Using a Steadicam to stabilise your video footage.

Image stabilisation for handheld video is a powerful tool in any filmmaker’s arsenal. Discover how to capture high-quality moving shots with a Steadicam.

Smartphone mounted in a steadicam taking nature photos.

What is a Steadicam?

A Steadicam is a mechanical device which stabilises a handheld camera while the operator is moving, providing a smooth shot during motion.

 

In the early days of filmmaking, if someone wanted to take a moving shot, they’d either need to set up a dolly (a levelled and wheeled mount that would run along a predetermined track) or have the camera operator hold and move the camera manually.

 

The Steadicam was invented to give Hollywood filmmakers a mobile, camera-stabilising way of capturing smooth, dynamic movement. With a Steadicam, the camera operator could follow actors or create extended scenes without their shaking appearing on film. 

 

What is a Steadicam shot?

A Steadicam shot is any kind of video footage filmed using a Steadicam. Normally, a Steadicam shot tracks a moving subject to produce an incredibly smooth action. It removes the need for time-consuming and expensive set ups using cranes or dolly tracks.
 

Steadicam shots are most useful when capturing footage:

  • Along a road.
  • Up or down a flight of stairs.
  • Around corners.
  • Through doorways into a building.
  • Moving down a busy city street.
  • During fight scenes.
     

Think about the last thing you watched, or bear this in mind for whatever you next watch, and you can easily spot scenes where Steadicam techniques will be in use.

 

What is a Steadicam operator?

Steadicam operators are trained and experienced camera operators. They wear a vest attached to a camera rig, which helps them move more freely and capture smooth shots wherever they walk - around corners, up and down stairs and along busy streets.

 

History of the Steadicam

The first movie to use a Steadicam was 1976 drama Bound for Glory, which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Since then, Steadicam shots have been used expertly in thousands of movies, from the Star Wars series to Rocky, Goodfellas and many more.

 

The Steadicam was invented and developed by Garrett Brown in the 1970s. Working as a cinematographer, his dislike for shaky, handheld shots encouraged him to spend months working on a prototype of the Steadicam. After a lot of fine-tuning, he made a reel of ‘impossible shots’ around Philadelphia with some friends using it – so-called as these shots couldn’t be captured with current Hollywood technology.

 

Soon, a manufacturing deal was set up and renowned director Stanley Kubrick even got in touch, telling Brown he would “revolutionise the way films are shot”. Another director, John G. Avildsen was also interested, which lead to Brown and the Steadicam being used to shoot the iconic steps scene in Rocky.

 

Brown has gone on to shoot more than 100 films with the Steadicam – including The Shining, Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom and Blowout. Today, you’ll find a Steadicam on almost every professional film set around the world. 

Front angle view of a camera dolly on a track.
Film camera dolly resting on a track.
Improved dolly holding film camera on a track.

How does a Steadicam work?

A Steadicam is designed to provide stability, flexibility and support to a camera while the operator is in motion. Therefore, Steadicams are often complex pieces of machinery, but you can break them down into several main parts.

 

  • Harness: The Steadicam operator wears a harness that attaches the camera (DSLR camera, mirrorless cameras, etc.) to their body and a docking bracket that gives them control over the apparatus when in motion. Most Steadicams have an additional viewfinder or screen as operators may have a difficult time using the viewfinder that comes with the camera.

 

  • Axis gimbal: The gimbal stabilizer is a pivoted support that allows for a central object to remain stable in spite of movement across other axes. If you imagine a gyroscope, you’re pretty close to picturing a gimbal. Gimbals help the camera remain stable. Some Steadicams have motorized gimbals as well.

 

  • Counterbalancing weight: All of this equipment (and a camera) gets pretty heavy, so having a counterbalancing weight is almost a necessity for manipulating a Steadicam and capturing a stable image. 

 

Steadicams are expensive pieces of equipment, usually made from ultralight carbon fibre. Many intrepid filmmakers create DIY or guerrilla Steadicams that do a passable job, so you don’t have to move to Hollywood or New York to access one. Sometimes people even make different stabilisers for phones.

 

How to use a Steadicam.

Preparation is the way forward. Think like filmmaker Van Jensen: “You have to really map out not just the actors, the frame space, and the camera, but how they all interact to string together several compelling frames.” Charting out camera movements in advance is key for creating dynamic shots that feel motivated by purpose and fit the type of movie you’re trying to make. Handheld or dynamic movement isn’t going to be great for every shot or for every film. “People sometimes rush to shoot with a glide cam and they forget how to tell a story,” says filmmaker Dominic Duchesneau.

 

Tips for holding and walking with a Steadicam.

  • Walk smoothly
  • Bend your knees and roll your feet
  • Keep a light grip of the handle
  • Hold it below the gimbal
  • Keep your arms loose
  • Move with your body rather than your hands

     

 

Benefits of using a Steadicam.

Steady motion is essential to most productions. It’s a way of following the subject and maintaining the audience’s attention. Shaky scenes and wobbly cameras are an instant sign of an unprofessional production. Using a Steadicam makes it easy for producers and cinematographers to get smooth shots – especially useful in action-packed scenes.

 

Setting up and using a Steadicam is much quicker than using a dolly or crane, with no need to set up tracks or make extra space to lay them down. With a Steadicam, you can capture movement almost anywhere – from the character walking up a narrow, twisting flight of stairs in an old castle, to following them in and around obstacles.

 

Steadicams can also be attached to moving vehicles for smooth shots, as well as being fixed inside the car - without the shaky effects a handheld camera would produce in the same setting.

 

Steadicam tips for beginners.

Whether you’re buying a Steadicam, renting one or making your own version, follow these tips to ensure the best results.

 

  • Plan all your shots and assess which ones will and will not need a Steadicam.

  • Review where you’re filming to make sure there’s space to use the Steadicam and move around to follow the action.

  • Understand the Steadicam. Learning about the individual parts, their importance and how to manage them will help you set up and use a Steadicam effectively.

  • Manage the rig. Your instinct may be to control the rig when filming, but the best way to manage it is by letting the rig do the work.

  • Practise using the Steadicam before you start filming scenes. 
Smooth, over the shoulder shot of a couple looking out over the clouds achieved with a steadicam.

By planning out your shots, you’ll know if investing in Steadicam equipment might be necessary long before you have to worry about mastering incredible Steadicam shots.

 

Learn more in this article on aerial photography — an excellent resource for problem-solving many of the problems that show up when trying to get a stable shot. 

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