How to become a Steadicam Operator

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

By Dae Hyun Kim

Dae Hyun Kim was born and raised in South Korea. He finished his college in Chicago and worked as a Camera/Steadicam Operator in Narratives, Music Videos, and Commercials in Chicago. After finishing his graduate education at American Film Institute. He is now pursuing collaboration and work in various forms of visual storytelling as a Camera/Steadicam Operator.

The Steadicam system was introduced by Garrett Brown in 1975, and since then, it has become a valuable tool in the motion picture and broadcasting industry. 

Steadicam operators are highly demanded in various productions; films, commercials, music videos, broadcastings, live events, documentaries, and more. Steadicam operating is an extension of camera operating: a special skill that a camera operator can have on top of general skills. Before you start using a Steadicam, you need to have an understanding of camera operating, framing, and execution of shots on set.

I’ve met many people who are interested in operating a Steadicam, but did not know where to start or even where to get hands-on experience. Here are some different ways to gain the knowledge and experience required to become a Steadicam Operator.

Take the Workshop

Taking the workshop is the best way to start if you don’t have much knowledge and experience with the Steadicam. There are two main Steadicam workshop options available: One option is through Tiffen and the other is through the Steadicam Operators Association (SOA). 

Tiffen has three different workshops, Bronze, Silver, and Gold. Bronze is a two-day workshop, Silver is a three-day workshop, and Gold is a five-day workshop. Each workshop is valuable, but the longer workshops allow you to spend more time with the Steadicam system and gain more knowledge.  Tiffen workshops brings some of the best instructors, like the creator of the Steadicam Garret Brown, legendary operators like Jerry Holway, Chris Fawcett, and many other operators who are currently working. Through the workshop, you will learn the basic understanding of what a Steadicam is, how it works, and also how to operate it. You will also learn how to use the various Tiffen’s Steadicam rigs. Tiffen’s workshop is available  worldwide.

SOA’s workshop is held every year in the U.S.on both the East and West coasts.. Steadicam operators who currently work on productions lead and instruct students participating. The connections you make in this workshop can be as valuable as the operating knowledge.. Like Tiffen, each workshop has sessions of varying length, and participants can choose which they would like to attend.  All the rigs that are being used in these workshops are donated by operators, therefore, you can try and experience many different rigs, which is a good opportunity and may help you decide which rig you’d like to eventually purchase.

Take Private Lessons

The biggest advantages of taking private lessons over a workshop is that the course will be planned for you and your level of experience, and the lessons are one on one. You can learn at your own pace, and have the instructor’s undivided attention. 

Greg Smith, who is a retired operator with many well-known credits, is one of the Steadicam operations who conducts private lessons. Greg takes anyone from beginners to currently working operators and gives lessons on how to improve yourSteadicam operating skills, as well as basic camera operating.. He has 23 years of experience working in the field as a camera operator. Greg also teaches handheld, geared-head camera operating.

Steadicam operators also offer some teaching time  to people they know and have previously built relationships with. As with anything in the industry, building your connections and network can help you find them! 

Purchasing the Rig

Once you learn how to operate a Steadicam, you would need to get a Steadicam System Rig. There’s a reason why the Steadicam system is not available for rent. Not only is a full-size rig pricey, but also there are various Steadicam systems, and choosing which one to use depends on the operator’s preference. There are many companies that make Steadicam systems: some make full systems, with a vest, arm, and sled, and others make some parts of the system. It is important to try out each one and see how it feels before making a decision to purchase. Especially the vest, since everyone has a different body type and size. In order to try, you can reach out to the vendor or to other operators who have a system you’re interested in. 

There are also different sizes of the rig: Lightweight, Full-size, and somewhere in the middle. What size you purchase depends on your jobs and the camera you will be using. If you are using a lightweight camera or DSLRs, you won’t need a Full-size rig, but if you are going to use cinema cameras you do need one that’s Mid-to Full-size. You should also consider your goals for the rig. If your current job will only require Lightweight, but your goal is to move up to using cinema cameras, then you should think about what rig will suit you best for the long term. 

Practice

Even with the guidance of a workshop or provide training, workshop and purchase the rig, you won’t be be able to magically operate a Steadicam perfectly the first time. Getting good shots with a Steadicam takes time and requires craftsmanship. You need to practice continuously to get comfortable with the rig, and learn how to better operate it the way you want. Understanding how the rig works and behaves takes a  lot of time with it  every shot, the location will be different, the setup will be different, and the actors in front of the camera will act in different ways. You will face challenges with every shot, l learning how best to execute each one. 

There are practice routines that you can do when you are alone, but also oftentimes, operators will gather up and practice together. You can reach out to other operators and show interest in joining the practice sessions with them. Practice together with more experienced operators is the best way to gain knowledge and connect to your community.

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