Have you ever attempted to shoot a video while walking or running? Every jarring footstep you take will send a shockwave through your body, jolting that little camera in your hand. The resulting footage will probably be shaky and unstable. Assuming you’re not filming The Blair Witch Project, that’s probably not a desired effect. You were probably just trying to follow your subject, or get a dynamic, moving shot.
So how does Hollywood do it? Check out these video clips, and try to figure it out:
Both of these movie scenes were filmed as one continuous shot, with zero edits. Both scenes navigate up or down stairs, around objects, through doorways, pan side-to-side and tilt up-and-down. Both scenes would be nearly impossible to obtain by just laying down some dolly tracks. Yet the footage is steady, smooth, and solid as a rock. Their secret? The steadicam!
A steadicam is a camera stabilization device, worn by a camera operator, that allows him to move around on foot, while simultaneously adjusting height and trajectory of the camera. Undesirable movements, such as footsteps, are isolated from the camera using some very simple and ingenious mechanisms.
The main components of the steadicam are:
The sled -
This piece holds the camera, and usually a monitor and battery as well. All the components are weight distributed and precisely balanced. This assembly is supported by a special joint, called a gimbal, which isolates motion on 3 axes.
The arm -
This articulating arm supports the weight of the sled and acts as a shock absorber. It uses 2 spring-loaded parallelograms to absorb the jolts and up-and-down motions of footsteps. It also acts to isolate side-to-side inputs.
The vest -
This is worn by the operator and attaches the arm and sled to their body. It is well padded, adjustable, and supportive.
The biggest issue that I personally have with a steadicam is the price tag. Very basic entry-level devices can run over a thousand dollars, and may not perform as well as you’d hoped. Professional, cinema-grade units will set you back upwards of $50,000.
Not satisfied with any of those options, I decided to build one myself. My goal was to build it as cheaply as possible, using exclusively off-the-shelf parts obtained from local hardware stores, thrift stores, or online retailers. The results are not exactly pretty, but are very functional, and only cost about $150! If anyone is interested in building one yourself, I don’t recommend it. It’s an immense amount of labor, and requires access to some large power tools. But if you insist, feel free to hit me up for a parts list and/or tech support.
Here’s a Flash animation I built to scale, to test the fitment of the components before making any cuts. Enjoy!