How The Shining paved the way for the Return of the Jedi
One week in May of 1980, two classic films were released. One made extensive use of new technology that would have a profound impact on Return of the Jedi. The other was The Empire Strikes Back.
Aside from (almost) sharing a release date — May 21 for Empire, May 23 for The Shining — the two films are inextricably tied together. They were made right next to each other at London's Elstree Studios, and when the set of The Shining caught fire, Lucasfilm had to give up some of its space at Elstree to Stanley Kubrick's production.
When they went to Norway to film the Hoth sequences, the crew of Empire even began to live out the plot of The Shining, as a freak blizzard kept them confined to their hotel.
But what really connects Star Wars and The Shining is the Steadicam.
A stabiliser that mechanically isolates a motion picture camera from the movement of its operator, the Steadicam allows for smooth shots in motion, combining the steadiness of a tripod with the fluidity of a dolly shot and the freedom of a hand-held camera.
It was invented in 1975 by Garrett Brown, a cameraman who had also had a brief career as a folk singer.
Brown, who was living in Philadelphia and making commercials and short films for Sesame Street at the time, unveiled the Steadicam with a splash, releasing a demo reel of '30 impossible shots' that spread like wildfire through the film industry.
Directors were blown away by the possibilities of the Steadicam, which would allow for shots they had never been able to get before without building restrictive dolly tracks.
One of those directors was John Avildsen, who was particularly impressed by a shot in the demo reel that featured Brown's wife running through a park and up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. You see where this is going, yeah?
Avildsen hired Brown to work on his next film, Rocky, and recreated the Art Museum shot from Brown's demo reel with Sylvester Stallone in place of Brown's wife, creating one of the most iconic moments in movie history in the process.
Brown was also hired to bring his Steadicam magic to the running and chase scenes in John Schlesinger's 1976 thriller, Marathon Man.
The first film Brown's Steadicam was actually used in was Hal Ashby's Woody Guthrie biopic, Bound For Glory (although it ended up being released after Rocky and Marathon Man).
The film included a particularly good early example of what the Steadicam could do — cinematographer Haskell Wexler had Brown start the shot on a fully elevated platform crane, and when it reached the ground, Brown followed star David Carradine as he walked through the enormous migrant worker camp set, dodging extras, vehicles and other obstacles along the way.
The shot, which would have been impossible before the Steadicam, was impressive enough to win Wexler the Oscar for Best Cinematography.
Another director who had been impressed by Brown's '30 impossible shots' was Stanley Kubrick. But Kubrick wasn't simply in awe of Brown's demo reel — he had ideas for how he could improve it.
"Demo reel on hand held mystery stabiliser was spectacular and you can count on me as a customer," Kubrick telexed to Brown, in an exchange later seen by The Hollywood Reporter. "It should revolutionise the way films are shot."
But then Kubrick pointed out a mistake: "If you are really concerned about protecting its design before you fully patent it, I suggest you delete the two occasions on the reel where the shadow on the ground gives the skilled counter-intelligence photo interpreter a fairly clear representation of a man holding a pole with one hand, with something or other at the bottom of the pole which appears to be slowly moving."
"Of course, we were horrified," Brown told The Hollywood Reporter. "And he was right, so we ran into the screening room and cut those fourteen frames out of the demo so that nobody else would figure it out before it was patented."
Kubrick's The Shining wasn't the first use of the Steadicam in a horror movie — that honour belongs to the shocking opening sequence of John Carpenter's Halloween — but it was easily the most extensive.
Kubrick had Brown use the Steadicam to glide through the halls of his elaborate Overlook Hotel set, establishing its dreamlike geography, and through its hedge maze, in which even the crew would get lost without the maps that came with their call sheets.
Brown was already the inventor of the Steadicam — but it was on the set of The Shining, forced to hone his craft to perfection by Kubrick's love of endless repetition, that he became the master of the Steadicam.
"The Shining was an opportunity to bear down on technique that you wouldn't find anywhere else," Brown told Tested. "That's where I really learned to control the damn thing."
In a piece for American Cinematographer, Brown described the excitement he felt when he first visited the Overlook Hotel set.
"My excitement mounted as we progressed around corner after corner, each unexpected turn offering further possibilities for the Steadicam," he wrote.
"Originally we had decided that I would rent some of the more exotic equipment to Kubrick and just come to England briefly to train an operator. However, as we continued, I became convinced that here was a unique opportunity for me. Kubrick wasn't just talking of stunt shots and staircases. He would use the Steadicam as it was intended to be used — as a tool which can help get the lens where it's wanted in space and time without the classic limitations of the dolly and crane.
"The kitchen set was enormous, with aisles winding between stoves and storage racks. The apartment sets were beautifully narrow. Suite 237 was elegant and ominous. The Overlook Hotel itself became a maze; absurdly oversized quarters for the players, yet ultimately claustrophobic. Here were fabulous sets for the moving camera; we could travel unobtrusively from space to space or lurk in the shadows with a menacing presence."
Working on The Shining was a great opportunity for Brown — but it was also a trial by fire.
"I had daily opportunities to test the Steadicam and my operating against the most meticulous possible requirements as to framing accuracy, the ability to hit marks and precision repeatability," he wrote.
"I began the picture with years of Steadicam use behind me and with the assumption that I could do with it whatever anyone could reasonably demand. I realised by the afternoon of the first day's work that here was a whole new ball game, and that the word 'reasonable' was not in Kubrick's lexicon."
On the first day of the shoot, which Brown described as "the Steadicam Olympics", Kubrick demanded upwards of thirty takes of an elaborate traveling shot in the lobby set.
Brown also had to come up with new twists on his patented technology in order to satisfy Kubrick's demands.
"One of the most talked-about shots in the picture is the eerie tracking sequence which follows Danny as he pedals at high speed through corridor after corridor on his plastic 'Big Wheel'. The sound track explodes with noise when the wheel is on wooden flooring and is abruptly silent as it crosses over carpet. We needed to have the lens just a few inches from the floor and to travel rapidly just behind or ahead of the bike.
"I tried it on foot and found that I was too winded after an entire three-minute take to even describe what sort of last rites I would prefer. Also, at those speeds I couldn't get the lens much lower than about 18 inches from the floor. We decided to mount the Steadicam arm on the Ron Ford wheelchair prototype that Stanley helped design years before and still had on hand."
There's no doubt that the shoot was challenging, but it also prepared Brown for whatever would come next.
"I guess I wanted to be there myself because Kubrick is, let's face it, The Man," Brown wrote. "He is the one director working who commands absolute authority over his project from conception to release print.
"The ultimate technologist, but more, his technology serves a larger vision which is uniquely his own. He is a filmmaker in the most pure sense of the word. I learned a great deal about the making of movies from simply being on hand for the stupefying number of discussions which sought to improve one aspect or another of the production."
In 1982, Brown would get the chance to work for another great filmmaker and technologist — George Lucas. In fact, the remarkable speeder bike sequence in Return of the Jedi, one of the most exciting high-speed chases in all of cinema, wouldn't have been possible without Brown and his highly developed Steadicam skills.
Visual effects guru Dennis Muren had been planning on building a forest model for the sequence, but when it became clear how impractical that would be, he and Lucas began exploring other possibilities.
“I’d decided we could get all of the side views from a moving car, and Mike McAlister and his crew shot those. For the front and rear point of view, George and I thought of using a Steadicam,” Muren said in JW Rinzler’s The Making of Return of the Jedi.
“We were exchanging notes in the screening room one day and George gave his approval to try it… But the idea was not only to use the Steadicam, but also to use its inventor, Garrett Brown. I didn’t think that we could put just anybody in a Steadicam rig and expect those shots to work. It was going to be very difficult.”
Luckily, Brown was used to “very difficult” shoots after his experience on the set of The Shining, and before long, he was putting his Steadicam to the test yet again.
The decision was made to walk through the redwoods operating the camera at 3/4 of a frame per second, before speeding it up 30 times to the standard 24 frames per second. Because Brown walked about five feet per second, and he was shooting one frame every 1.3 seconds, this meant there would be seven feet between every frame — creating the illusion, once the footage was sped up, that the speeder bikes were hurtling through the forest at 120 miles per hour.
It would be a painstaking process.
“April 12, 1982 found us chugging along the corridors of ILM, gyro humming, with my camera being run by a little outside motor at roughly 3/4 frames per second, and with 100 feet aboard of a test stock that could be processed and viewed immediately right in the building,” Brown wrote in American Cinematographer.
“The results were instantly encouraging, and by the end of the following day, we were testing large-scale shots within a local redwood forest, having worked out nearly all of the curious requirements for producing acceptable plates with the Steadicam.”
Just because the shoot was possible, though, doesn’t mean it was easy. The shots of Danny riding his Big Wheel and roaming the hedge maze in The Shining had been difficult, but this was on another level.
“The physical part should be easy,” Brown wrote. “I’ve made hundreds of walking shots as long as this. The body appears to be merely strolling through the woods, carrying what looks like a portable X-ray machine. The mind, however, feels like Franz Klammer’s on the downhill.”
In order for the plan to work, Brown – who was in pain after a recent surgery on his left foot – had to maintain a laser-like focus on the task at hand, while wearing a modified Steadicam with two gyroscopes attached to it for extra stabilisation.
“All that is necessary for perfectly smooth results on this or any other Steadicam assignment is the elimination of all of the six kinds of motion that plague say, the hand-held camera,” he wrote.
“We must avoid any angular deviations in pan, tilt and roll; and any unwarranted moves in the spatial planes of up-and-down, side-to-side and back-and-forth (here meaning variations in walking speed). Nothing to it!
“Of course, this would be the all-time mother of a Steadicam shot and virtually no errors would be tolerable. I am happy to say that the three of us [Brown, Dennis Muren and visual effects artist Michael Owens] managed to blast through the problem and come up with schemes for each of these worries which eventually produced the usable footage in the final sequence.
“To deal with the angular deviations, we mounted a side-finder video camera with a long lens, figuring that if I could acquire a distant target, such as a sunlit leaf or a piece of hand-kerchief tied to a branch, and hold a telephoto image of it on the cross hairs for the entire walk, then pan and tilt accuracy would be good enough for the VistaVision negative, especially considering that the big camera was carrying a wide-angle lens which would forgive small errors visible on the telephoto video.
“The problem of ‘roll’, which is equally troublesome no matter what the focal length of the lens, was to be dealt with by continuously checking a very precise bubble level mounted next to the monitor.
“To handle the spatial motions, we came up with what we modestly agree was the brilliant expedient of stretching a taut thread through the woods beside the chosen course, and making a straight dotted line of chalk directly along the ground, both of which would be invisible to the camera at speed, and which would positively guide us to the correct camera height and the straight and true path.
“Bear in mind that even a slow deviation in any of these directions occurring over the course of many yards would produce a violent bump in the shot when seen at projection speed. I suppose we planned to have someone count cadence to keep my speed constant, but this turned out to be no problem and in the heat of the moment, we gave the cadence-counter the elbow.”
Together, Brown, Muren and Owens pulled it off.
They delivered a sequence that satisfied Lucas’ need for speed – and left thousands of kids on Big Wheels dreaming of the day they could graduate to riding a speeder bike.