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retiring from steadicam - continuing to operate a traditional camera


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#1 brooksrobinson

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Posted 05 October 2016 - 03:59 PM

It is with mixed emotions that I write this note to tell the Forum that I am officially hanging up my steadicam after 23 long years.  Being a steadicam operator has opened the door to countless opportunities I never dreamed I’d be able to participate in.  While I began my feature steadicam career with Roger Corman, I currently work with three Oscar winning DP’s, two Oscar nominated DP’s, and the rest of my resume is filled with ASC member DP’s.  I’ve had several MTV music videos of the year (back when those were still shown on MTV), many Super Bowl commercials, several successful big-budget movies, and overall, I’ve been very, very fortunate in my career, and the steadicam is what allowed me to get there. 

 

I’ve thought long and hard about this decision, as it has been at the back of my mind for the past two years.  I injured my back for the second time in early 2015 - a repeat of a herniated disc injury I first suffered in 2011.  The second occurrence was pretty bad, and I was out of work for eight months while I tried everything to get healthy (physical therapy, acupuncture with cupping and electricity, epidural shots, chiropractic, ultrasound, whole body cryotherapy, sensory deprivation (floating), tens machine sessions, etc.).  While I eventually regained my health and went on to operate on several more projects with the rig, I began to wonder if the next injury might be more permanent, and if I was doing myself a disservice by continuing. 

 

I found myself watching the blocking of a scene and hoping the actors didn’t start walking down the hallway, or alley, so that I wouldn’t need to put on the vest.  I began to not enjoy picking it up anymore, being far more content to ride the dolly, hop on the remote head controls for the crane, or put the camera on my shoulder.  It was time to make a change in my life, as it became apparent that the only reason I was still doing it was the fear of moving on, and the money I’d be losing by shifting to regular operating.  In the end, I realized that while a change in occupation can be scary, I wasn’t going to let that fear define me.  While I enjoy a payroll or rental check as much as the next guy, that was never the overriding factor in my life, and I figured it was better to be happy and healthy, then have a few more dollars and be miserable.  The job is too damn hard if you don’t love what you are doing.

 

There have been many things to love about this occupation.  The relationships with fellow operators is unique, in that you compete for jobs, yet still go out of your way to help your fellow man.  I’ve tried to be as helpful as I know how to be with fellow operators in need of loaner gear or advice, because the operators who came before me treated me that way.  On what was a big commercial for me at the time, my sled went out while shooting a Disney World spot in San Pedro.  Everyone I knew was working and unavailable to help, so I called Joe Broderick, who I only knew by reputation, and who didn’t know me at all.  Joe responded by driving 80 miles round trip to deliver his sled to me from Burbank, and then refused to take any money for it. 

 

The opportunity to do a job that is both physical and creative is unique.  While we sweat and endure while carrying the rig - sometimes with legs and back muscles quivering, there is a real artistic side to the craft that is addictive.  Designing shots that tell a story is the huge reward that comes with working with talented directors and DP’s that either know how to move the camera in space, or trust you enough to listen to your suggestions.  Once the basic path from A to B is established, it is our job to finesse it, and take it to another level so that it isn’t mechanical and enhances the story the script is trying to tell.  The best operators in the world - like Larry McConkey and Chris Haarhoff make this sort of thing look easy, and the nuance and subtlety in their frames speaks volumes. 

 

During my time on set, I’ve have many strange and wonderful things happen: I had Madonna tell me “Don’t fucking hit me with that thing” when I first met her on her “Ray of Light” video.  I had Harrison Ford embrace me from behind during an entire take while doing a close-up of Viola Davis:  when we cut and I spun around to look at him, Harrison told me “Just fucking with you kid”.  I had Ben Stiller repeatedly yell at me over his voice of God PA system while he was directing Tropic Thunder.  My favorite of those moments had me up to my knees in a Hawaiian river, while Ben started yelling at me to push into a close up on Robert Downey Jr.  I couldn’t push because there was a large boulder in my path that blocked the way.  I could hear Ben ask John Toll (while still on the PA) “Why the fuck isn’t your operator pushing in?”  Still rolling, I tilted the camera down to show the huge boulder that stood in the path between the camera and Downey, and after a pause, Ben said in a somewhat defeated voice over the PA system “Oh…”.  Karma can be a bitch, and after our move back to LA, we were doing a scene with Matthew McConaughey playing an agent.  In agent’s office, Ben had placed several of his personal items, including some of his Star Trek memorabilia.  He had Spock’s ears, Spock’s shirt, and the head of the Gorn in a custom Plexiglas case, from when Captain Kirk fought it at Vasquez Rocks.  There was a security guard that blocked the doorway to the set the entire day so nobody would steal Ben’s prized possessions.  The on-set dresser went to move the Gorn head when we turned around and picked it up by the Plexiglas.  The wood bottom that held the head dropped out of the bottom, and fell to the floor, where it rolled around a bit, while small pieces of 1960’s rubber fell off the head.  Whoops!

 

I did a commercial for the Spice Channel where we filmed an entire day of simulated sex.  In the last “scene”, the director insisted that he walk with me and look over my shoulder at my monitor as I circled the bed with a couple, including a man who was not what most would consider anatomically correct.  The director kept whispering in my ear “Tilt down to the cock”…I learned that day that if you ever hear those words whispered by another man in your ear, you are not in a good place in your career.  I once asked Colin Firth if he could help me out with a shot.  When he walked into the front door of the house, I needed him to set his briefcase down on an apple box instead of an off-screen bench, as that would allow him to stay nicely composed in the frame instead of leaning partially out of it.  Colin turned to me and replied “I quite liked it when actors leave the frame” and turned his back and walked back out the door.  We put the next wider lens on the camera.  

 

I was asked to do a shot from on top of an elephant marching in a parade.  The DP (who also operated the A camera) had done a camera test while riding the elephant during the prep and quickly decided that he didn’t want anything to do with it, so up I went.  Thankfully, our camera team rented an EasyRig, as I was stranded on top of the elephant for 20 or 30 minutes, and my legs hurt so badly when I came down that I could hardly walk – all from clenching them tightly around the beast so I wouldn’t fall off as she walked and I balanced the camera on my shoulder.  I did a commercial at Vasquez Rocks where I followed a running monkey into the tent of an anthropologist.  On three consecutive takes, the monkey ran into the tent, jumped on the desk, stood up on his hind legs and urinated in the face of the actor seated at the desk - priceless.  Lastly, I got called to do a Prince video where we finished the day in his bedroom.  I was handheld on his bed with a completely nude actress who was touching herself, while lesbian porn was projected on the wall of his room.  At some point, the actress turned to Prince (who was directing the video while wearing pajamas that, depending on how the light hit them, were see-through) and asked him “How is this ever going to be in the video?”  Prince laughed and told her “Oh baby, we’re gonna fuzz it”, to which she said “Okay”, and continued. I never imagined anything like this happening when I was a sophomore in high school in Montana and Purple Rain was racing up the charts.

 

There are many, many more, but then we all have stories.  For the first 14 years of my career, I did primarily music videos and commercials once I got past my low-budget movie phase.  Once I started to do big feature films, I started keeping a daily journal of the key points that happened during the day.  I have these for every movie I’ve done, and it makes for interesting reading before the movie comes out.  It allows me to remember the little things that were funny, hazardous, or amusing, as so many of these moments get lost over the years.  I would encourage those out there reading this to do the same, as it is a great reminder and memento of the hard work that goes into making two hours of entertainment.

 

I was so excited when I got my first sled from Derrick Whitehouse.  It was a Cinema Products model 2 that had been sitting unused in a closet at a university, and I had Bob Derose spend about 6 weeks modifying it – which was time that I didn’t have it to practice.  When I finally got the sled, it was awesome, but it took me a long while before I became proficient at it.  My first 35mm job was for Roger Corman, and my buddy Steve Adelson got me the gig when he was double-booked.  It took me about 45 minutes to balance the Arriflex BL2 as it was very motor side heavy.  My first 35mm shot involved 3 or 4 people exiting a helicopter and walking towards me for a long way across a field.  When they stopped, they had a minute-long conversation at an Army tent.  My previous work had been in 16mm with Arri SR’s, and the weight of the BL2 crushed me from the start.  On take one, the actors started out nicely composed, but soon I was cutting the outside two actors in half vertically.  I then scrambled to get wider, which resulted in a head to toe frame.  I knew I was fucking up, but there was nothing I could do about it, because despite my brain knowing what needed to happen, my legs were exhausted and had a mind of their own, and refused to listen to my persistent urging.  None of the subsequent takes were much better, and I knew I was going to get fired.  When they called lunch, I went and sat by myself, thinking that when it happened, at least I wouldn’t be sitting by others.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the DP get up, and approach me.  Oh shit.  He put a hand on my shoulder, and casually said that he liked my work, and asked if I was interested in working more days on the film!  I wish I could think of his name now…hard to imagine anyone liking those early frames - must have been the poor UHF transmission from my Modulus 2000 into my tiny 7” black and white monitor (my first consumer monitor/TV also had am/fm radio!).  Thankfully, I got a little better with time.

 

Thanks for listening.  Good luck to all of you - especially those just starting out on your journey.  If you work hard, it can take you to amazing heights.  Just remember to respect the gear and what it can do over time to your body - doing this job is like being a professional athlete (those who know me would never accuse me of that, perhaps that was part of my problem), and a career that involves this kind of physicality can be shorter than normal jobs.  Stay in shape, and stay strong.  If nothing else, it will help with longevity, in a career that often values the mindset and experience of age, but the body of youth.

 

I will be selling off both of my XCS rigs in the next few weeks and months, as well as numerous other items (rickshaw, hands-free Segway, etc).  I’ll post items on the Forum once I’ve had time to have them all checked out and done some research regarding pricing.  I hope they bring their new owners as much as they’ve brought me.

 

All the best, and thanks to all for over two decades of fond memories and comradery.  I’ve learned a lot from this Forum, and I feel like I know a lot of you from your posts.  Keep up the great work, and I hope to see some of you on set now that I'm not carrying the rig any longer.

 

Brooks Robinson


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#2 Frederic Chamberland

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Posted 05 October 2016 - 07:42 PM

Priceless post, thanks for sharing . 


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#3 Claus Stuhlweissenburg

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Posted 05 October 2016 - 08:00 PM

Brutally honest and beautifully said. A must read for any operator at any stage of their career. Thank you for sharing and good luck in your future endeavors. Something tells me you'll be fine.


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#4 Chris Loh

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Posted 05 October 2016 - 09:47 PM

Brooks, I hope to operate a B or C camera under you before you retire! This post is truly inspiring and I look up to your work on so many of my favorite movies (Ironman 3 was the first movie that inspired me to operate camera) Good luck with everything, hoping I can save the cash to buy your arm when you decide to part ways from it.


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#5 Marc_Abernathy

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Posted 05 October 2016 - 10:24 PM

Brooks,

 

what I would not give to grab you for lunch/drinks and listen to more amazing memories you have shared with us here. Much success to you on the next chapter.

 

Perhaps Dave Grove can cook up a Guild meet with you as the star?


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#6 Lawrence Karman

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Posted 05 October 2016 - 11:02 PM

Brooks good luck in your future endeavors. You are a class act and I have always enjoyed our conversations in the past and look forward to seeing and talking with you on the set soon.


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#7 Jason Leeds

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Posted 06 October 2016 - 12:28 AM

Legend! The best read I've had in some time. Thank you Brooks. Truly inspiring. 


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#8 Osvaldo Silvera SOC

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Posted 06 October 2016 - 01:57 AM

Brooks, What a great read, and sad to hear about hanging up the vest, but I understand, It really is taxing on the body, Without health, Billions are reduced to pennies..You have always been so forthcoming with advice and information in the few message conversations we've had and I truly Thank you for that. Great career in the vest and I'm sure many more years still behind the camera. Raising a glass to you!


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#9 Deke Keener

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Posted 06 October 2016 - 02:05 AM

Amazing dispatch from the front lines - well done, sir.
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#10 Scott Monk

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Posted 06 October 2016 - 08:02 AM

Brooks,

 

Your work (and your posts on this forum) are primarily responsible for inspiring this old man to get into the business late in life. Don't regret a minute so far. Bless you, thanks for the great stories and keep in touch.


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#11 William Demeritt

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Posted 06 October 2016 - 10:20 PM

Stay metal, my friend! See you in the pit! 


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#12 Victor Lazaro

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Posted 07 October 2016 - 06:05 AM

Reading this on my commute to set and now I'm all emotional in the train. Beautifully said, thank you so much for sharing.
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#13 Evrim KAYA

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Posted 07 October 2016 - 10:38 AM

what a wonderful post from a true veteran. thank you so much for sharing.


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#14 Christopher Kechichian

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Posted 07 October 2016 - 11:49 AM

Brooks, thank you for this wonderful post and for all the great work you've done. Much respect!


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#15 Luke Rocheleau

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Posted 07 October 2016 - 01:30 PM

Thank you.
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