Once Stanley Kubrick became aware of Garrett Brown’s Steadicam invention in 1974, he couldn’t wait to get his hands on one and play with it. While the opening sequence of Halloween was the first horror film to utilize the Steadicam, The Shining took it even further, smoothly gliding the viewer through the halls and the treacherous hedge maze of the Overlook Hotel.
Kubrick even got Brown to operate the Steadicam for the film, which was an honor and a major education for the Steadi inventor. “I would have been happy to be on any of his movies,” Brown says. “Stanley moved the camera well and purposely. The Shining was an opportunity to bear down on technique that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. That’s where I really learned to control the damn thing.”
And indeed, with Kubrick’s penchant for multiple takes, Brown really learned how to move his invention through endless repetition. On the first day of the shoot, Kubrick did thirty takes of a traveling shot in the lobby, and as Brown says, “It was an opportunity to bear down on technique that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.” Considering how much the film relied on strenuous camera work, Brown also called it “the Steadicam Olympics.”
The Steadicam was also a great device to take the audience through the endless hallways and hedge maze of the Overlook Hotel. Geography is important in horror. You want the audience to know where the closet is so they can yell at the screen not to go in there. Yet as Brown explains, “Your sense of the geography in The Shining was so much larger in scale than in most horror films. In most horror films, you’re learning the ins and outs of claustrophobic spaces. With The Shining, it felt much bigger.
“Stanley brought you into spaces in a really interesting way,” Brown continues. “His storytelling shots walked you in, and moved you into places that were memorably beautiful, beautifully lit, or strikingly presented in some way. But there are no ordinary spaces in his films.”
When Brown showed Kubrick that the Steadicam could shoot at a lens height from eighteen inches to waist-high, Kubrick was thrilled because much of the film revolved around a kid’s point of view. To film little Danny riding his Big Wheel through the halls, Brown rode on a wheelchair that Kubrick used for A Clockwork Orange.
Brown used the wheelchair because “in a number of instances it was the only way to get the lens right down to floor level.” Brown tried to follow Danny on foot, and got tired after three minutes. “I never even tried running after the kid, that would’ve been a joke,” Brown says. “A kid on a Big Wheel can go about seventy miles an hour.”
Because the wheelchair had rubber wheels, you couldn’t hear it running across the floor behind Danny, and a wonderful element of the Steadicam shots was the sound of Big Wheel ricketing across the floor, then quietly coasting over the carpet. “None of us had any idea how great the carpet and floor sounds would be until the dailies,” Brown says. “You couldn’t hear it when you were a few feet away from the actors. As soon as we heard it, we knew that the sound was essential to that scene, because it was so bizarre.”
The initial reviews for The Shining weren’t kind, despite its technical and narrative achievements. But much like the reviews turned around for Hitchcock’s Psycho and Vertigo, opinion soon changed with The Shining as well. It’s certainly not a perfect film, and it’s often uneven, but much of it still delivers, especially Brown’s harrowing Steadicam work.
As the L.A. Times wrote twenty-five years after The Shining’s initial release, “Visually, it’s a knockout. Every frame, every tracking shot is a masterpiece of cold, paranoid composition.” And what wonderful serendipity that Kubrick chose a horror film to go wild with his new toy. It’s remarkable to think a tool created to smooth the bumps out of camera moves could help create so much fear, but we’re glad it worked out so well.