Garrett Brown: Inventing the Future — And a Few Handy Gadgets

Rocky Balboa ascending the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Rocky, ‘Babe’ Levy in a panicky run through the streets of Manhattan in Marathon Man, Danny Torrance riding his tricycle through the cavernous halls of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, Imperial storm troopers rocketing between trees on the forest moon of Endor in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

What do these movie moments have in common? They were all filmed with an Oscar-winning breakthrough in cinematic technology known as the Steadicam. And they were all shot by the Steadicam’s inventor, Garrett Brown.

The Steadicam introduced a new vocabulary of camera movement to motion pictures and won Brown his first Academy Award in 1978. In 1985, the Washington Post, with only a slight hint of hyperbole, described the Steadicam as “the biggest thing since Technicolor”.

Yet the Steadicam was only the beginning of Brown’s innovations in camera-control technology. His SkyCam places the audience in the center of the action in NFL football games. DiveCam puts the viewer beside Olympic divers from their leap off the springboard to their plunge into the pool. And the MobyCam moves the audience underneath the water in sync with the athletes in competitive swimming events. On Saturday, February 18, 2006, Brown received another Academy Award for Scientific and Technical Achievement for his SkyCam flying camera system.

Nelson Gayton, Wharton adjunct professor who studies media and entertainment, describes Garrett Brown as “an icon in the film industry.” Furthermore, Gayton believes that Brown’s approach to problem solving holds lessons for product managers and marketers well beyond Hollywood. “In the case of the Steadicam, [Brown] identified a need, but he also recognized the artistry of the movies; he understood the fluidity of motion [required for] camera movement. He developed something quite practical, but with the sensitivity of an artist. If you the think about that process, it’s a metaphor for designing products that are intuitive.”

Looking at Brown’s early career, you would hardly imagine that he would become an Oscar winner and revolutionize cinematography. He flunked out of college to pursue folk singing full time. He sold cars and later worked as a radio pitchman. In the latter role, Brown, along with advertising partner Anne Winn, produced and performed in a series of award-winning radio commercials for Molson Beer, American Express and others. [See supplement: "An Inventive Path"]

But Brown’s true love was making movies. And it was his dogged pursuit of a film career that led to the development of the Steadicam and his other inventions in movies and television.

Knowledge@Wharton visited Garrett Brown at his two-story lab tucked into the wooded hills of Chester County, Pa., roughly an hour outside of Philadelphia. Among the inventions on display were a contraption with a large, flexible round mirror attached to a swivel mount that uses the sun’s rays to zap pesky tent caterpillars without harming the trees on which they feed, and a pair of folding eyeglasses small enough and durable enough to store in his wallet. [See photo]

Brown spoke on a wide range of topics — from his history as an inventor to his thoughts on the importance of innovation to the U.S. economy. An edited version of that conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: You’re a fulltime inventor. That’s a fairly unusual occupation. How did you start?

Brown: It’s tragic that we don’t encourage young people to literally be inventors. We encourage them to be technical — to a degree — and to be engineers, but we don’t romance the idea of invention.

Growing up, I read The Boy’s Life of Edison. I don’t know to what extent that was an influence on me, but I think we should be influencing people to understand that inventing is something you can do. You don’t necessarily have to be a technical soul; you have to want something — and be motivated enough to spend a little money on it.

Knowledge@Wharton: What would you say then to a young person — any person — who was thinking about becoming an inventor?

Brown: Partly it depends on the degree of technicality of what you wish to invent. If it’s anti-gravity, you’re in trouble as an ordinary mortal. If it’s a cool new transport conveyance for your kid, you’re in wonderful shape to get it done.

If it doesn’t exist, [it's probably because] it’s either impractical for some reason, or nobody’s thought of it. The charming reason is if nobody thought of it. If nobody thought of it, you then have to decide: Is it just for you or do you have, perhaps, a commercial interest in this.

Clearly, if you really want it, and you score, the odds are that other people will want it. If you simply want to do it to make money, that’s a very bad bet, generally.

I’ll give you an example.

The son of a friend of mine had a notion for a child-transporting device. I advised him to have one made secretly to see if it works. [I told him that] the worst case is you are going to own one. And you’ll have the fun of doing it. This guy has shown me video of his kids having the greatest time on this thing, and it’s spectacular. It’s exactly the kind of invention that I think we all ought to be encouraged to look for — stuff for your own life.

Our life blood is now intellectual property in this country. We don’t build much of anything any more. We sell ideas. Corporations are making more money on patents than they are on making stuff.

I’ll give you an example — the Steadicam Merlin, which is a Steadicam for handheld cameras. We were told that the parts to build this would be about $200 — which in an $800 item isn’t bad. We also got a cost estimate from China, for the same level of quality, for $58. That brought it home to me. We’re not going to be building much here in very short order.

Knowledge@Wharton: So, you think it’s ideas, inventions that will be a sustainable resource for [the United States] going forward?

Brown: We have typically been an innovative country from the beginning. We solve problems by innovation. It’s our heritage. It’s our life-blood. And yet, the job of inventor was stricken from the census form in 1949. It’s no longer one of the choices available.

Knowledge@Wharton: So, what do you put down on the census form for your occupation?

Brown: I don’t know. My wife puts down something. She doesn’t like me to even call myself an inventor because she thinks there’s a nerdy quality to that word.

We grew up with Gyro Gearloose cartoons making fun of the idea. It started with those “gizmo” films where hapless inventors — many, many of them immigrants who wanted to show off their new lifeboat or their airplane that went like this [makes crazy flapping motion with his arms] and disintegrated on camera — were figures of fun. There’s some residual quality to that, that you need to have a wild eye and your hair sticking up like Doc Brown [from Back to the Future] if you’re going to be an inventor.

When I come back to the U.S. and Customs asks me what my profession is and I say “inventor,” [my wife] goes, “Oh, I think you should say ‘camera man’. You were always a camera man.” That’s part of what’s gone wrong with the idea. What could be better than inventing?

We need to invent our way out of a lot of difficulties that we are in as an advanced, excessively energy-hungry society. We need to invent our way out of that and sell the proceeds to the rest of the world.

We don’t need to dig in our heels, stubbornly keep burning our oil and driving our SUVs and let somebody else solve the problems. Because that is a one-way ticket to the third world. We need to be encouraging people, with governmental help — not just throwing money at military things but throwing money at our domestic creativity.

Knowledge@Wharton: How would that work? Are you advocating certain government policies?

Brown: The government is right there if it comes to missile defense or any form of destructive hardware. Why aren’t we right there in terms of green [issues]? Because it has to be clear to everybody that our present energy use is a very short term arrangement. Somebody is going to be the leader in the technology — and it isn’t looking like us at the moment. Which I think is really unhappy.

You don’t need to be an engineer. I’m not even certain it’s desirable that you’re an engineer. I think you want to be what, in the movie business, would be called a producer, which is really what I am.

In the case of the original Steadicam, I found various people who wanted to make something good. And I had the idea for how it should work and had done enough experimenting to have an instinct for what had to happen. [These people] would build me various versions of it — three or four of which are sitting around here. Each one taught me more about what the next one should be like. [See photo essay: 30 Years of Steadicam Development]

But there was no engineering because first there had to be somebody with the instinct for an odd form of balance. Somebody had to have the experiments done. No engineer would do the foolish things that I did — running around with fiber-optic viewers and falling down — which, if somebody had filmed it, would have been evidence that I was insane. Just like those poor bastards whose planes fall apart. But, evidently, I learned things that nobody else on earth knew about how to isolate a camera from a guy.

Knowledge@Wharton: Not only were you not an engineer — you were, at that time, an advertising man?

Brown: No, actually by then I was a filmmaker — camera man, director, editor — making films for [programs like] “Sesame Street.” I had a studio in a barn in Gradyville, Pa.

I learned to be a filmmaker after coming off being a folk singer [laughs] and a Volkswagon salesman — by reading all the books on filmmaking in the Philly library. Which, in effect, taught me to be a filmmaker circa 1940. I mean, that’s not the way to learn what’s actually going on in the profession. I didn’t know that.

So I was convinced I needed dollies and big lights and a studio and a long mike boom. I was obsessed with having a mike boom — the kind that could crank in and out. And, lo, an old-time Philly filmmaker went bankrupt and I got a truckload of his stuff — all obsolete — for $1,000, including an enormously heavy dolly.

I loved to move the camera. I was into the results, but in order to get the result of a camera move that went from here to there that looked really good on screen, you had to put your little pin-headed camera on a 600-pound contraption and lay rails for it. My floor creaked on the studio, and it was not quite level — you constantly had to be leveling this thing while you drove it. It was a nightmare.

It actually is part of what impelled me to try to stabilize handheld shooting.

Knowledge@Wharton: Once you had [the first Steadicam] working, how did you get a major studio to use it in a film?

Brown: I used it on my own commercials. And I made this demo film in two days. It had 30 impossible shots in it. My then girlfriend — now wife — ran down the Philly Art Museum steps and back up. I chased her down and back up [with the camera].

Knowledge@Wharton: A technique which was used again in….

Brown: Yes, the director of Rocky eventually saw that demo and called us up and said, “How the hell did you do that? And where are those steps?” And that’s why that shot is in Rocky.

Knowledge@Wharton: And now there’s a society of Steadicam operators.

Brown: They just kept building them and eventually it occurred to me that I need to be teaching people how to do this. [There was then only] a very small group of self-taught, very bold people — some of whom I had taught in my house. I still have dents in the doorways from them trying to squeak through with all this stuff.

Knowledge@Wharton: After the Steadicam, this mushroomed into a whole universe of camera-control equipment — SkyCam, FlyCam. How did that happen?

Brown: I was shooting with Steadicam and I was talking to [former football player and sportscaster] Merlin Olsen. Olsen said that the unhappy thing about football coverage is that there was no way to get a camera in those great spaces over games. It was odd to have cameras stuck way back in the stands, so they are always telephoto if they are looking at the action.

That was in 1979 and I filed the idea away. In 1983 I had gotten a calculator. I was trying to learn it and I thought to calculate how much force there would be if you had a wire going to the camera from the high points [in the stadium].

I tried to imagine — after a couple of scotches — how would that be able to move? Would a camera have line-of-sight to the four towers anywhere in the field? Where would it become impractical?

I worked out a way, on paper, to figure out how much tension there would be on the lines — thinking it would be immense. And I came up with numbers that were amazingly low to me. I had been assuming it would take thousands of pounds to do it. As long as you restrained it from going any more than about ten or seven degrees of depression, the forces are not terrible. They are, maybe, twice the weight of the camera itself on each line — which is nothing.

So I thought, “Screw it, I’m going to try and build a prototype of this.” And I rounded up some volunteers. I got a great computer programmer, a wonderful machinist, a wild cameraman/operator who was building his own stuff, and a “business man.” I had them into my kitchen in town and we hung a key on four threads with reels. They each had a reel on the thread and we tried to see — could it actually move? If two of these guys went like this and two let it play out — how would it travel? Did it look good?

It looked fabulous! We were flying it up over counters and dropping it into pots, and so on. I said, “Let’s try and build one at full size. We’ll worry about stability later.” And I had these guys hold the lines at my old high school football field. I called my principal and said, “I got this idea — can we try it?” He said, “Sure.”

I picked up some more partners. One was a rigger. He climbed up and hung pulleys. We had a camera hung on it. We had four guys holding the lines who were running up the sidelines. It looked fabulous. It would just go soaring up into the air very rapidly — because it accelerates like mad as you get up near the top.

It used a little video transmitter that I had recently done for [director Stanley]Kubrick on The Shining. Because I couldn’t be lugging a wire around through the [hedge] maze [during the film's climax], I conned somebody into building me a portable, illegal transmitter to send my video off to Stanley who would be lurking in the sidelines and shouting impossible commands.

So we used that transmitter to see what my flying camera was doing. And then we got excited so they started programming and by ’83 we had one that moved by computer, at that time an Osborne, talking to the motors at 800 baud. We were updating with the most primitive incremental commands — updating every ten times a second, if that.

And then I made the mistake of trying to raise venture capital. I’m a good salesman, so I was able to romance this thing and venture guys put in $1 million. We undertook to build a professional size and grade one for the ’84 Olympics. We immediately ran into difficulties with the limitations of computers and motors. We actually got it working about a month after the games. We missed the ’84 Olympics — to the dismay of the investors.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why was it a mistake to take venture capital?

Brown: It was a mistake because I had very unenlightened venture guys. Either I had persuaded them that we would make a lot of money real soon, or it was way too technical and bold a venture to make the kind of returns that they expected.

I blithely spent all the dough and when it [finally] worked I didn’t have five [SkyCams] as I expected; I had one — that worked great. But one of them couldn’t keep the factory open, [although] it worked all the time at $25,000 a day. And I couldn’t keep my team together.

Finally I got so fed up with these guys because they wouldn’t go out and do another round and get us some more dough. So I offered to give them back the company, give them my shares if they wanted to carry it on. But I couldn’t continue to work with them. They sold everything to the Japanese — instantly — just to get whatever they could back out of it.

So there was no SkyCam here for a long period of time during which we had 100 requests for it a year. Finally in ’96 I went to these same guys who still had the license and I said, “Why don’t you give me permission to build them the way I want? I’ll build four lightweight ones,” which the Atlanta Olympics wanted. I built them and then had to turn them over to them again. By that time, [the SkyCam] had enough momentum that it finally resulted in another licensee taking it, and so on.

I can’t give myself really high marks for the way I did the business aspect of that. But damn, the inventing part of it was good.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are there ever times when you feel a conflict between Garrett Brown as inventor and Garrett Brown as business man? And, if so, how do you deal with that?

Brown: Well, there really is no “Garrett Brown as business man.” I don’t think I’m very gifted at that. I have licenses now that yield income. The cash flow on SkyCam is finally my way. The Steadicam is a great setup, of course. And a couple of others involve a little bit of income.

But I paid for these things originally with money I earned being a humorist on the radio. [See supplement, "An Inventive Path".] I think if I hadn’t had some disposable income I might not have been able to do this thing at all. Because I’m not terribly well organized. I’m a great enthusiast, but I’m not a powerhouse of organization.

However, I must say that, over time I realized that I have learned my trade, slowly, in terms of being a more hands-on fellow than the word “producer” would describe. I’m finally learning the job of inventor.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s your process of invention? Do you find a contraption that’s interesting and figure out a practical use for it, or do you start with a problem and work to find the solution?

Brown: With me it almost always begins with wanting something that’s missing.

[For example, there's] a project that [I've been working on] for 20 years, that I can’t say that I’m terribly close to scoring. But I really, really want it — a human-powered transportation device that’s really small, that doesn’t involve sitting down and strapping on anything, and that you can have in a little backpack or a briefcase-sized object. When you want it, you throw it down on the ground, jump on it, and go just six or nine miles an hour on paved surfaces. And then when you’re done, it folds up neatly.

An example of human creativity that I admire is the bicycle. It’s very highly evolved, but the damn things are too big for urban use. You can’t throw it in a taxi, you can’t take it on the subway very easily, you haven’t got a hand free for an umbrella, it isn’t convenient to jump a curb with it, it’s a pain in the ass to take up the stairs to your apartment, and it takes up a lot of room to store.

In other words, the need seems really, really clear to me. And articulating a need is a huge first step in the way the process has worked for me.

You really have to give yourself a chance to explore. Forget how it looks or what it works like. Just explore what it might be like to have such a thing and what features you would want on it.

I like roller blading. But this object isn’t a weird kind of shoe that clicks into a roller blade, it isn’t a shoe with wheels on it, it isn’t anything that you specifically have to sit down and tie on. That’s not what I want. I want something that looks cool while you ride it. The Razor scooter is close, but it’s an awkward move, a kind of uncomfortable, tiring move. And you don’t look cool, [which is the] kiss of death.

It has to be comfortable to ride, you have to be able to hold an umbrella or have a package, you need to be able to hop a curb. I mean, let’s go for the whole list. It needs to be relatively inexpensive. This is a long list of requirements.

So I’ve been riding the curl — in my imagination — for 20 years with this thing. I started on the set of The Shining. I actually made 35mm movies of myself walking to analyze what my feet were doing, and where my weight was, and so on.

I build experimental models for myself. I have dozens of them here. Sometimes if I get infatuated I spend a lot of dough and build something big. I built a pair of open wheels that you could stand in — which I think I have $20,000 in.

It just turned out to be too lethally impossible to learn to ride. I could do it, but I’ve never felt safe on it. I hired my nephew, who is really adept at skateboarding, to come down to my tennis court and test these things. He rode around on it and I got quite encouraged, because it looked really cool. And then he came over to me and he says, “Dude, this is lethal” [laughs]. He was right.

[So,] I haven’t got it yet. I know there’s something out there. I still feel it. I just haven’t got it yet. If I do score it, it will be the best feeling on earth. Because I want one. I want to use it before I get too feeble to jump on board.

When you get on those airport walkways, that’s a very satisfying feeling, isn’t it? The world whizzes by, you’re striding along like a god. Do you know how much they add to your walking speed of roughly three miles an hour? One and a half [miles per hour]. Another three and you would really feel like a god. If I could score another three, it would be a hugely useful thing. If I can score nine — which is not excessive — that is a very fast jogging speed and you would feel like the city was your apple, your gift. You would feel like you had access to anywhere in a factory without killing yourself, or in an airport or — you name it.

[And we would] save a lot of gas with this thing. The comfortable walking range, for most people, is now somewhere between four or five or ten blocks. If you’re happy on this thing and delighted to go 20 blocks, you may be more likely to use it than to jump in a car. And if you could keep it with you, by your table at a restaurant in a little bag — wow!

You get infatuated, and you spend too much money, and you go way out on a limb on something, but you know what? As Edison observed, I know now that that is not the way to do it. And what if I don’t score it? Maybe somebody else can.

Articulating the need is a huge part of inventing. I freely pass along what I regard as the important part of the job, which is really defining what we need. Because we take for granted what’s missing. We have taken for granted all these years that a mirror to kill bugs is missing. They took for granted that a handheld stabilizer for cameras was missing. Nobody missed it until it appeared — except me.

So I really miss [having this transportation device], and I want a lot of people to miss it. And maybe somebody will score it. I’d love to own one, and look at it, and see how it works, before I expire. So, if it isn’t going to be me, I hope it’s somebody else.

I’m hopeful that somebody will do it.

Knowledge@Wharton: You have spent the bulk of your career being driven by innovation, creativity. Is there a lesson there for corporations?

Brown: I think the only lesson for a corporation is, first of all, to embrace innovators where they can find them to maybe a greater extent than they do, and certainly, to apply a consistently larger part of their budget to innovation. There’s a terrible tendency, which I observed in my licensees — once you have something that sells and you feel that you’ve spent rather a lot of money to get it there — to want to really make a lot of money on it. And it’s this next-quarter bottom-line thing that’s death on innovation.

A lot of businesses are not innovation-driven, but any business that has potential upside from innovation almost needs to do it as an insurance policy if nothing else. They can spend a hell of a lot of their money on things that don’t have an upside. It’s like the levies [in New Orleans]. That $70 million to fix the levies looks like a good investment in hindsight. It’s not the present administration’s way of wanting to operate right now. They want to shrink government, and try and get the private sector to do it all. But that’s not unlike a company that is eating its seed corn, in effect, and not innovating.

A very exemplary corporation in terms of innovation is Apple under Steve Jobs. I imagine it’s very satisfying for him to be in the Metro in Paris and see every fifth person wearing [an iPod].

Those 27 million iPod sales came out of absolute vapor, didn’t they? They came from nowhere. They weren’t linear to the company’s traditional business. They came out of an idea that nested with the business, but Jobs conjured those 27 million sales — with some thought early in the morning some morning — and the power to get it to happen.

Knowledge@Wharton: Any other advice for our readers?

Brown: I think, in a word, it’s that I would encourage people to be dilettantes at inventing. To be amateurs at it. It’s a fabulous amateur avocation.

 

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