It looks like a cross between an orbiting spy satellite and an arcade game. It soars with the grace of an eagle, swoops down like a hawk in search of prey, and moves with the speed of a sprinter.
But the latest invention to spring from the fertile mind of Academy Award-winning technical wizard Garrett Brown is neither a hybrid toy nor a product of the U.S. space program. It is a highly sophisticated, flying, remote-controlled motion picture camera system, and even though it has yet to be used on any production, it already has the movie industry buzzing with anticipation.
Proof of this industry curiosity came in the person of cinematographer Caleb ("The Black Stallion") Deschanel, who flew into Philadelphia recently to watch Brown and a crew of about a dozen technicians test the new camera on a high school football field in suburban Haverford Township. Deschanel was here because he is about to shoot Barry ("Diner") Levinson's film version of the Bernard Malamud baseball novel, "The Natural," on location in Buffalo later this summer. Deschanel had heard through the industry grapevine that Brown had a revolutionary new camera he was tinkering with, and that it might be useful for a game scene in the movie. So here he was, on a scorching summer day with the temperature approaching three digits, tinkering with the new system like a young boy who'd just learned how to play Donkey Kong.
Deschanel was willing to fly in from Buffalo, where he was scouting locations, because Garrett Brown, a Philadelphia-based cinematographer and inventor, has already changed the way films are shot. His Steadicam, for which he won an Academy Award for technical achievement in 1978, is a camera suspension system that has virtually eliminated the jiggle in hand-held shots. Cameramen can now carry a camera up and down stairs, run with it over rough terrain, or shoot from moving vehicles like trucks and helicopters. And the resultant shot will be as steady as a gambler with a winning poker hand. The Steadicam is now an industry staple, used in everything from the Philadelphia Art Museum steps sequence in "Rocky" to the forest scenes in "Return of the Jedi."
If the Steadicam eliminated the migraine aspect of action sequences, however, Brown's new invention promises to lead cinematography into the next century and beyond. It will probably also change the way sports are covered on TV and in movies for all time.
The system, which does not yet have a name, involves stringing cables across a field or open space, and suspending a camera from them. The camera, which weighs about 23 pounds and is vertically stabilized by a series of gyroscope-like devices, is then controlled from the ground by a computer, which lets out or takes up the wires, allowing the device to go backward, forward, sideways or up and down (the maximum altitude is determined solely by how high the anchors for the wires are placed, and how much cable you have).
The system is operated by two technicians seated at a space-age console who control a joystick and a small wheel that determine camera movements like pan, tilt and zoom. A computer at the console interprets the joystick commands and feeds them to the camera and motors, and can also be used to pre-program camera moves. A video monitor shows the operators what is being shot.
On a purely functional level, the system can move faster (up to 20 mph) and get closer to the action than almost any other device currently in use in the business. It can also produce shots that might be too dangerous, or physically impossible, for a human camera operator to perform.
"Hopefully," said Deschanel, as he watched the system run through a series of tests, "we'll be able to do things where you can put a camera in a place where you could never get a human being, use it for dangerous stunts where you can't get too close to the action, or in situations where a helicopter or crane just won't do the job."s large. What supports it is whatever you happen to have. A lot of mankind's entertainment takes place in these large places (like stadiums), but the shooting is restriced. Cranes get in the way. You can get a helicopter up high, but what about the other 99% of the space?
Said Brown: "This thing doesn't care about the terrain; all you need are three high places" to suspend the cables from.
Brown envisions the system being used in startling new ways: placing the camera six inches in front of, and just above, a swimmer at a swimming event, and then following the athlete down the length of the pool; skimming right over the heads of a crowd at a rock concert, and winding up in a tight closeup of the lead singer; looking over the shoulder of a hurdler as he or she runs down the track; or moving out and up with a skier at a ski-jumping event.
"I could have gone up the steps with Rocky much better with this," says Brown. "The sweep around him would have been much faster. I also shot some of the forest scenes in 'Jedi,' but I was restricted to where I could walk. With this system you could string cables between the trees and shoot all kinds of things."
Brown says the idea for the system came to him about five years ago, when he was shooting an episode of the TV series "Little House on the Prairie."
"Merlin Olson and I were sitting around talking about football," says Brown, "and about the way it's televised, and the idea just came to me." Brown followed up on this brainstorm by gathering together a core group of six technical people, and spent several years working with them to sort out all of the system's bugs.
"I didn't reveal anything to anybody until the patent was filed last year," says Brown. "Then I started to leak things selectively to some friends in the business."
For Brown, "friends in the business" means people like George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick. Since Brown has done Steadicam work on scores of films, he knows almost everyone there is to know in the industry. This has already paid off with the new camera, since director Richard ("Superman") Donner and cinematographer Vittorio ("Apocalypse Now") Storaro have already decided to use the system on "Ladyhawke," a medieval-theme film with falconry sequences that will begin shooting in Europe in the fall. Specific shots are being discussed by other major directors, but use of the system is still in the negotiating stage.
In the meantime, Brown plans to improve the system, which is still essentially in the prototype stage, and to offer it to the industry on a rental-only basis. "It will be expensive, several thousand dollars per day," says Brown, "but it can be cost effective. It will take half a day for a man to set up the rigging, but the rest of the machinery can be set up in half an hour. Once you set it up, though, you can work a big set for days."
Or almost any kind of configuration you want to deal with. The endless, and still untapped, possibilities of the system became obvious during the Haverford test. As the system was raised and lowered, run over objects and checked for speed (by following a runner around the track), Brown and Deschanel held a rapid-fire conversation about the camera, sounding in their enthusiasm like two adventurers who had just discovered the Lost Ark.
"Those shots right above the runner are great!!" said Deschanel. "You can really feel the speed."
"You could just do an overhead shot of the baseball diamond," said Brown, "with a play going on and the ball whizzing back and forth."
"How about football?" asked Deschanel "You could follow the ball in the air, and into the hands of the receiver. Or can you imagine this on some incredible location like Niagara Falls? Like going up a hill and then down into the falls . . ."
"The view through this has an amazing, soaring quality," said Brown later, summing up the system's appeal. "It has an amazing perspective. You feel like an eagle looking through it."