Operating hand held (Arri 35IIc) as the DP on "Bitter Heritage" at the dance floor of the Destiny II nightclub, which later became the famous and wildly popular Chippendales Club, where I went on to direct and DP the feature film, "Ladies Night" two years later.
While shooting at the Destiny II, I was approached several times by Paul Snider, who was trying to get me involved with a project and script he had ("in development") set to star his Playboy model wife, Dorothy Stratten. I kept shrugging him off, having pegged him as nothing more than just another 'N.Y. hustler', of which Hollywood was full of at the time. (Thanks to writer Sara Eckel for reminding me of the Paul Snider/Dorothy Stratten events)
direction to one of the actors at the L.A. Chippendales location
(Director and DP, "Ladies Night" 1982)
The intriguing back story to "Ladies Night"...
This 1982 feature film drama (shot in Super 16mm and blown up to 35mm for 1:85 theatrical release) is a true case of life imitating art.
"Ladies Night" is centered around the owner (played by Dan Haggerty) of a male strip club (ala Chippendales, where much of the show was actually filmed) who is either an entirely ruthless gangster, or just a shrewd hard-nosed businessman (and in reality, a good guy).
The club owner becomes the subject of a TV exposé by an undercover reporter (played by Stella Stevens) that soon finds them both embroiled in a world of intrigue and betrayal.
Interest in "Ladies Night" was rekindled when real life Chippendales owner Somen (AKA "Steve") Banerjee (who Exec-Produced "Ladies Night"), was accused of extortion, and allegedly contracting for the murders of several of his business acquaintances and rivals.
He pled guilty (as part of a plea bargain) in 1994 of ordering the 1987 contract murder of 46 year old "Ladies Night" choreographer (and Emmy award winner), Nick De Noia (for whom I shot "Muscle Motion" as a personal favor a year after directing "Ladies Night").
At the time I shot and directed "Ladies Night", both Banerjee and De Noia (the lead creative choreographer for both Chippendales clubs), acted like the best of friends and more like business partners than employer/employee, but both men were very headstrong.
Somen "Steve" Banerjee, 47, apparently committed suicide in 1994 just before beginning a 26 year prison sentence for his part in Nick De Noia's contract murder.
The two Chippendales clubs that Banerjee owned (New York and Los Angeles) were forfeited to the U.S. Government as part of the plea bargain, and shuttered.
The entire sordid Chippendales murder-for-hire saga was made into three movies.
One, a TV movie in 2000 called "The Chippendales Murder" and another, a theatrical release in 2001 called "Just Can't Get Enough", and "I Am Chippendales" (pre-production).
There's also a new, well researched book out by Scot Macdonald and Patrick MontesDeOca called "Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders" which is a very fascinating read.
The story line in the original "Ladies Night" feature film is what held the thinly disguised blueprint for future real life events in the saga of Chippendales, Banerjee, and De Noia.
I've heard since then, that it was a dispute over who owned all the film rights to "Ladies Night" that caused a rift in Banerjee's and De Noia's very successful personal and professional relationship, most likely due to Banerjee's constant "all mine" mind set.
The film's premiere showing was successful, and Banerjee received several theatrical distribution deals, which allegedly did not include Nick De Noia as a principal partner.
That's where the trouble apparently began.
Banerjee was seemingly already set to produce "Ladies Night II" ...but without De Noia.
up for the film drama "Ladies Night" at the Chippendales
L.A. Club location.
The Chippendales name never appeared in the actual movie as it was a fictional club that the story centered on and all references to the franchise were removed during filming.
More production still from "Ladies Night" are located here
Garrett Brown's wonderful new invention, the Steadicam,
a Cinema Products Universal Model 1 (c. 1977)
(Greg Altzman, 1st AC. Arri 35BL/400' mag. Operating both hands but 'goofy' due to the arm's design limitations)
*Expanded (additional information) paragraphs
My operating history with the Steadicam dates to the Model 1's commercial introduction by Cinema Products in 1977. Everything about operating a Steadicam at that time was strictly OJT and a mimeographed operation/parts manual. There were no SteadiOp workshops yet.
I visited CP after they had some production Steadicam Model 1 kits for sale, and asked Ed (DiGiulio) if I could borrow one. He'd made me a VF extension for my S16 Eclair NPR, and asked if he could use my VF design for his CP16R's, so we had a bit of history at that point.
*These days, you see "Steadicam Owner/Operator" a lot, but in those days, very few operators owned their own rigs. Cinema Products got around $40K a pop for this Universal Model 1 (about the same price as a full Arri 35mm BL kit, or a nice house back in '77).
I learned to fly that borrowed rig at Cinemobile Systems because they had just about every type of camera for me to test the Model 1 with, and I had friends on staff. I soon became a familiar fixture there, running up and down aisles and stairs 'dancing' with this new device.
The Steadicam pictured is a Universal Model I (1) with a CP modified 'blue' spring arm, and I have an Arri 35BL with 400' mag up. That sucker was huge and heavy (I used to call it the "Heavycam" - plus the rig itself was no lightweight!). Follow-focus was by a 1st AC / FA operated box via a tethered cable going to a electromechanical focus unit on the camera.
The arm was non-adjustable, had a payload of about 39lbs, and was much shorter than today's arms, with about half their booming range. My PanaflexL/35BL 'blue' arm could fly a 53lb camera payload. The fixed P-43 monitor (hard built into the sled) was about 3" wide.
*Most of the Model 1 design limitations were later addressed in the Universal Model II, which at $30K - was cheaper, had a separate monitor, and an adjustable arm (Cinemobile upgraded to the Model II in late 1979, and the much improved Model III in mid 1983).
The Model 1 was easy to get into dynamic balance, not so easy to static balance. Static balance was critical with this rig because of the large masses involved in flying the 35mm sound cameras. A miniscule change in the top stage CG would throw the rig way off kilter.
*Plus, getting the Model 1 sled into static balance was not helped by those unrestrained metal sheathed cables attached to the cameras. Since there were no riser plates made yet, and the entire camera, sled, and post adjustments made available to us operators was very limited, we all came up with our own personal methods to get the rigs into 'flying balance'.
I made a dock out of welded "C" stand parts and would fine tune the sled balance on it by using stick on automotive wheel balance weights. Even so, it was often I who made up for the lack of dial-in sled and arm adjustments on those Model 1's by shear strength and will.
the Model 1 into low mode was a real challenge because it was never
designed to operate that way, but I successfully flew that model in
low mode on many, many shows.
From my experiences in auto racing, I knew it's best not to fight the equipment, so once I learned how the rig wanted to be handled (using one hand on the arm to control booming, and the other on the post to control pans and tilts), it was pretty much a done deal.
Some weeks later, Harvey (from Cinemobile Location Systems) called and said they had a few shows that had inquired about hiring this new device, and if Cinemobile acquired one, would I operate it for them when needed? Right place, right time, right skills, and luck.
I was the "house" Steadicam operator (from 1977 to 1984, as an independent contractor) that usually accompanied Cinemobile's PanaflexL/35BL Steadicam packages (unless the production wanted to rent 'dry hire'). However, for much of that first year, Cinemobile would only rent out its Steadicam PanaL/BL packages with their own operator as part of the hire.
*Cinemobile Location Systems Inc. was the largest supplier of motion picture equipment for location studio rentals at the time (it wasn't just the one location truck, that's just how Fouad Said started the company) - and possessed the same industry clout and a reputation for quality and service as Panavision (a good comparative venue example of that period).
*As I recall, only Cinemobile had the Steadicam on rental until at least '81, so I was doing five to six operating gigs a week because everybody was renting from them. Double lucky.
*Around this time, Panavision introduced the Panaglide (Panavision's competing stabilizer rig), which I never much cared for. The first Panaglide was very slick looking, but not much fun to fly because of its poor basic design. It was cumbersome and I found it very limiting.
*Later models included (in an attempt to circumvent the Brown patent), gas shocks instead of springs (think GPI, very avant-garde for the time, but that arm was the worse), a cable free sprung arm, and several other interesting but unsuccessful arm and sled modifications.
*Panavision eventually adapted CP furnished arms (a derivative of the model III arm) to the Panaglide, which made it into a pretty decent rig to work with (except for that vest). A lot of shows used the Panaglide, because a lot of shows used Panavision equipment.
In those days, there were no Steadicams/SteadiOps attached to a show like there is today. Most of my Cinemobile gigs back then were just day/half day hires. Some DP's and 1st AC's asked the producer to just rent the hardware alone, thinking all they had to do was strap it on and the rig itself would generate those magical shots they had seen - all by itself.
Most production companies at the time believed the Steadicam to be a self-stabilizing hardware only platform instead of the hardware/human dynamic that it is. I would often receive calls to go operate on shows that had rented their rigs 'dry hire' after the DP or 1st AC realized there was a bit more to this new technology than "just strapping the rig on".
If you watch a movie or TV show from the late 70's to mid 80's, and there's a production end credit that lists "Locations by: Cinemobile Systems" and they have Steadicam shots in the show, the Steadicam Op on that show was most likely me. For some unfathomable reason, Steadicam operators were rarely given screen credit, and that hasn't much changed.
*Most producers, directors, DP's, and crew members - most likely knew me better at that time as "the Cinemobile guy" than by my proper name.
*When working with directors and DP's that had never used a Steadicam on one of their shows, I would often explain its many benefits in tracking dolly and boom shot terms. Most of those directors and DP's were quick to grasp the possibilities available to them now that the camera was no longer earth bound or encumbered by tethered mechanical limitations.
*They often hired a Steadicam because they wanted to use it in a running shot, or to track up or down stairs (because that's what they'd heard about or seen), but soon realized that those moves were a miniscule part of what was available to them in using this new device.
This first commercial Steadicam model looks pretty primitive compared to today's designs and the advent of wireless follow-focus, etc., but it worked, and it worked very, very well.
The arm on the PanaflexL/35BL rigs were short, and along with the centered hard mounted socket block, combined to make operating from the left difficult. I had to operate 'goofy' a lot (that term didn't yet exist) to keep the sled and arm clear of my body and set collisions.
In time, I developed my own flying style with the Model 1; operating two-handed from either side (by flipping the arm), and at a slight oblique angle because of the sled length.
This was quite contrary to what most other Model 1 operators were doing back then, which was always operating from the right side and only with one hand - using the sled post grip. Op's visiting me on set, often called my two-handed ambidextrous operating style as 'nzo'.
*Although very few period photos of Steadicam operators flying the Model 1 still exist, in the few that do, the Op is almost always flying sled right and operating with just one hand.
I spent many hours strapped into those early rigs, usually wearing a bandana because the vest would chafe over time, and glove, because the arm post hinges loved to bite my hand
I believe that I'm using an early prototype focus range finder system in the shot below (somewhat like a Panatape), as evidenced by the AC looking at a distance scale/readout.
There really isn't that much difference in operation or moves from this very first commercial Steadicam model compared to the modern (GPI) Pro II and (Tiffen) Steadicams I fly today - an enduring testament to Garrett Brown's superb engineering and excellent basic design.
The entire "mystic" surrounding the Steadicam and Steadicam operators was born out of a necessity to make the rigs do things they were never built to do, and us operators pushing that envelope hard, time and time again. "That can't be done", just isn't in our vocabulary.
Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam, but it's us Steadicam operators that defined it...
I have continued to be a professional film and video SteadiOp over the past 36+ years (and even before), and now specialize solely in digital film and HD video Steadicam work.
Although I think Garrett Brown's creation is a terrific contribution to the tools and art of filmmaking, like a lot of other novel inventions in the motion picture business, it tends to be used much too often (and sometimes... not often enough ;)
Movie audiences are pretty sophisticated, and whether they realize it or not, understand the language of film much better than they are ever given credit for. Each tool we use in the making of a film has an effect on how and what the audience reacts to in its viewing.
DP's (and directors) shouldn't use a Steadicam when a handheld camera or Fig Rig will better impart on the audience the urgency or chaos of a scene (the opposite is also true).
Likewise, for certain scenes, a dolly (or tracking shot) using a gear head is the only way to get the subtle focus and perspective changes necessary to give the scene the impact the director is trying to impart on the audience.
These "older" tools are often dismissed as too dated or time consuming, but lazy (and unimaginative) filmmaking never results in a good film, no matter how avant-garde the tools used in the making of it...
Those scans of me with the Model 1: Sorry for the poor quality of some of them, most are loose clippings taken from newsletters and catalogs that friends sent me many years ago.
And whoa! I look way too serious! Just call it me concentrating hard on getting that shot ;)
Cinemobile: A really great company to work with. I definitely owed them a few solids. Said folded the company at the height of its success and profitably. Not a bad time to go out. Even though I was only an independent contractor with them, as an appreciation gesture, they offered to sell me the Model III I'd been operating, for $1 when they quit. Class act.
Ed DiGiulio: Great friend to have, and from what I hear via former CP employees, a great guy to work for as well. His contribution to the Steadicam was to grasp its commercial possibilities (even when others did not), and convince Garrett Brown to change the name.
The FlipFlyer (AKA the SteadyFlip): The rig I invented and built from different pieces I had laying around and then mated to a modified 24fps FlipHD cam. Using a long post extension, this stabilizer rig also becomes a quite remarkable and nimble operator worn camera crane.
Operating styles: Although I can operate equally strong from either side, I have always preferred to operate right as the shot/camera permitted. For me, 'goofy' is operating left ;)
On the original Model I and unmodified Model II, operating from the left side took some doing. Beginning with the Model III, the socket block placement and longer arm made it easier to operate from the left side, so left became the de rigueur sled operating position.
And there was some very good reasoning behind that. Most people are right handed, and normally, the right side of their body is more developed than their left, so using the strong body hemisphere to control the booming on those heavy stiff arms was an obvious choice.
With the advent of the new modern arm designs, that reasoning is no longer valid.
However, some of the best SteadiOps on those older rigs were left handed, and also operated left. Society forces lefties to also develop their right side, so best of both worlds.
On a properly adjusted GPI Pro arm (or its identical baby brother operating clone, the Tiffen Flyer, LE, or Zyphyr arm), you can literally boom the arm with just a baby's pinkie finger.
So to me, it no longer makes much operating sense to use the strong body hemisphere to control the arm instead of the sled. Using your strong side to control the sled just makes more sense, takes less energy, and will usually result in a lighter more tactile post grip.
Ask yourself this, what side do you prefer to operate from on a running shot? But keep in mind, that the best operating style is always the operating mode that works best for you!
Shoes... An often overlooked piece of Steadicam equipment are the shoes that you wear. The shoes you wear while operating can make a huge difference in your operating success.
For years I wore a pair of Jim Clark driving shoes left over from my sports car racing days. When they finally became too tattered to repair again, I discovered quite by accident that operating in the Sketchers Shape Up XT's I wear while exercising (and as a Steadicam Op, you do have an exercise regimen, right?) were a near perfect operating shoe.
I use the original model Shape Up XT shoe. The way they are designed, they naturally place your center of balance slightly behind your centerline, so when you strap on the rig, your body is in near neutral balance — and because of the rolling effect of the sole of the shoe, they enable you to make very smooth and effortless steps. It's almost as if this line of Sketchers shoes were specifically designed for us Steadicam operators.
Eventually, Steadicams, and cameras themselves, will have embedded motion stabilizing firmware to make smooth Steadicam type shots available to all. But no amount of future technology can ever replace what a truly talented Steadicam operator can bring to a show. They can only further enhance what a really talented operator is already capable of.
The Steadicam itself: Simple, brilliant, and it works. Thanks Garrett!
A blog article about the early Steadicam days, and how it changed movie making.
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