Film Independent Tue 2.10.2015

Know Your Crew: Birdman’s Steadicam Operator Tells All

Anyone who has seen Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which has gotten six Spirit Award nominations and nine Oscar nominations, among countless other awards-season recognitions, knows that the film is a technical marvel. Shot entirely on Steadicam or handheld—the camera constantly swerves, loops and weaves around a theatre on Times Square and the surrounding area—and then edited to look like one extremely long continuous take, Birdman is a unique visual experience and an impressive cinematic achievement.

Among the film’s myriad accolades are over 17 awards and nominations for DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography. Here, as the latest installment of our “Know Your Crew” series, we spoke to the Steadicam operator on the film, Chris Haarhoff, who talked about the Director–DP–Steadicam working relationship, recollected some of his favorite shots and answered all of our burning questions about the work of a Steadicam operator.

“Most of the time, Steadicam operators spend their whole career walking backwards,” Haarhoff said. “You get pretty good at that.” A Steadicam is strapped to the operator’s body, and it works by isolating the body’s movements from the camera. “You can walk and your steps are not resonating into the frame,” Haarhoff explained. “It allows you to stabilize the camera on its various axes.” But that doesn’t mean it’s easy—“it’s a deceptive tool,” he warned. “In the right hands, it will be a very elegant machine. In the wrong hands, you’ll pick up Steadicam very quickly.” It takes years before you become proficient operating a Steadicam, and Haarhoff estimated that the current top operators have been working the machine for 20 to 30 years.

“There was a time when Steadicam was very much a specialty,” said Haarhoff, who picked up his first Steadicam 30 years ago, “but now most of the top working operators are Steadicam operators as well, [and] almost every movie has a call for a Steadicam on a regular basis.” If a director hasn’t worked with a Steadicam operator before, Haarhoff said, “I might try and remind him as to some of its abilities, or to demonstrate [a possible approach to a shot]. It’s not really a time saver… but it does allow the camera to be in exactly the right place at the right time to tell the story.”

Like all moviemaking teams, the collaborative relationship between the director, director of photography and Steadicam operator varies from project to project. “It can go the full range from really collaborating sometimes, to [being] a little isolating in that we are technicians, and the idea is that we get the shot,” Haarhoff said. “We work with such a variety of creative people, you have to work out your position in that world.”

Birdman is a good example: “I have a reasonably close personal relationship with Emmanuel Lubezki, but he has a very close relationship with Alejandro. They understand each other,” Haarhoff said, “and because Alejandro had his hands so full, and he had to concentrate so hard throughout the movie, I didn’t want to dilute any idea by taking it to him. I would take it to Emmanuel. You just have to gauge that as an operator.”

Haarhoff has worked repeatedly with such directors as Steven Spielberg, Tony Scott and Cameron Crowe—he named Almost Famous as one of his favorite projects he’s worked on. He also especially liked shooting Fight Club: “We had one particularly great shot,” he recalled, “that [David Fincher] gave us time to develop and practice and rehearse—when the character is first introduced to the bar where the fight club happens, when they first arrive there. It’s got a real good vibe to it.”

Since every shot on Birdman was seamlessly cut into another (which may or may not have already been shot), Haarhoff’s job was especially difficult. “Everything had to work from the very beginning of the shot to the very, very last frame of the shot,” he said. On some other films he has to be a little more spontaneous and flexible, but “every moment in that movie is well rehearsed… They were very involved shots, and they involve enormously acute performances. There was often a stunt in the middle of a scene, of a big long shot, and if the stunt didn’t work, we had to go all the way back and start that again. And if they missed a line…”

As Birdman proves, in the right hands, a Steadicam is a versatile and elegant tool. “There are a lot of other ways to move a camera these days,” Haarhoff admitted. “You can move it on a crane, and you can move it handheld, of course—but the Steadicam has the ability to be seamless, and give the audience a particularly close relationship with the actors. It can do some really cool stuff.”

Mary Sollosi / Film Independent Blogger