Legendary Inventor Garrett Brown

Feb 20, 2023 | Innovation | 0 comments



Circle Optics had an exclusive interview with the legendary Garrett Brown and have extracted some key elements of our conversation February 3, 2023.   

Garrett Brown is an American inventor, best known as the creator of the Steadicam™.  Brown’s invention allows camera operators to film while walking or running without the normal shaking and jostles of a handheld camera. The Steadicam™  was first used on Bound for Glory (1976), which received an Academy Award (Best Cinematography), and has since been used on thousands of films such films as Rocky (the triumphant stair scene) and Return of the Jedi, where Brown walked through Redwood National Park with the Steadicam™  shooting film at 1 frame per second to achieve the illusion of high-speed motion during the speeder-bike chase.     Garrett Brown was the recipient of an Oscar for Scientific or Technical Achievement and an Emmy Award for his invention of the Steadicam™. His Skycam™ is how we all watched the recent Super Bowl!  As if these inventions were not enough, it is his latest invention that aligns with Circle Optics, Inc. commitment for technology for good – life enhancing technology.   Garrett is committed to the interface between human beings and machines with one guiding word: AUTONOMY! He joined Circle Optics in an exclusive interview to discuss his current passion Zeen! Zeen is a revolutionary mobility device for those battling age, injury and disease.   

Circle Optics had an exclusive interview with the legendary Garrett Brown and have extracted some key elements of our conversation February 3, 2023.   

Circle Optics had an exclusive interview with the legendary Garrett Brown and have extracted some key elements of our conversation February 3, 2023.   

Sertl: Please share a bit of your backstory and the beginning of your career before you got into all of these inventions.  

Brown: I started as a filmmaker in Philadelphia. I was 3000 miles from Hollywood and taught myself filmmaking by reading all the books on film in the Philadelphia Library – a dubious proposition because they were all out of date. I thought, for instance, that I needed a big heavy dolly to move the camera smoothly. I loved shooting handheld, but I didn’t like how shaky it was. The dolly was a brutally heavy irritant, and I  started looking for a way to improve handheld. The first demo using Steadicam ™ technology was famously called 30 Impossible Shots. It was a beautiful thing to be able to shoot shots that were indeed jaw-droppingly impossible, yet gave no clue how they were made. This quickly led to a number of film assignments and soon yielded that Oscar.  That happened a long time ago and Steadicam is now everywhere in the world and it’s been a wonderful ride. I am heading for Marrakes in March to teach one of the numerous Steadicam ™ workshops that happen on six continents.   

I think the prime mover in inventing is figuring out something that’s missing. We all take for granted what is isn’t there…. such as something between walkers and wheelchairs. We’ll, I went after it and put a team together of gifted inventors and engineers and we scored!  We identified an object that needed to exist and figured it out.    

Sertl: I  definitely like the idea of paying attention to  solve a problem. You have done it time and time again. time and time again. Please tell us a bit about your innovation process?  

Brown:  It’s almost always a slow process. I knew what was missing was a way to shoot handheld smoothly. I understood that it would be valuable to figure that out.  

I tried a accomplishing that in several escalating stages, but kept having to shut it all down and start again.   

I finally went into a hotel for a week and gave myself the task of figuring it out or giving up. And fortunately for me, I came out of the motel with The Thing. The Steadicam ™ is a combination of four things that nobody ever thought to put together. Take any one of the four things away and it doesn’t work. The goal was to stabilize the camera and not mess it up by touching it with your ever-moving body. Right? So it is a set of steps that are not obvious. Increase the size of the object that you’re stabilizing by shifting some of it’s weight away from the cameera body and suddenly the center of balance of the whole object is accessible to you. That center point is normally in the middle of the camera, and you can’t get at it, but if you position some weights (stuff you need like batteries and a monitor and so on, remotely down below) and the in middle of that larger structure is the spot that would balance on your fingers if it was sideways.   

The second item is a gimbal, which is a yachting object that can stabilize lamps when the yachts are rolling around. You put a gimbal right at that center of gravity, and then grab it with some w thing that can float the entire weight awithout holding it hard, (so shaking from your hands doesn’t get through!). What is holding that gimbal is a spring loaded arm that mimics your own arm, attached to a vest. And so that spring loaded arm means that no matter what you are doing, this thing just kind of sits there; and finally you need to see what you’re shooting, but can’t have your eye on the viewfinder. That was troublesome because the only way I could do it in 1973 was a fiber-optic viewfinder of the sort that a doctor would use in a proctoscope or something — a long flexible tube that carries the image from the camera to your eye.   

And the combination of those four things works miraculously well. I was able to shoot a 35 millimeter demo and nobody could figure out how it was done except Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick looked at the demo and sent us a telex, which blew the top of my head off! He said the invention should revolutionize the way films are shot and I could count on him as a customer. This is Stanley Kubrick we’re talking about, who was one of my idols. He told us that there were 16 frames that showed a shadow on the ground that a skilled observer could figure out. He was right and we rushed into the screening room and immediately cut those frames out. Steadicam ™ has been in the hands of gifted operators for more than 50 years.  

Sertl: I love the level of storytelling there with the history with Kubrick and  his generosity in not only wanting to hire you, but also wanting to protect you from the beginning.    

Brown: I think he also wanted to show off how clever he was. Kubrick was  one of the smartest people I ever worked with.

Sertl: Your first invention gave cinematographers more choice. Before Steadicam ™ they had to choose between a dolly, hand shot, or crane shot with all of these varying trade-offs. The Steadicam™ combined the best of all of these in one world. So there were no longer these trade-offs. The theme I hear is the word autonomy. You gave creators more autonomy. At Circle Optics, we are building technology that we hope creates more of that relationship between the human and the technology and furthers autonomy. This leads into really the most beautiful story of your most recent invention based on your respect for your father — Zeen.    

Brown: I was hanging out with my dad as he was declining and I was watching a lot of walkers and wheelchairs, which I did not particularly admire. I’d never paid any attention to them. I think the salient mover in inventing is figuring out something that’s missing. We all take for granted what is missing. Didn’t we take for granted that there was nothing between walkers and wheelchairs? I went after that and put a team together of gifted inventors and engineers and we scored!  We identified an object that needed to exist.   Anyway,  it was upsetting see my father in a wheelchair. If your mobility is challenged from whatever reason –disease or injury or age- it’s hard to get up off a low chair. It’s hard to shuffle into somewhere with your walker and then have to set it aside and sit at a chair at a table and then get struggle back up to go get your dessert. In addition, you are more prone to falls. There are 50,000 people a year in the ER from falls from walkers. Let’s talk about wheelchairs. I got in trouble with the disabled community for blithely saying wheelchairs are “ a one way ticket to not walking.”  I was reprimanded because there was a perception that my comment did not show enough respect for the people who brilliantly get around on wheelchairs and play sports, etc. However, a wheelchair certainly isn’t helping you walk, it isn’t helping perpetuate your ability to ambulate. I started chasing the idea to design a comfortable chair that helped a person to stand and enhanced mobility. We have actually been iterating on the Zeen for a decade now — an astonishing run of prototypes. What we ended up with has a saddle, a lifting mechanism that can be adjusted to effortlessly raise a person to a standing position. Standing upright has you at the social altitude of the rest of humanity. And then you can slide back and put your feet up. We call that bar stool mode. And in between, with your feet on the ground, you can ease back on the saddle and coast! Aren’t we all big fans of coasting? Coasting gets you distance without a lot of effort.   

I tend to go for a big list of stuff. If you are going to bother to invent something, you might as well have it do every blessed thing that is missing. It makes it a little harder to score all those things, however, it creates something valuable that can make a real difference in people’s lives.   

Sertl:  I have to unpack some of this conversation because it is just so great. I think the first thing I want to unpack is the respect of being able to put your feet on the ground. Some people say that it is important to actually be barefoot and put your feet barefoot on the biosphere because there is this relationship between ourselves and the ground. So the idea of being able to allow people to feel more grounded psychologically is really powerful. The other distinction that you made that I thought was amazing was the idea that sometimes mobility in getting out of a chair is not only about strength – it is the physics of the position of the chair, right? You  brought forward the idea that mobility is not only a strength game, but it’s also a physics game. You created a way to help physics work for people. Individuals with limited mobility get more control and more autonomy. You now allow people the freedom of choice of positioning and range of mobility. This is the same freedom you gave cinematographers — the range of perspective to get shots never before possible.  

CBS Morning did a wonderful feature on you and Zeen.   

 I am teaching innovation at Rochester Institute of Technology and currently we are reviewing the four types of innovation from Clay Christensen (R & D, efficiency innovation, sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation).  Yours is a compelling story of disruptive innovation. You are not about just making improvements. You are talking about creating solutions that are more than iteratively better, but are disruptive — creating a whole new set of opportunities. This reminds me of our Founder Zak Niazi. With the Hydra – the world’s only seamless 360-degree multi-camera system, he went back to fundamental physics and took a polygonal approach to panoramic view. I love the idea of going back and solving the problem at the level of physics. Let’s talk more  about you as an inventor. With over 100 patents and the determination to lock yourself in a motel until you come up with a creation I am sure you have much more to share about the innovation mindset.   

Brown: I wasn’t sure it was solvable. I did know that if I didn’t isolate myself and concentrate on it, I didn’t have much of a chance. It was a Hail Mary. When you are headed somewhere important you need to focus. These days people, kids, everybody look for solutions on their screens. That is very limiting because the “something that is missing” that you want to create is not going to be found on your screen. No screen, nowhere, no how. There is only one way to get to it. The solution is an analytical play, preferable sustained and intense. This is a tough proposition these days because people want immediate answers.   

Sertl: As I am listening to you I am thinking about the importance of solitude and the imagination. What I’m hearing you say is that because the Steadicam ™ was non-existent, the only way you could find it was to look at your whole life experience  – experiences with boats, experiences watching birds fly, experiences of observing. You had to be in the world in order to be curious about how these things worked. And then you needed solitude and a place to hear your own imagination go to work.    

Brown: Yes, very well put. Innovation is a process of integrating everything that you know about the world in service of something that’s needed. For myself, waking up at 4:00 am for an hour has been very good for me. Often you are in an alpha brain state between 4:00am and 5:00am. The alpha state is a very friendly condition for letting the brain solve problems. In almost every instance, my key moments of inspiration came lying in bed early in the morning with my eyes closed.    

   Photo courtesy of Garrett Brown  

Sertl: Garrett, earlier  you mentioned that you didn’t necessarily think that working on a camera was world changing.  I disagree, storytelling and movies continually transform the world, provide perspective, fortify hope and birth the next generation of inventors. What are your final words here for those inventors in our ecosystem?   

Brown: I am a big fan of ordinary folks inventing. It is something that we do really well in the United States. This country is the best place on earth to invent stuff for a number of reasons – some of which have to do with access to bits and pieces and parts and prototypes. I would urge anybody that has an idea to go deep inside themselves and ask the important questions: Do you really need it? If it existed, would you buy it or do you simply imagine other people would buy? I urge people to build solutions for what they really need personally. This makes for a more reliable payback.  As for the process, the fundamental framework is imaging very clearly what is missing. Visualize how your experience is different with that missing piece resolved. You can then reverse engineer step-by-step to get clarity on where to begin.   

I’m a big fan of experiments. I  also don’t mind trying things out in public and have learned to put up with looking really really stupid. With luck, beyond irritation and embarrassment there may at last come great astonishment.  

Garrett Brown is currently writing a book about innovation and we look forward to having him back to share more stories and insight into the innovator’s mindset.   



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