Lee Brown: Interview With a Steadicam Operator

Lee on Set. Pic: Gabriel Niedojadło

I had the pleasure this week of chatting to Lee Brown, a freelance Steadicam Operator working in film and television. Lee graduated from Derby University with a degree in Film Production, and is now working full time in the industry. I got to know his inspirations, the ins and outs of working in film, and some of his tips for anyone aspiring to work in the industry.

Hi Lee – will you tell us who you are and what it is you do for a living?

“Hi, I’m Lee, and I’m a Steadicam Operator – a specialised camera operator. A lot of the stuff I do at the moment involves shooting for music videos, commercials, short films and features.”

Right – and what is a Steadicam exactly?

“Ah, yes, good question. A Steadicam is a piece of equipment that is used with a camera to make a shot look as smooth as possible. If you can’t use a dolly, or a crane, or a tripod, then you use a Steadicam.”

What drew you to working in the film industry?

“I acted in commercials and films when I was a teen, and whilst on-set I became interested in what people were doing behind the cameras. On some jobs I was able to spend time with the crew on the days I wasn’t acting and learn a bit about what they were doing. From there I started to make short films with friends and it spiralled from there.”

So leading on from that, what was it that drew you to camera operating specifically?

“I think a large part of it is trial and error to find where your strengths lie. As with most people, there’s always an aspiration to be in charge of your own projects creatively; but as I directed at university I found myself drawn to the camera, and ended up camera operating whilst I was directing. I kept a camera and Steadicam with me over lockdown and did a subsequent course with Optical Support, so it was a natural progression really. I love the aesthetic side of things, and as a camera op, my technical knowledge gives me influence on how a shot comes out.”

Who are some of your biggest influences and why?

“My inspiration often comes from people I have met and worked with on the job. My mentor is a man called Jay Jaramillo Gonzalez, he’s also a Steadicam Operator but he’s about five years ahead of me career-wise; he’s been a massive influence. 

“On top of that there’s been directors and DoPs who have been helpful – one of the best pieces of advice I’ve had was from a director who simply told me: ‘it’s okay to stand still’. It was such an obvious statement but as a Steadicam Operator you assume your job is to move. Sometimes being stationary helps with the dynamics of a shot; you need variation, the same as in music, to compliment what it is you’re filming.”

This might be a tough question, but what is your favourite film?

“So I actually do have a favourite film – it’s called The Green Book [2018, dir. Peter Farrelly]. The reason I love it is its simplicity; you’re engaged through the whole thing but it’s so gentle, focussed on character development. I know as a cameraman you don’t really have to worry about character development but understanding the emotions of the characters really helps when choosing your shots who you want the audience to connect with, who you want to keep physical and emotional distance from.”

Every person has a preference, so: Hollywood or Independent Cinema?

“At risk of following a trend, but I think independent films are able to tell more of a story. They’re less restricted by number-oriented scripting, as in, ‘we’ll make this creative choice because it’ll be most popular’. Especially recently, it’s about telling your story rather than what is conventional. Crews recently have had more space to say, ‘this is what I believe’. This isn’t a steadfast rule, but in lots of independent filmmaking everyone is there to embrace a shared vision, whereas in a Hollywood film you’re employed to help create someone else’s vision. I’ve worked on shoots where I’ve only been informed of the project’s history that day, but I become passionate about it because the rest of the crew are so passionate. That’s not to say Hollywood can’t do that, but it hasn’t quite caught up to the mark yet.”

What is the best bit about working in film? What’s the worst bit?

“The best bit is that no day is the same. Even if you shoot a music video every single day – and there are similarities, especially as a Steadicam Op – you also meet different people every day. Every day I am at work I learn on the job, tweak what I do to try and achieve better results each time. It’s the same for every department, even directors; they’ll alter their ideas based off a piece of technical advice given by a crew member that they didn’t know before.

“The worst bit about the job is definitely work-life balance. It’s antisocial hours and for my part, it’s freelance, so it’s irregular. Others are able to get home from work from their 9-5 and go to the pub and talk about their job to friends, but I’m at home when everyone else is at work. You have to be able to motivate yourself constantly to make connections in your spare time, to advertise yourself, to build relationships, but at the same time, you have to remind yourself that you can’t do that all the time. A DoP I’ve just worked with has, in the last week, been in Dubai, Belfast, Newcastle, London, back to Newcastle, back to Belfast. You are able to travel all over the world which is wonderful but everyone forgets that the travel is solitary; it’s not a very sociable job when compared to others. ”

What’s next for you – where do you see yourself in five years? What’s your next challenge?

“I have been fortunate because things have picked up very quickly for me. It has been an unusual start for a graduate [note: it hasn’t been luck, it’s been sheer hard work and constant graft, but I’ll let him continue]. I’m hoping to create a network of DoPs that want to work with me regularly, and do some of my own little projects, because there’s nothing like having your own passion project. I’m not ready for feature yet, but I’d eventually like to do something more regular in the future, being the lead Steadicam Op regularly would be great.”

What advice would you give someone wanting to enter the film industry?

Go for the pint. If someone working in the industry asks you to go for a drink, go. Make as many connections and friends as you can, but be nice – you’ll get nowhere if you DM a hundred directors saying ‘please let me on your set’. Listen to people, take an interest in what they do, learn from them. They’re much more likely to remember you if you have an actual connection or relationship with them. Instagram is your CV and you can showcase your work and build connections easily. And start now!”

By Becca Brown

You can find Lee’s work on his website:

https://steadilee.com/
steadilee.com

or on his Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/_steadilee_/