Since its invention in 1975 by cameraman Garrett Brown, the Steadicam has expanded into its own niche within the film industry and become an integral part of the filmmaker’s toolkit.
As a camera assistant (AC), you can’t have a career beside the camera without eventually working with a Steadicam. Even if you’re just beginning as an AC or trainee, there’s a good chance you’ll soon work alongside a Steadicam operator, perhaps on some of those notoriously long takes.
So what do you do when they tell you they’re flying the camera low Don Juan? Or they’re thinking missionary is the best position for a shot? For starters, they aren’t coming on to you. They’re telling you how they plan to coordinate the complex movement of their feet, the camera, and the subject.
(And you, if you’re pacing alongside them during a shot – whether as a spot or a focus puller)
For you, as an camera assistant (AC), it’s vital you’re on the same page as your operator, especially if you’re the one pulling focus. It’ll also help you communicate with the operator to coordinate changing needs for the Steadicam rig between setups.
So, with that said, let’s cover the basics of Steadicam positions…
The Basic Modes and Positions of Steadicam
There are two basic “modes” of Steadicam operating:
- High mode: The camera sits on top of the sled, typically at a height between the operator’s torso and face. This is the most common way Steadicam’s are used.
- Low mode: The camera sits below the sled at a height between the operator’s knees and the ground. Often used for close-to-the-ground shots (e.g. tracking someone’s shoes as they walk).
High and low modes aren’t necessarily Steadicam positions, but they are important to know as the two most basic ways to mount a camera on the arm. It’s also worth noting that in high mode, the operator’s monitor sits at the bottom of the pole while in low mode it sits in the mid-to-top of the pole.
Further, there are two basic “positions” of Steadicam operating:
- Missionary: the camera points forward while the operator is also facing forward.
- Don Juan: the camera points behind the operator while the operator faces forward.
For more nuanced definitions of these positions, we’ll turn to Jerry Holway’s excellent The Steadicam Operator’s Handbook. In it, Holway says missionary position includes the arc “from the camera pointing straight ahead to looking across the operator’s body.” Similarly, Holway defines Don Juan as “an arc as the camera looks to the side away away from the arm and pans to the rear.”
(Side note: Google Books has a huge preview of the first 183 pages of Holway’s book available. I urge you to read through all of it and, if you’re serious about Steadicam, to also purchase a copy.)
Just because a camera is panned slightly to the left or right doesn’t necessarily change its position – though there are certainly grey areas that Holway refers to as “no man’s land.”
Combining the Modes and the Positions
So what’s the difference between the “modes” and the “positions”? The mode refers to how the camera is mounted, independent of how the rig and operator moves, while the position refers to the interplay between the operator, the camera, and the rig.
For instance, a camera can be positioned missionary in high mode or Don Juan in low mode and vice versa. However, a camera cannot be both missionary and Don Juan nor can it fly in both high or low modes. It’s one of each.
For a really great demonstration of these concepts, along with sample videos of what they look like on screen, check out this video created by Steadicam operator John E. Fry:
Other Terms and Variations
There are, of course, other subtle variations on these basic positions and modes. The poor man’s low mode, for instance, involves inverting the rig so the camera flies low without inverting the camera underneath the sled. The result is a quicker setup, but an inverted image as well.
A few other terms that are useful to know:
- Goofy foot: Operating with the camera on the right (as opposed to the traditional left)
- Hard mount: When part of the Steadicam is fixed to a vehicle or other rig
- Soft mount: When the operator, wearing the Steadicam, is shooting from a vehicle or other rig
Alright Steadicam ops, tear me apart. What did I miss? And what advice do you have for those new to Steadicam – whether they’ll be working as an assistant or as an operator?