In 1998, Stanley Kubrick accepted the D.W. Griffith Award from the Director’s Guild of America. In his acceptance speech, he compared Griffith to the Grecian myth of Icarus. Like Icarus, Griffith flew too close to the sun, but instead of his wax-and-feather wings melting, Griffith was shunned by the movie industry he largely created. Did Kubrick take this as the cautionary tale that it’s been accepted as for millennia, to avoid flying too high? No; instead, he recognized it as a call to “do a better job on the wings.”
As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Kubrick’s horror film The Shining, social media and video retrospectives will be brimming with now-classic images: a boy turning corner after corner on his tricycle, a man with an axe limping like a wounded beast through a serpentine hedge maze. None of these images would be as memorable in the cultural consciousness were it not for Kubrick’s gamble on “better wings,” in the form of Garrett Brown’s Steadicam technology.
In an episode of YouTube series The Science of Movies, Brown explains that he simply engineered a product that was missing in filmmaking at the time. “Cameras had to be on wheels to make a smooth moving shot. When I first got in the business, I had to buy a huge dolly to put my stupid little camera on. People go places where you couldn’t use a dolly. Dramas take place across doorsteps, and up steps. Over rough ground you can use a dolly and lay rails, but you can’t look ahead, you can’t look behind. That’s crazy; it just seemed, to me, so restrictive.” He relocated the camera’s center of gravity to an external point below it, placing a stabilizing gimbal and counterweights behind and underneath the camera, connecting it to the operator’s harness via an articulated arm. The effect is that the camera can feel free-floating while being handheld, untainted by operator movement. His 1974 demo video (widely available on YouTube) includes, among other things, his then-girlfriend Ellen running along a hillside. The camera effortlessly glides alongside her like a child following a sea lion along an aquarium display. The reel made the rounds in the film industry, landing Brown three feature film projects the following year: John Avildsen’s Rocky, Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory, and John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man. Eventually, the game-changing tech caught the eye of a game-changing auteur, and in 1979, Garrett Brown was hired to film a haunted house picture.
Vincent LoBrutto’s Stanley Kubrick biography (of the same title) details how Brown got attached to The Shining. A film exhibition in London drew the director’s interest just as the Stephen King adaptation entered pre-production, and Kubrick hosted a sit-down with Brown at his Boreham Wood home, where they showed him the latest evolution of the Steadicam design. According to LoBrutto, Kubrick asked Brown to demonstrate the accuracy he could achieve with the Steadicam, having him hit marks in order to pull focus when working at the high exposures he would require during shooting. Kubrick thought several steps ahead and ensured that the technology he worked with allowed for the movement and precision that he envisioned for telling the story.
On his audio commentary for the 2007 Blu-ray release of the film, Brown credits the filmmaker for foreseeing the ways that the on screen image could be manipulated with his invention. “I think I had perhaps done 8 other movies before The Shining,” he comments. “I tended to do special shots, brought in to do this or that sequence; it didn’t occur to people– until Stanley got the idea– that this was a tool that you could use every day, I felt. This was the first time that I was there for the entire schedule, beginning to end, and available as Stanley’s tool or weapon for penetrating space, for following things without laying rails or worrying about the quality of the ground.”
A Gothic tale enmeshed in modern geometric interiors, The Shining is a pageant of madness that presents a family in its spotlight. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), an author with anger issues and substance abuse in his history, is hired as the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel during its long, harsh winter. He brings along his family: mousy wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd), who has a special gift that allows him to see things most people can’t. In the snow-blanketed isolation of the Rocky mountains, cut off from roads and rescue, the trio slowly learn that something is dreadfully wrong with their seasonal dwelling.
As he did with sci-fi (in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), Kubrick avoided the conventional elements of a genre picture. You’re not going to see Jack Torrance illuminated in uncanny facial lighting from below, like so many camp counselors shining a flashlight under their chins as they tell ghost stories. Instead, Kubrick shot in existing, meticulous light, obsessively concerned with composition. As an avid chess player, he was intimately aware of spatial awareness, discerning how things and people related to their surroundings. This glistens through the entire 146-minute runtime; the compositions are direct, center-framed and delicately staged. The result is enchanting: as the family descends into hysteria, the audience descends, getting lost in the labyrinthine recesses of the characters’ minds. In the featurette The Visions of Stanley Kubrick, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński (a regular collaborator with Steven Spielberg) talks about the medium’s power to pull an audience in: “Filmmakers always look for ways to allow the audience to participate in the movie. One of the ways you allow them to be active participants is with a mobile camera.”
With The Shining, movement is the name of the game. With the work of cinematographer John Alcott, Kubrick uses the kinetic gaze of the camera to act as another character in the story, prowling along corridors and craning its neck around the doors of forbidden rooms. He mostly filmed in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, which nestled the look of the film glamorously, something between widescreen and CinemaScope. With that, the frame is filled, and the viewer has no choice but to stare down the madness unfolding before them. Even when the characters are immobile, the camera provides the movement. Crawling zooms uncover information about them, such as Jack losing his mind as he stares out a window, or Dick Halloran’s “shine” as he lays in bed. A long lens softly blurs everything else around Jack while emphasizing his advancement towards Wendy, making the monster even more monstrous. But among all of these techniques, the combination of wide lenses and Brown’s Steadicam do the most to capitalize on the sense of hypnotic movement in the film. From the grand tour of the hotel to the mesmerizing, ice-cold climax, Steadicam allows the viewer to penetrate the onscreen space, into the story itself.
There was a lot to navigate within that space. The shooting sets were massive, the result of Kubrick’s insistence upon most of the interiors being built to scale. If there is action, Garrett Brown shot it. “I actually shot almost all the moving shots in that film,” Brown told CBS Sunday Morning. “All the stuff in the corridors. (Kubrick) had in his mind this eerie smoothness. And that, we were able to deliver. That almost turned it into the hotel’s point of view.” The only two major sequences of movement that Brown didn’t lens were the opening helicopter shot of the Torrance family driving through the mountains, and the high-tension moment when Wendy discovers Jack’s manuscript and is confronted by him. Both were done by the second unit crew and a Steadicam understudy, Ray Andrew. For the rest—the hedge maze, the tricycle run, the ballroom—Brown was there, armed with a BL Silent 35mm camera.
Though he had invented the apparatus, Brown honed his craft on the set of The Shining. His first challenge came during the scene between Danny’s doctor and Wendy at the Torrance home, just after we meet Danny’s imaginary friend Tony for the first time; it’s a simple enough tracking shot, but Brown was required to hold his rig perfectly still at the end of it for several minutes at a time while the actors completed the scene, essentially acting as a tripod impersonator. The trick is to check the periphery of the frame in the sequence after any tracking shot: if there’s a bit of movement in the corners, that’s Brown bearing the 60 pound rig as if it’s a crane arm for two, sometimes three minutes. Anyone who has held a body plank for thirty seconds has a fair idea of the kind of core strength one would need for such a feat, and Brown was put through such practices over and over throughout the shooting schedule. On his audio commentary, he recalls the benefit of Kubrick’s infamous precision. “We were on the set for four days, and I then shot 30 or 40 times. Then I realized that the essence of it had almost nothing to do with me, because my takes were roughly identical. It had to do with Stanley watching and watching, and waiting, and letting the performance play up or play down. I liked participating in that way of working, because I got a chance to refine what I did to an extent that I never did before, like a dancer rehearsing, or being onstage every night for a year. I got to learn the closest dimensions of the apartment and what would happen if this foot was six inches in this direction, or if I took another half step.”
It wasn’t always physically demanding; sometimes the immense geography of the interiors were too much to navigate by foot. Brown tried multiple vehicles so that he wouldn’t have to walk with the Steadicam for the tracking shots, including arguably the most iconic, following young Danny as he takes his bike for a joyride throughout the corridors. After some pushback, the director himself (along with Ron Ford) created a specialized wheelchair so that Brown could operate his camera with a focus on framing, rather than pacing as he tried to keep up. Steadicam rickshaws are widely utilized in filmmaking now, but in 1980, it was just another day of troubleshooting on the set.
In order to follow Danny Lloyd around, Brown couldn’t hold the camera at the usual level. Tilting downward towards the boy while filming in the wide-angled lenses that Kubrick loved so much would result in “keystoning,” in which the lenses would distort the image too much, giving it a bizarre funhouse mirror look. So, more innovation was needed. Brown crafted an upside-down version of the Steadicam with the camera on the bottom and the rest of it on top. This way, the lens would be in what Brown calls “low mode,” between waist and knee. This allowed the camera to stay level from front to rear, and eliminated lens tilting. The low mode was used most effectively in the scenes that featured Danny riding on his tricycle throughout the hotel. With the lens mere inches above the floor, the viewfinder (and thus the audience) can infiltrate the screen territory right behind the child. The operator doesn’t have to make wide arcs around corners as they would have to on a dolly; they can stay with the actor and cut those corners for fluidity. The more fluidity, the more the image resembles what the actual human eye registers while moving throughout a space. Slip an ultra-wide lens over it and that child’s vehicle, bouncing throughout the convolutions of a hotel, begins to take on the appearance of people rattling around within a giant indoor maze.
The flow of the camera movement pays off the most in the hedge maze sequence at the film’s end. The cheese has fully slid off of Jack Torrance’s cracker, and he attacks his family. Wendy and Danny are split up, the boy enters the hedge maze beside the hotel, and his maniacal father follows him, axe in hand. In following Danny and Jack, Brown moves as fluidly as the blood pours from the elevators. He explains the waltz between actor and operator thus: “This was actually a handheld shot of mine. So here is that 9.8 mm lens, held dead-level. Pushing through space, revealing god knows what. There was no way to plan any of it; Jack went somewhere, and I reacted. This is done in the ‘Don Juan’ mode of Steadicam, when you run forward, but you’re shooting backwards. This is almost a dance, totally ad-libbed, not the same twice. Stanley off somewhere, watching on wireless video, shouting in comments sometimes by walkie-talkie, acting like some sort of wrathful Nielsen Family, watching, judging, controlling the content.” The payload is a mesmerizing visual of terror that imprints upon the psyche. A wide lens with the unrelenting Steadicam movement gives everything within its eye an exaggerated appearance. The hedges, originally greenery nailed to slabs of plywood, built on a London airfield, now threaten to swallow its trespassers whole. The spatial relations of actor to setting change, taking on a sinister air within the crosshairs of the viewfinder. This is the power of mobile filmmaking.
Stanley Kubrick is rightfully credited with changing the language of cinema, but Garrett Brown and his Steadicam made a meaningful contribution to the vocabulary Kubrick used to do so. For his part, Brown recognizes the role that the film played in his career. “I think I learned my trade on The Shining, really,” he comments. “I was good with the thing when I showed up; I think I can say without modesty that I became an absolute master of it by the end of this schedule, through the miracle of repetition.” He went on to invent several devices that allow a viewer to follow a subject through spaces previously un-navigable for home viewers. The Steadicam utilizes the most dynamic form of the medium: to draw the audience into a world they might not otherwise access. Steven Spielberg once said that it’s impossible to turn off a Kubrick film; Brown’s wandering eye is one reason why.