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Fundamental Motivation for Steadicam

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#1 Chris Stiles

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Posted 28 October 2011 - 04:34 PM

Hello All!

This is my first post on this forum. I'll just start off by saying that I am a 20 year old film student who is completely fascinated with Steadicam operation and it is my dream to include it in my career.

At my school we have a full-size rig (I apologize, I do not know the exact model, I just know that it's rather old and ill-maintained) and a RED One camera that flies well on the rig. I am one of the only students at my school authorized to fly this setup, and I take advantage of this privilege as much as possible. I've flown for a couple student short films and I practice my line dances whenever I have free time.

I want to take this seriously, and will continue flying for student shorts, but before I do too much more I want to make sure my head is in the right place.

From this forum and other research I've done, I am realizing how important it is to have motivation for Steadicam shots. I can see how it could be easy to throw around a rig in order to make a cool-looking shot or cover a scene quicker or with less setups. But without effectively advancing the story or revealing more about the character, the real purpose of the Steadicam in filmmaking could be lost. I don't want to be too trigger-happy and fly all the time just because it is fun. I want to know why I am flying, why I am framing characters a certain way, why I am leading them instead of a POV, etc.

Basically what I am looking for is if any of you veteran operators have any advice for me, or can direct me to any literature to help me understand when a Steadicam shot is appropriate and when it is not. Also books that has information on composition and framing in general would be awesome.

I realize that I just brought up a very broad and complicated subject from a cinematography standpoint, so much thanks in advance to anyone who give this Steadicam newbie some advice =]

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#2 Bryan Fowler

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Posted 28 October 2011 - 05:12 PM


check out http://steadishots.org/ see what shots work and feel right for you. Sometimes the motivation is thought of in advance, sometime you have to find those small moments in easy shot that helps.

Other times, you just move because that's all the director wants you to do. =)

Also, your school has a Master Series (broadcast I think) sled and arm.
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#3 Jessica Lopez

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Posted 29 October 2011 - 12:36 AM

The Steadicam Operator's Manual and a workshop will be a good start. Be sure to attend events where gear will be on display so you can see what is out there. Try to meet other operators. Join organizations like SOA, the Steadicam Guild, SOC, etc... All are beneficial in this business and contribute to being an operator.
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#4 Brian Freesh

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Posted 29 October 2011 - 02:08 AM

Welcome to the forum, Chris, and good for you taking such care in your craft.

You'll hear this a lot: A steadicam operator is an operator first. Steadicam is just another tool.

The good news is this means you can learn what you're asking about without grabbing the steadicam. Obviously, since you have access to it, you should practice as much as you can. For now just learn to use the thing inside and out, get to a point where you don't have to think about the technical. Go read Will's recent post about hockey if it helps to understand this.

On set, do what the student DPs and directors ask for, offering your input when you can. Operate (steadi or no) with your own mind tuned to the story. The more you do the more you'll learn what works for you. Read the script ahead of time and figure out the characters, what their motivations are. When the director describes a shot, ask what they think the motivation is for that shot. You may agree with them, you may not, you'll learn either way.

These days Steadicam is a lot of things, as are other operating tools. It's a dolly and even (and often) a tripod when time is short on set. It's a dolly when space is limited. Sometimes it's handheld when the director is downright silly. It's a tool. It's used for whatever and however you agree to use it. Find it's strengths, find it's weaknesses. You'll like to use it in ways that I hate and vice versa. Every operator is different. Every shoot is different.

Good luck, fly safe :)
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#5 Aaron Medick SOC

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Posted 29 October 2011 - 02:40 PM

Your questions really have to do with directing. I suggest you take a directing class and read as many books as you can on the subject. Their is not a 100% recipe for which camera support to use in any given circummstance. There are Rules of thumb. you have to learn them by doing and by observation. Everytime you watch a movie or tv show try to figure out how the shot was done. Then think about why the DP, Director and Operator choose to do it that way. You will find that many people will do shots the same way, but the great films/TV shows uses the camera support, lighting, angles, shot sequencing, art direction that support the story and actors perfectly.

BUT do Practice, do every shot the director asks you to do that is safe. Try to learn from their choices.

I went ot NYU to study cinematography because I loved it. While I was there I studied Directing, Sound design, psychology, physics, Mythology and poetry, to name a few. Get a broad base of knowledge. It all come into play in our business.

Good Luck,
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#6 Mark Britton

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Posted 29 October 2011 - 04:31 PM

The suggestions and background give are excellent, but I might have something to add. The first step to answering your question is to understand why you would want the camera to move in a shot. What does it convey to the audience? How does framing affect the feel? How does a moving camera help tell the story? When is moving the camera a distraction? That is the creative direction perspective, that answers why you might choose a Steadicam shot.

Understanding how to move the camera well is something you learn as a camera operator, you master accurate framing and how to read actors/action to the point where it becomes instinctual instead of something in the forefront of your mind. You learn how to make the operation of the camera invisible to the audience, timing camera moves on motion in the frame and landing with the actors in their marks. Getting that ingrained so that is automatic makes a significant difference in Steadicam operation. Not only does the camera have to be in the right place at the right time, the operator has to be there as well. Usually first! That's where all drills come in, of course, building in the body-mind link so that you're not concentrating on which foot should be where and figuring out where your hands ought to be.

After you have an understanding on when a moving camera would be effective from a storytelling perspective, then the answer of when to use a Steadicam becomes one of mechanics and logistics. Some shots will require a crane, some are best done on a dolly, some are going to be handheld some are going to look the best with a Steadicam. Sometimes a combination of those items are necessary. Sometimes you'll end up using an operation mode that you know is not optimal, but there's a reason you need to live with it (see mention of Steadicam-as-a-dolly above).

It takes skill in multiple dimensions to be great. People can and do make a career out of it without mastering the fundamentals, there's always 'that guy/gal' out there. I almost certainly was one of them at one time or other. Most people that try Steadicam fall in love with doing it. It can be hard to put the rig down and do what's best for the story when you're starting out.

As far as literature? Well, there's a number of books that can open your mind to the reasons and reasoning. 'The Five C's of Cinematography' is back in print for a reson. 'Cinematography Theory and Practice'. 'Master Shots' series started by Christopher Kenworthy. There's a lot more out there, those are just books that come to mind as I write this. The standard 'look at what Focal Press has on offer and pick what you like the sound of' is still reasonable advice.

Best of luck on your journey!
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