Well, there was "The Shining", which made a big splash, but I remember seeing "One From the Heart", a Francis Coppola film operated by Garrett Brown around the same time. All the sequences, camera movements, even the sets were designed around the Steadicam's capabilities. Fantastic!
What was it about the Steadicam that made you want to pursue it as a career?
Steadicam seemed to be a mash-up of all my interests and abilities-- athletics, camerawork, precision, control...
What were you doing prior to Steadicam?
I was a focus puller and camera operator on lower-budget features...Toxic Avenger! After I started shooting higher end commercials, and picked up the Steadicam I was able to get a Union card and move up to better features with bigger budgets,
Dave on a shoot with Norma Kamali
What were some of the biggest challenges you remember about becoming a Steadicam operator?
Well, the gear wasn't so good in the early 1980's as it is now. I had to actually go to Europe to get my hands on proper aks- a video transmitter (England), a remote focus box (Sweden). I assembled a whole kit which would enable me to interface with the cameras then in use (Arri 2C, III, BL, SR), including the Steadicam sled for $25K. At the time there were only 2 Lightweight Panaflex camera bodies, and a handful of Panaglides which traveled around from set to set, in constant use. Lining up the gear was the biggest challenge.
What are some of the biggest challenges now?
I have moved on- retired the rig, and now enjoy watching other operators sift through the gear pile, and sweat out the difficult shots!
Dave and Garrett
Did you ever have a "big break" moment? A career event that clearly changed or paved the way for everything to follow?
I took the first workshop for Steadicam training with Garrett Brown in Maine, at which I suppose he saw I had some potential. In the next few years, I got my kit together, and developed as a Steadicam specialist under his tutelage. Garrett sponsored me for the IATSE, and sent the first few jobs my way.
From whom do you take your inspiration? Has that changed over the course of your career?
After Garrett, My next mentor was the DP Adam Holender. He and I teamed up on all sorts of film projects between 1987-2003. Adam really showed me what it meant to organize a film shoot, everything from planning shots and executing artfully-designed sequences to diplomatically working with directors and actors. Some of his best films like "Midnight Cowboy", "Fresh", and "Smoke" will be viewed for a long time.
Is there a shot, film, or moment in your career that you can think of as your most proud?
Actually I consider my non-steadicam work on "The Devil's Own" as a career highpoint. Another great DP, Gordon Willis took me under his wing, and we spent nearly a year together on this film. I shot B-Camera and second unit sequences for Gordon in New York and Ireland. Growing up in North Carolina, and seeing Gordon's films like "Annie Hall", "the Godfather", and "Manhattan" made a big impression on me, and flying over to Ireland with Gordon to work together was the culmination of a long journey.
Is there a shot or film you can recall as being your most challenging? Why?
Running through the obstacle course alongside Jody Foster in "Silence of the Lambs" is the one. Physically demanding, carrying an old Panaglide with early rudimentary focus and video gear, that shot had it all. We did about ten takes, all told, but the sequence really launches the film dynamically.
What work of your peers do you admire?
For Steadicam there's the McConkeys, Jim and Larry...also Will Arnot. In my opinion, there's the top 3 operators in the World right there. Of course, they're pretty popular, and hard to book for your film project!
Many people will say they've tried on a Steadicam once, and immediately thought, "absolutely not." What do you think is different about those of us that say "absolutely"?
Athleticism. I was an Ice Hockey and Tennis player for years, and Jim McConkey was a top level X-Country skier. Will Arnot, likewise excels at triathalons. You don't have to be an elite performer like these guys, but you do have to be somewhat athletic, and on a basic level know how people move through space.
Photographs courtesy of "The History of Dave". www.daveknox.com