Steadicam Exovest: The beginning – From Concept to Creation
It was late September, 2005, while hurtling through a stop light in Paris, that Garrett Brown asked, “Have you any thoughts on how we might improve the vest?” I’d just arrived on the Steadicam scene, invited to lecture on posture at the Paris Steadicam Masterclass. As Jerry Holway cocked an ear, I might have voiced something memorable, but more likely, being in the presence of giants, I mumbled incoherently—but the idea set me spinning.
In more than 30 years, every part of the Steadicam system had been through multiple upgrades, but the current vest still looked like the one Garrett had used on Bound for Glory. It worked, and worked well, for sure—just look at the shots that have been made with it—but was it as comfortable as it could be? I’d tried various vests and had settled on the Steadicam LX. I liked the simple, hard padding, better than the softer U2 vest, and the straight shape of the front spar suited my body shape better than that of the angled front spar on the PRO vest that dug into my abdomen. I ruled out a back-mount vest for various reasons. I hated the hard spar pushing into the centre of my back. Really, I disliked the chest straps on the LX almost as much. I also hated that I had to hold my pelvis level while walking, but when I came to think of it, I knew that the LX demanded some degree of locked-pelvis walk too.
In the short time I’d been operating, I’d almost gotten used to these shortcomings, but the question for Garrett came just in time. My niggling doubts had not yet faded. I first set about my LX vest, installing a pivot between the waistband and the front spar, and immediately found I could walk more naturally, and in a slow walk, could hold a much steadier shot. That encouraged me to mess around with outlandish chest-strap systems that variously triangulated, ran through pulleys, and generally avoided compressing the ribcage, but they also managed to avoid resisting the torque of holding the weight of the Steadicam sled in front of the body. The front spar, in all my systems would pull away from the upper chest as soon as the vest was loaded. This was good, for it helped me identify that that the vest had to fulfill two distinct purposes. First, it had to transmit the weight of the Steadicam into the body, and second, it had to resist the torque of holding the Steadicam out front.
Soon, I became so accustomed to my pivoting vest, that when I would wear a regular vest at a workshop, it felt wrong, but for years, nothing else came to mind until in October 2008, I had an extended opportunity to do nothing but think about solutions. I’d just shot a feature film in the Amazon rainforest, and had a week to spare at the end. I decided to go to a beach resort in Suriname to just kick back in the sun. After a maniacal taxi ride, I hired a fisherman to carry me downriver to a recommended spot, and to return for me a week later. As his boat coasted through the surf, I hallucinated hammocks and tropical music playing. I could almost hear ice chinking in cocktail glasses, and the buzz of interesting conversation, but as the boat pulled away, the vision faded, and I saw a deserted beach with a Carib Indian village piled up behind it. A local looked amazed to see me, then negotiated to let me sleep in his fishing hut, where his wife would feed me one meal a day.
The beach was patrolled by stingrays, and the village surrounded by a vast mangrove swamp. That was it—nothing else. So I set down to figuring out what Garrett had asked me four years previously. I had no paper or pen, but I had sand and a camera, and soon this appeared…
…which shortly after returning to Europe turned into this
This first prototype was a threaded-rod monstrosity that Garrett and Jerry dubbed ‘The Iron Maiden.’ It required tools to get in and out of, but the threaded rods allowed me to tweak the geometry until it worked. What I wanted to do was to primarily put the weight into the pelvis, avoiding the abdomen at front and the base of the spine at back, but most important was where the torque would go. With both the front and back-mount vests, we resist the torque at mid-back level. I wanted to double this lever arm to the height of the upper back, thus halving the force necessary to resist it, and engaging all of the back muscles to aid in the work. Placement was important too. Instead of tightening a strap around the ribs, or placing a back spar against the spine, this system had to place the torque into the bulk of the high trapezius muscles, avoiding both the shoulder blades and the spine. Another major design consideration was that this vest had to work just as well for women as for men.
So, instead of a vest that tightened indiscriminately around the body, it became an exoskeletal structure that could place weight and torque into specific areas. Due to its front-to-back rigidity, it became possible to transfer weight around the waistband to the lower back, and torque over the shoulders to the upper back. As well as the existing pivots front and back at waist level, at this stage the vest also gained a new pivot point front and back at shoulder level to accommodate natural movements of the shoulder girdle. We locked off both sets of pivots to plus and minus three degrees, and though we’ve experimented with different angles since, this six degrees of rotation so far suits everybody regardless of sex, shape, or size.
With Garrett and Jerry’s help, my crude prototype morphed into this…
Now Jerry became involved in the design, and you can see the change he wrought on it. We could now get in and out of it by two dovetail latches, adjust fit on the fly via double and triple-purchase velcro straps, and relax the entire vest by means of one over-center lever. We went through another period of testing, and were delighted that the principle worked as we expected, and that we’d gotten the geometry right first time round. We were then amazed that it fit a vast range of body sizes and carried any weight of Steadicam with ease. First comments from experienced operators were heartening, “I can breathe,” I can walk normally,” and best of all, “the rig just feels lighter.” Women operators liked it too.
Working with the new prototype, I noticed immediately that even compared to my pivoting vest, this felt like I was doing much less work when walking. The abdominal muscles I’d normally use to stabilize my pelvis could relax, along with the muscles at the sides of the pelvis that stabilize the hip joint—and now that I was balanced on bone and tendon, instead of muscular tension, I was more stable. Another benefit was that as one hip joint rose the other fell, thus smoothing out the level of the socket block above the ground during walking. Running felt good too, with more freedom of movement for the hip and shoulder girdles, and then afterwards to stop dead and hold a perfect lock-off while breathing deeply without affecting the trim of the rig was gratifying.
At this stage, we spilt the two bottom pads into four, so that the weight would now go into the front and rear of the pelvic bones, avoiding compressing the gluteus muscles at the sides. This had the unexpected benefit of increasing general circulation, and allowing the waistband to tighten fore–aft, thus loading the rear of the pelvis more effectively. We refined this prototype for presentation at NAB 2012 and again at Cinegear where it was met with great interest.
Comments now came in regarding how much control placing the torque so high up could give you over the rig, “It comes back like a sports car,” was one memorable quote. In between, we’ve been putting it on as many people as possible (taking it off them has sometimes been more problematic), getting as much feedback as possible. Now the vest is in the hands of a team of engineers led by Rob Orf, where he, Jerry, Jacob Hawkins, and Bob Haddock are battling to get the parts count down from its present double that of a normal vest, to something more manageable. They are exploring options for everything, including extending the already huge vertical socket-block travel, before we settle on a final design that will be lightweight and strong. We’re close, but give us a little more time to make it perfect.
Concurrently with the Exovest, Tiffen is designing a third arm section, the Exomount. Due to the semi-rigid exoskeletal nature of the vest, it doesn’t matter where you insert the load, so we’re attaching a single arm section to the rear vest rods that will extend out to the side of the operator’s body. You’ll just dock your existing arm straight into this to increase your boom range by 50%. Now low mode can go from ankle to eye level. You’ll like it.
Author: Chris Fawcett