Garrett Brown is among the most important figures in the history of cinematography. His invention of the Steadicam forever changed the way filmmakers approached camera motion. No longer reliant on dollies or cranes to track movement, camera operators could now mount the device to their bodies and walk or run freely to deliver smooth tracking shots. No longer did they have to worry about the bumps and shakes that a hand-held camera caused. Stanley Kubrick was one of the first filmmakers to immediately grasp the benefits of the new technology, professing that “it should revolutionize the way films are shot.” The director heavily incorporated the Steadicam when shooting “The Shining,” hiring Brown to operate the cameras and further pushing the tech to new limits — even if it meant endangering his cameramen.
“The Shining” is one of the most storied productions of all time, as illustrated by the new 2,200-page, $1,500 behind-the-scenes compilation published by Taschen. Kubrick himself was highly particular about his technique, famously reshooting scenes multiple times and meticulously controlling each aspect of the filmmaking process. The director’s technical expertise was what made Brown so excited to work with him, “each unexpected turn” of the Overlook Hotel set “offering further possibilities of the Steadicam,” as Brown recounted in American Cinematographer.
No Overlooked Technology
Before “The Shining,” Garrett Brown had debuted the Steadicam in the 1976 Woodie Guthrie biopic “Bound for Glory,” which won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. The thriller “Marathon Man,” released the same year, showed how chase sequences could effectively utilize the tech. However, the Steadicam’s most famous moment at that point was in “Rocky,” in which Brown’s initial test footage he shot of his girlfriend running up and down the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum inspired the triumphant scene of Rocky Balboa doing the same.
Brown recognized that for “The Shining,” however, “[Stanley] Kubrick wasn’t just talking of stunt shots and staircases.” Rather, the director wanted to use the Steadicam “as a tool which can help get the lens where it’s wanted in space and time without the classic limitations of the dolly and crane.” In other words, Kubrick approached the Steadicam as a primary tool instead of an exception. For example, Brown explained that while a dolly would have made the tracking shots that wind around hallways in the hotel look jerky, the Steadicam allowed for easier turning around corners and injected the scenes with an “unearthly tranquility” that made the movement seem more ghostly.
Kubrick innovated creative ways to incorporate the device into more difficult parts of the shoot, too. It was cumbersome for Brown to keep up with actor Danny Lloyd during the famous shot of Danny Torrance riding his bike down the hallways of the Overlook, so Kubrick mounted the Steadicam on a wheelchair while Brown controlled the camera with two hands. These were challenging efforts, but the real danger of the shoot arrived with the hedge maze sequences.
The Horror Of The Hedge Maze
Garrett Brown called the twisting, winding, disorienting hedge maze “one of the most pernicious sets ever to work on.” The crew continually found themselves getting lost even with a detailed map attached to their call sheets. In order to create the snowy atmosphere in the EMI-Elmstree Studios, art director Roy Walker sprinkled a flammable mixture of dairy salt and Styrofoam all over the set, which would have been nigh-impossible to dolly over but which was still difficult to manually walk through. The crew was also choking on an oil-based smokescreen while trying to stay cool under the blasting rays of the stage lights. Brown remembered the shoot in Unkrich’s collection (as reported by Variety):
“I was trudging through dairy salt eight inches deep with Styrofoam above thousand-watt lights on thoroughly dried-out pine needles. We were all terrified of fire the whole time, crunching along in my continually rotting boots because of the salt in a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. And it was oil smoke, now illegal, but then, legal. And we breathed it for three months to make that mist.”
Brown said that he had to wear a gas mask and had to take breaks in order to catch his breath, considering “wistfully of breaking an ankle in the salt” to escape the shoot. The most terrifying part of the scenario was imagining how the crew would have to escape the inescapable maze if a fire broke out and the lights turned off, “a genuine nightmare,” as Brown described it. The inventor of the Steadicam, however, was genuinely proud of his work and thus called the experience “as they say, worthwhile.” He did survive the production and went on to win numerous awards for his groundbreaking technology — prizes for his hard work trying to stay alive during “The Shining.”
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/Film – The Shining’s Steadicam Operator Worked Under Remarkably Unsafe Conditions
Author: Andrew Housman
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March 18, 2023