Why bring in a Steadicam? What is this machine capable of? And does this behemoth remain relevant in a world where our tiny iPhones can shoot 240 fps?
Initially, the Steadicam was labeled a "stabilizer". Does it stabilize? It does, but only in the same sense that a musical instrument "makes noise". The true magic of the Steadicam is the absolute, tactile connection the operator has to the image. Nothing stands between the operator's hand and every aspect of the frame, leaving a myriad of creative choices in his or her hands at any moment. So, who is this Steadicam operator? What does this person do? And why are they valuable on a set?
First and foremost, and above all, this person is a good camera operator; framing has become second nature to them. They know how to start and end a shot, how blocking affects a scene, and how to run the set as the shot is designed and perfected. They understand that everyone back at the monitor will be expecting the same precision, the same tight headroom and locked horizons that they would see on a typical dolly shot. They know how to observe and adapt to a director or DP's style. And how to work with the AC's, the grips, the electricians, and the actors to accomplish complex, and sometimes groundbreaking shots.
Secondly, and what really sets a Steadicam operator apart from other camera operators: this person eats, sleeps, and breathes camera movement. They know not only how to move the camera, but why to do it as well. A caring operator will have read as much of the script allowed them, and they will have asked the DP or director many questions about the camera's role in the story. A film crew is in a desperate race against time, and knowing what the scene is about is as valuable a tool as the knowledge to select the right equipment for the shot. How a camera move can affect a scene, and the audience's perception of it, is a tremendous power to wield. Great camera work, at its best, takes on a kind of invisible quality, in that it will not distract from an actor's performance.
This person will own professional equipment. Look for brands like Tiffen Steadicam, PRO, XCS, Sachtler, or Cinema Products. A working operator can handle just about any camera, from the tiniest DSLR, all the way up to a massive stereoscopic 3D rig. Most will have an entire little world of cables, accessories, and brackets; to power and support all the popular cameras on the market. They have relationships with machinists, technicians, and camera houses, keeping themselves up-to-date, and their equipment in top working order.
The best Steadicam operators are truly invaluable on a set. Unlike the dolly or the crane, the Steadicam is operated by only one individual. If an over-the-shoulder doesn't line up as planned, the operator's corrections are an act of sheer will, because they are solely responsible for both the spatial position of the camera, and its composition, all at once. An operator will have an ego healthy enough to yearn for great shots, yet tempered enough to be a team player, and to know that every shot is a collective effort. They have the confidence to try bold, new things, the wisdom to know when something is unwise or unsafe, and the humility to know when a shot is outside the limits of the equipment or their skill.
They know that when one operator looks bad, the entire art of Steadicam looks bad. So they show up to a set carrying the solemn responsibility of maintaining this art.
The best ones are knowledgeable, humble, patient, kind, and helpful. They know where they fit in with the rest of the crew. They're the kind of person the grips are eager to help. The kind of person that can earn a DP's trust, and not abuse it.
These people love this job. Because it's the type of job where you can learn something new every single day. You can meet creative people and work with them to accomplish wonderful things. You get to work with amazing, exotic gear. But most of all, you get to tell stories.
It's been called "The Last Great Job In Hollywood", and I believe it.