SYRFILM’s October Surprise, Pt. 1: Steadicam rules

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 10/26/09More articles
(Garrett Brown revolutionized film-making with the invention of the Steadicam. Nearly 100 people packed his talk and demo here last week, part of SYRFILM’s October Expo/Forum on Sound and Music in Film.)

Last week, the Syracuse International Film Festival (SYRFILM) took the first step toward moving its annual program from its late April time-slot of the last six years to mid-October. Partnering with LeMoyne College, the Mellon Corridor, the Society for New Music, the Syracuse Film Office and Syracuse University’s Transmedia and Visual and Performing Arts departments, Humanities Center and Newhouse School, SYRFILM hosted first a two-day expo of still and moving camera and film, digital and video production equipment at the Renaissance Hotel with vendors from six countries, including Angenieux, Transvideo, AATON, Cartoni, Tiffen, Steadicam, Exordia and B&H Photo.

The Expo was co-produced by Rome-based Jacques Lipkau Goyard, who arranged for many of the European vendors to attend. Presenters also included cinematographer Jon Fauer, who also edits and publishes “Film and Digital Times,” and cinematographer and Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown.

After the Expo, A two-day Forum on Sound and Music in Film followed the Expo, produced by SYRFILM’s Owen Shapiro, who also teaches film studies at SU, and faculty colleagues Theo Cateforis and Stephen Meyer of Department of Art and Music History. The forum included talks by leading scholars and a master class in sound design by Italy’s Mirco Mencacci. Richard Dyer of King’s College, London, did triple duty, delivering a Syracuse Symposium lecture (on the Italian horror film), conducting a morning seminar and speaking at the forum as well. (See Pt. 2 of this article, which focuses on Dyer, also on this site.)

Screenings on four evening tied all together. These began with Cristiano Bortone’s Red Like the Sky, which took a number of honors at last springs film festival here and is the dramatized account of sound designer Mirco Mencacci’s childhood discovery of filmmaking while a student in an Italian state school for the blind. The screening of Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis (1927) was a co-production with the Society for new music and accompanied by a live improvisational musical performance. A previous SYRFILM award-winning film, Laura Muscardin’s Billo, il grand Dakhaar (which SYRFILM will soon distribute on DVD), is also a Mencacci film. On Saturday night SYRFILM moved proceedings to Hotel Syracuse’s Persian Terrace for a screening of the extraordinary Steadicam version of Verdi’s La Traviata, which Zubin Mehta conducting, shot live in Paris for the Millennium. Garrett Brown was on hand to talk about the months-long rehearsal and filming.

Garrett Brown’s Steadicam was hit of the Expo
By far the most popular figure at the Expo was Garrett Brown, who spent considerable time in the vendors’ area where he both demonstrated several models of the Steadicam and coached a number of film studies students in trying it themselves. The Steadicam, attached to operator by a jacket-like harness, allows the operator to film while running or walking without the usual tell-tale shaking and jostling of a handheld camera, and has morphed into specialized versions such as the Skycam, used to shoot Olympic events such as diving and gymnastics from above.

Steadicam, Brown says, spreads out the weight of the camera components and allows the operator to float the weight without losing fine motor control. The Steadicam was first used in 1976 in Hal Ashby’s “Bound for Glory,” which won the Oscar for best cinematography. Since then Steadicam has been used in such films as the “Rocky” series (shooting Rocky’s running and training sequences), “Return of the Jedi,” Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” and films as radically different in style as a Verdi opera and Mateo Garrone’s recently acclaimed Italian gangster film, “Gomorra” (which hasn’t screened commercially in Central New York).

Some of the students Brown spent time with at the Renaissance returned, bringing friends with them, so that the numbers swelled on Thursday afternoon after the first day’s weak turn-out.

They tended to come in pairs – Kara and Solomon, Devon and Justin – and talked excitedly about pooling their money, leaving directing or acting behind, and doing Steadicam full-time. Late Thursday afternoon Brown, who was scheduled for what sounded like a mundane “demonstration,” watched as nearly 100 people crowded into the top-floor Horizons Room at the Renaissance.

“Instead of a demonstration, I want to talk about the moving camera and why one shot is better than another,” Brown began. {Q}“Steadicam is very facile. It’s a tool to put the lens where you want it. It’s almost too facile. So, why is the moving camera so interesting to us?”{Q}

Brown’s Steadicam demos are usually packed and he’s trained perhaps a thousand Steadicam operators worldwide in his six-day workshops. One reason may be an approach that explains and illustrates facets of vision itself as he goes along, starting with the simple fact that we see three-dimensionally instead of flatly because of movement itself and the way our brains manage the convergence of vision of two eyes. He had film clips to demonstrate this, the graphic possibilities inherent in the way composition changes with movement, and the dramatic possibilities in movement – a flight over the top of a pine forest, Olympic divers and gymnasts from above, a clip of Laurence Olivier on a New York City street, the opening scene from “The Shining” that seems simply to track Jack Nicholson crossing a hotel lobby. He used a short, seemingly unassuming clip from “Carlito’s Way” in which the Al Pacino character follows a woman around a bending sidewalk and tries to speak with her, to illustrate those visual anchors that remain stationary in a scene – here a lamp post – that he calls the “peering point” that you are either moving toward or away from. Clips from Scorsese’s “Bringing Out the Dead” and Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” illustrated basics about shooting the human figure and wide-angle shots, and a clip from Kenneth Branagh’s “Frankenstein” illustrated what not to do. He used clips from “Terminator” and “Indiana Jones” to illuminate point-of-view shots and the “whip-pans” invented to mimic a double-take. Brown also talked a bit about the filming of “La Traviata” with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, calling it “the best job of my life” and describing the final 25-minute-long single shot.

Home in Philadelphia by Monday, Brown spoke by phone about his Syracuse trip. He said he’d been pleased by the enthusiastic student reception but called it “unfortunate” there were so few students from the Newhouse school of journalism, even though the events were co-sponsored by Newhouse’s Television-Radio-Film department.

“It’s just a sign that if we had access to students we’d have a lot of interest,” he said. “And the typical equipment rooms in schools are just abysmal in terms of the equipment they have. But I had enjoyed the lecture. The audience was good, they knew what was going on. It was fun.”

Brown said he has a couple new inventions he’ll be testing and demonstrating in the near future, and the first of the year has teaching events in Philadelphia and places as far-flung as Sweden and California.

As ever, he remains curious about the finer points of vision itself. Had I ever read anything by the physician Oliver Sacks, he wondered – who had written “Awakenings” and “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.”

“You know, he writes about how hard it is for people who’ve never had sight and then got it later surgically,” Brown mused. “As babies, we learn things when it’s time to learn them – so without certain information, people without sight would learn to fill in the gaps. But when they got sight so much later, they didn’t see things as the rest of us do – they couldn’t connect voices and faces, for example. It takes some time to get to that. Worse, some of them don’t like it and some even elect to return to sightlessness. If we don’t learn something appropriately, it’s scary.”

This article and Part 2, about Richard Dyer, were announced in the 10/22/09 print issue of the Syracuse City Eagle on page 4. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

TAGS: Sound and Music in Film,SYRFILM,Owen Shapiro,film studies at SU,Theo Cateforis,Garrett Brown ,revolutionized film-making,Jon Fauer,Film and Digital Times,Steadicam,Syracuse International Film Festival,nancy keefe rhodes,city eagle,syracuse,Oliver Sacks,richard dyer,SU filmStephen Meyer
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