Center of Gravity

Eric Hynes investigates how Steadicam got inside our heads

You walk through the door, transitioning from the dark of the theater to the light of the lobby. Gliding past the concessions, past the posters on stands, past the people milling and queuing. You’re walking in pace with those around you, feeling embodied and out of body at the same time. You pan left to steal an impression of two people in conversation, then push through another door and now you’re outside. The sound changes, the light changes, the horizons widen, and yet you stay steady, even, deliberate, unblinking. It’s almost as if you’re moving in slow motion, though you’re not. It’s almost as if you’re dreaming, though you’re not—or not quite. You’re gliding, or close to it. You carry on like this for a while, until something or someone finally breaks the spell, and you remember your eyes aren’t cameras, and that your body isn’t a Steadicam rig.

Entering the Copacabana in Goodfellas. Following Pam Grier on the airport moving walkway in Jackie Brown. Pursuing Pacino through Grand Central Station in Carlito’s Way. Steadicam shots get inside us. They draw us into a cinematic space—perhaps more effectively and intensely than any other technique in film—and then reorient how we move through spaces beyond the screen. A sensation trails behind the cinematic experience, as of a memory or a dream, evocable though also elusive. How to make a shot that’s as mobile as a person, but as pristine as a tracking shot? It led to a technical solution that still begs questions. About what cinema can and can’t do. About the possibilities and limitations of what we can see, of what we can or can’t experience.

With its clean frames and long takes, the Steadicam nods to André Bazin’s aspirations for cinema as “objectivity in time,” and comes closer than ever to making the myth of “total cinema” something actual. Yet technically evoking human movement and sight, and making us more intensely present in filmic space and time, it also poignantly heightens distinctions between us and the apparatus.

Steadicam shots are uncanny. They mimic how we move and see, and furthermore they seem to anticipate how we expect to be able to move and see, but can’t—they’re like elusively remembered dreams, native and foreign at the same time. They do come from a body: a person is carrying the machine that’s making these images, at human height, usually at human speed, moving and turning and observing. The imagery has a fluidity undisturbed by the normal clumsiness of a body holding an unwieldy machine. This is akin to how our bodies and eyes operate, except the technique doesn’t settle for approximating how we move through the world; it makes improvements, surpassing our capabilities with a precognitive fluidity of movement. We’re not quite looking along with the shot, but rather scrambling just slightly behind with a sense of impossible clarity, an otherworldly poise and motivation with which to encounter a chaotic, noisy, unchoreographed world. Steadicam shots are like tails to our tailbone, things beyond us that seem of us. They’re both alien and familiar.

The earliest version of the steadicam

Yes, Steadicam shots are smooth and steady. They use gyroscopic technology to provide a consistent frame. They read as elegant, state-of-the-art, and sui cinematic. But the Steadicam shots that tend to linger, the ones that transcend “wow, cool” approbations, the ones that amount to more than their own method, exploit an intense ambiguity. It’s easy enough to emulate the technique of Scorsese’s Copacabana sequence, as Jon Favreau did in Swingers, and as innumerable aspiring auteurs have done since, but what makes that original scene so unsettlingly wondrous and inimitable is how the camera is both in charge and responsive, tour guide and tourist, cocky Henry showing off his exclusive access and cautiously impressed Karen trying to take it all in. The Steadicam allows for multiple points of view while never committing to one of its own—it seems animate, but remains a vessel. It can go anywhere—indeed it’s built to be able to go anywhere—from the street downstairs through a kitchen around corners and into a crowded club, and it’s also never fully anywhere. It never lands. It hovers.

Just four years after cameraman Garrett Brown introduced the Steadicam via a virtuosic POV shot in Bound for Glory (1976)—it starts high up on a crane before pushing through a crowd—and a sprint with Sylvester Stallone up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Rocky (1976), he collaborated with Stanley Kubrick and DP John Alcott on a film that fulfilled the device’s potential for exquisite anxiety. In The Shining (1980), the Steadicam gorgeously traverses, and terrorizes us with, space and time. Barely above the ground, we methodically follow little Danny on a tricycle down a long hotel hallway, then turn into another long hallway, then down and around some more. For an uncommonly long time, there are no cuts, no breaking away from this entrancing movement. We see what the boy sees. We go where the boy goes. We’ve got an amazing vantage, but onto what? These shots in The Shining are both wide-eyed and claustrophobic. They’re free of editorial intervention, and free of shaky-cam disturbance. Yet they also leave us without any reassurance of what we’re watching, of what could happen, and of what point of view we’re assuming. By the end of the film, we’re tracking behind Danny as he scurries away from us into a snowy labyrinth, and tracking backwards away from Jack (Jack Nicholson) as he advances toward Danny. We’re in between, pursuing and pursued, eager and terrified, thrilled and horrified.

A quarter-century later, Gus Van Sant paid tribute to this approach and dwelled on all of its ambiguities with Elephant, a film comprised almost entirely of Steadicam shots that glide down the long hallways of a high school. The camera takes turns following individual students on their everyday passages from here to there, the extended, pristine shots instilling quotidian routines with a creepy grandiosity, especially as it becomes apparent that each sequence is chronologically synched—that we’re watching the same moment over and over again from different points of view. By the time we’ve adopted the POV of two misfit murderers, that previous sense of grandiosity gets subtly and queasily flipped with banality—without any change in the film’s tempo or visual approach. The camera drifts down the hall at the pace of its main subject either way, except where it had earlier populated the screen with faces and spaces, here it witnesses their erasure. It had been a maze, and now it’s a trap. Approximately subjective and inherently objective, Van Sant’s Steadicam is an equal opportunity follower, blithely nonjudgmental whether watching two classmates in a clinch or two students gunning down their peers.

Goodfellas

Such dispassion dissipates when the Steadicam functions as a free-floating surrogate for the filmmaker. (Or to allow for a non-auteurist take—as an encapsulation of the spirit of the film itself.) Tethered to a cameraperson but untethered from everyone it films, the Steadicam suggests an omnipotence that can be occasionally marshaled into something beneficent. In Before Sunset, Richard Link- later doesn’t exult in the camera’s independence but rather keeps it fast to his characters, as if it were connected to them by an invisible force field—a running line of empathy, interest, and respect. It’s not that we can completely forget about the camera—not when it’s gliding backwards and forwards,through streets and parks, up stairs and onto a boat, and not when the duration of shots calls attention to the illusion of our watching things unfold in real time. It’s that the camera doesn’t assert a vantage superior to that of Jesse and Celine. And this prevents the viewer from doing the same.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s approach to his characters in Boogie Nights goes beyond respect—it’s more akin to adoration, and he uses the Steadicam to delight in them. The film’s opening shot riffs on Scorsese’s ace architectural/sociological guided tours (Goodfellas, Casino, The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York), traveling from the Los Angeles street to the inside of a ’70s nightclub, briskly introducing numerous principal characters, and covering a lot of physical ground. In one long, technically complicated take, we’re carried deep into a world of pornographic filmmakers, actors, and hangers-on. The camera doesn’t belong to any one character, but rather relays between them like a skateboarder hitching from one bumper to another. Much of the same information could have been conveyed, in a similar amount of time, via a construction of shorter shots. But in addition to expressing the film-drunk verve of the director, the Steadicam shot makes everyone seem frankly gorgeous, even heroic, and what might be considered an objectively seedy milieu gets subjectively glorified.

Anderson uses the Steadicam to closely trail specific characters in two later shots. In the first, we tunnel into the isolated, distraught state of mind of Little Bill (William H. Macy) via long take. The camera moves with him as he goes from room to room of the house owned by porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), discovering his wife in bed with another man, fetching a revolver from his car, murdering them both where they lie, and then shooting himself in front of the whole crew as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. It’s horrific, yet very different from sequences you might describe as such in The Shining. Even in this grimmest of moments, Anderson’s camera isn’t out for mood or style but to serve the psychology of the character, and to act as an attentive witness to his demise.

The New WorldThe New World

And in the penultimate shot of the film, taken in the same house and traversing the same hallways, the camera follows Jack as he surveys his extended chosen family. He checks in on Amber, Rollergirl, Buck and Jessie’s new baby, and even passes a portrait of Little Bill, gone but still belonging here. He’s a diminished porn king making the noises of a put-upon but adoring father, and it makes perfect emotional and narrative sense thanks to the Steadicam gliding closely behind. Here the camera magnetizes to Jack, but it’s as adoring of Jack as he is of the others. The tone of the shot—affectionate, forgiving—is inseparable from point of view, which belongs to and emanates from the filmmaker. It’s so benevolent as to be almost holy. The filmmaker summons characters he adores, and then floats lovingly among them. We may not always like or approve of them, but his Steadicam offers blessings all the same.

Talk of this triune, pseudo-spiritual overlaying of camera, film, and filmmaker can get very aggrandizing very fast, but the potential for these elements to be in concert has been recognized since Dziga Vertov espoused the power of the Kino-Eye, and since his man with a movie camera recorded, embodied, and represented pure movement. In the 21st-century films of Terrence Malick, the swing of the Steadicam both tracks the subject and is the subject. The gesture and the recording of gesture, being present in the moment and yet floating beyond it, making a record of the world that’s also a philosophical distillation of it—these ambiguities and dualities are inextricable from the mechanics of Malick’s Steadicam (operated by Jörg Widmer in The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups). Only in cinema, and only thanks to this particular tool, can we see and move in quite this way. Seeing and moving are one. Something that’s essentially physical produces something extra-physical, ineffable, and literally transcendent.

You walk out of the theater and drift along in one unbroken flow. Turning is panning. Moving is tracking. Seeing is shooting. Time is duration. Being is drifting is recording is dreaming. Steady. Steady. You’re a camera.


Eric Hynes is a journalist and critic, and associate film curator at Museum of the Moving Image in New York.