Learning to Fly: Steadicam Gold workshop 2012

By site editor Dan Chung:

“Steadi-GoPro” @ Genting Steadicam Gold Workshop 2012 from Wan Zhong Wei on Vimeo.

Talk Steadicam and most people think of The West Wing’s walk-and-talks or the guys you see on the sidelines of football matches, but it has a place in factual shooting too. I’ve always been fascinated by the look and feel you get and tried to use the lightweight Steadicam Merlin in some of my past DSLR news features.

Even so, I thought hard before paying out for Asia’s first Tiffen Steadicam Gold workshop. I’d previously considered doing a course but they’d always been far away. When my filmmaker friend Joseph Jang told me that there would be one in Malaysia, led by Steadicam legend Jerry Holway and inventor Garrett Brown, I figured I had to attend. It wasn’t cheap – but it proved well worth it. It was also the most fun I’ve had in ages.

One-on-one with Garrett Brown

The intensive five and a half day course was held at a resort in the Genting Highlands. There were twenty four students and seven instructors. Tiffen had a large range of Steadicams for us all to use, including top of the range models like the Archer 2, Ultra 2 and Phantom-V. The experience levels of the attendees ranged from novice to shooters already making a living from operating a Steadicam. We split into sub-groups of four students; mine comprised the very jovial Korean duo of Mr Kim (a regular Steadicam operator) and Mr Jeong (who is a full time TV news shooter) and the hugely entertaining Singaporean Vinod Varma. 

Me and my homies: (right to left) Kim, Vinod, Jeong and me

Jerry set the pace from the get go – by the end of the first day we had all tried out full Steadicam rigs. The workshop was hands-on throughout and each day each instructor had an exercise or scenario that we had to learn to shoot with the Steadicam. We would rotate between instructors so that by the end of the day we had been through six different exercises, taking it in turns to fly the Steadicams under the watchful eyes of our instructors. Each morning and evening we had tutorial and theory sessions. It was pretty much like a boot camp! Exhausting.

Garrett Brown instructs the class

Garrett and Jerry gave engrossing presentations discussing their work on major Hollywood films like The Shining, Indiana Jones, Marathon Man, Johnnie Brasco and Rocky. I think I would have paid for the course just for these lessons in cinematic storytelling.

Garrett told us how and why he invented the Steadicam, and why he remains passionate about it to this day. He is convinced that the Steadicam offers the most natural representation in film and TV of how we actually see and move. He has a point – and says it much better than I would in these videos:

Garrett also trained us to use his latest rig the Tango. This is a combination of a Steadicam and a jib arm that can perform amazing moves from floor to ceiling.

Me learning to Tango under the instruction of Garrett

Jerry explained the physics of the Steadicam and had a multitude of practical pointers on how to operate correctly. He taught us how to set up a rig, how to hold it and how to operate in the missionary, Don Juan and Goofy positions. If you want to get into Steadicam the very first thing you should do is buy his book – The Steadicam Operator’s Handbook. It details all the theory we learned on the course and there is no more comprehensive guide to Steadicam around. All the students received a copy of the manual.

Jerry Holway - A maestro with a Steadicam

We also had an important lesson on good posture and safe working with Steadicam from instructor Chris Fawcett. I had always assumed that using a big Steadicam rig would be bad for your back, but Chris assured us that if done correctly Steadicam does no harm and can even improve your posture. He has a great write-up of his theories online here.

Steadicam vests - correct fitting is important

I found that I had pretty bad posture at the start of the course but with the help of all the instructors and their constant advice I found myself improving as the course went on. As my posture improved, so did my ability to control the Steadicam. 

Coming from a news and documentary perspective it was great to see that not all the instructors came from a narrative cinema background. Instructors Rebecca (Bex) Wilson-Jennings and Phil Balsden shared their knowledge of covering live events with Steadicam and gave many valuable tips on how to work in the real world. I’ll be incorporating a lot of what they taught me into my daily work.

Korean instructor Mr Park worked us all very hard and showed us how to operate in a vehicle rigged with a Steadicam hard mount. That was lots of fun. We also learned to operate from dollies and in both high and low mode. 

Instructor Park (R) teaches Anwar (C) and Vinod how to work from a vehicle
Steadicam on a dolly - lots of fun

Another thing that we were taught is to think about is how to use movement to tell a story, thinking about where the subject is within the frame and keeping it all flowing by anticipating the action. It became clear to me that Steadicam is not just a technical skill but also a highly creative one.

Jeong films Vinod being grappled by Mr Kim in one of our excercises

All our training was on full sized Steadicam rigs, but one other piece of equipment I have a new found respect for is the handheld Steadicam Merlin 2. I’ve had an original Merlin for about six years now, but never got on with it. By taking the principles I was learning on the larger Steadicams I now feel able to use the Merlin much better. It will certainly get used on some of my news assignments where I need to travel light.
Below is a short video from one of the training scenarios. I shot it with a Merlin while my fellow students acted out a scene set for us by Tiffen’s Robin Thwaites. The camera is a Canon XF105 set in full auto – obviously if I were doing this for real it would be in manual, but for the purposes of this fun exercise it was just fine. Hopefully you get an idea of just what the Merlin can do. You might recognise the actors as Mr Kim and Mr Jeong.

Steadicam Merlin 2: Training exercise at the Malaysia Gold Steadicam workshop 2012 from Dan Chung on Vimeo.

What was great was having so many enthusiastic students and trainers all working together with the common aim of improving their skills. All the students had an inspiring and rewarding time and they also became pretty damn good at operating a Steadicam. If you want to fly a Steadicam there really is no better way to get into it – this course will accelerate your learning and stop you getting into bad habits that are harder to correct down the line. I thoroughly recommend it.

The students, trainers and helpers all together

Upcoming Steadicam workshops include a Silver workshop in Barcelona from August 1-3 and in the USA there will be a two day lightweight rig workshop from July 25-26 and the Eastern Classic from December 2-9. Future workshops are planned in Asia but details have not yet been announced. You can stay up to date at http://www.flysteadicam.com

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