kingham • Director: Clara Chong • DOP: Garry Wapshott • Production Designer: Merissa Walker • Costume Designer/Kitchen Production Designer: Sally Sharpe • Hair/Make-up: Jo Cotter • Music: Stewart D’Arrietta • Cast: George Shetvsov, Marisa Pouw

Case Study 2: Jenny Craig TVC “Too Many Cooks”

Agency: Cyclone Advertising • Art Director: Greg Verzaci • Writer: Jonathan Correll • Production Company: Tribal • Executive Producer: Sharon Maloney • Producer: Jackie Fish • Director: Clara Chong • DOP: Ben Allan ACS

Case Study 3: Rescue Me

Client: Hollow Tree Records • Production Company: The Film Bakery • Director: Clara Chong • Producer/DOP: Ben Allan ACS • Composer: Paul Winn • Cast: Paul Winn, Roma D’Arrietta

Case Study 4: NDCO

Client: Australian Government (National Disability Coordination Officer) • Director/Editor: Clara Chong • Producer/DOP: Ben Allan ACS • Composer: Paul Winn • Cast: Meredith Calthorpe, Luca Frost, Gemma Dawson, Fernando Villalon, Joshua Tanno, Paul Winn, Shuichi Kawano


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