While watching the 2014 FIFA World Cup I got obsessed by the cameras used in the production of the broadcast. FIFA produces a single feed for all media outlets through a company called Host Broadcast Services. There were, according to HBS, “up to 34” cameras in use at each match. The field was saturated with cameras. Sometimes we got a thrilling bird’s eye view thanks to the Skycam. But at other times it could be hard to assess the field of play: instead it was all close-ups and slow-motion. The constant use of super slow motion could sometimes squeeze a sense of agony from any gesture or action, no matter how banal. Or it could remove all force from a tackle, all intention from a dive. I’m not convinced, in other words, that more is more when it comes to visual information.
I watched the tournament with an artist who happens to be researching the development of different kinds of cameras. He explained to me that many of the cameras that define sports broadcasts were invented by the same guy—and that the story of those cameras goes back to one of the most famous sports films of all time, Rocky. I wrote about my friend’s project for KCET’s Artbound. Below are the opening paragraphs, and a link to the full story.
Rocky Balboa’s run up the wide steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the most iconic scenes in American cinema; we can easily recall his gesture, on reaching the top: hands in the air, in triumph. These steps are in the local news again: The Philadelphia Museum of Art is expanding. Frank Gehry’s design involves cutting out a large section right down the middle: straight along, in other words, Rocky’s path.
As part of an ongoing investigation of the relationship of the body to the camera, the Los Angeles-based artist Adrià Julià found himself climbing those steps. In the past year, Julià has interviewed cinematographers and camera operators in Los Angeles and Paris and conducted a series of experiments. These short films, sculptures, lenticular prints, choreographic studies attempt to pull the embodied experiences of filmmaking into his own practice.
Julià was drawn to Rocky’s ascent because that scene is associated with the origin of the Steadicam — one of the most important inventions in cinema history. The Steadicam moves with but also against the cameraperson’s body; balancing itself as that person moves. A 2008 profile in ICG magazine (the magazine and website for the International Cinematographers Guild) reviews the history of its development with reverence, tracing each step in the process as Garret Brown and his collaborators arrived at this device that seemed to have a life of its own. One cinematographer remembers, “‘in the early days, the Steadicam operator was treated like he had his own little bag of voodoo.'”
Brown has gone on to create more magical devices, including many of the cinematic tools used in major sporting events — such as the World Cup — flycams that run with the athlete along the length of a track or a field; skycams suspended by wires that can swoop over the field of play like a bird. He has even created underwater cameras, used to capture the swimmer’s body as she races down the lane. The Steadicam, however, is the device that made Brown’s career.
In 1974, Brown produced a reel demonstrating what his camera could do with the aim of bringing his invention to Hollywood. On that reel is a film of Ellen Brown, his wife, running down, and then up, the museum’s steps. (The two lived in Philadelphia.) When the team producing “Rocky” saw Brown’s reel, they decided to set the film in the city of brotherly love so that its hero could run up those steps, just as Ellen had done. Ellen, in other words, is the reason “Rocky” is a Philadelphia story.