One of the key scenes in director John G. Avildsen’s Rocky is also a groundbreaking chapter in movie history. Rocky’s (Sylvester Stallone) street jogging/training “Gonna Fly Now” montage — which includes his famous run up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum — utilized the new technology called Steadicam.
This innovation showed Hollywood that the camera operator’s movement could now be isolated from the scene and provide a smooth, stable motion on film. At the time, this feat was astounding; the shot would be money even if the road was, well, rocky.
Our documentary, John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs, includes a behind-the-scenes look at the original Rocky, including the making of this iconic scene and use of the then-new technology. In addition to the original Rocky, Avildsen directed all three Karate Kid films, as well as Save The Tiger and Joe. His gift for underdog stories inspired millions of filmgoers and influenced popular culture for decades (yet Avildsen is barely a household name). He received a Best Director Oscar for his work in Rocky (it also won the award for best film editing). In all, Avildsen directed seven actors to Academy Award nominations.
Although Rocky wasn’t the first film to use this technology, it was an early adapter. The “Gonna Fly Now” scene is one of the most beautiful and iconic uses — and best examples — of the Steadicam. Before Rocky, it was first recognized in the Hal Ashby film Bound for Glory (1976), which received an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
Fun fact: the cam was actually first used in the Manhattan chase scenes in Marathon Man (1976), which was released two months before Bound For Glory. Rocky was also released before Bound for Glory.
By 1980, the Steadicam was becoming a further force of innovation — in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, it was used in “low mode,” barely above the floor, which opened up the possibilities of creative angles and more dynamic storytelling. Later, in Return of the Jedi, the Steadicam travels through a Redwood forest at one frame per second, to achieve the real feel of a high-speed chase.
Before the Steadicam, establishing a seemingly simple shot like this was nearly impossible. The closest the director could usually get was mounting the camera on a dolly that would roll on tracks or leveled boards. This often proved time-consuming, clumsy, and impractical. Another typical “solution” would require the camera operator to hold the camera by hand, but even the most skilled professional couldn’t eliminate the bouncy effects of hand shaking and foot stepping.
Of course, the hand-held-camera technique would later prove provocative for documentaries, reality television and music videos, but in most cases, a dramatic scene in a film calls for a sense of steady as she goes.
For Rocky, the Steadicam was operated by its inventor (and Philadelphia native), Garrett Brown. He worked on the technology until it proved the ability to tilt, pan, and evenly distribute weight on whom it was harnessed. To show it off, he and his friends made a reel of “30 impossible shots” that could never be pulled off successfully without the Steadicam. Scenes included running in a field, jumping over a three-foot ledge, and running alongside a pool while following a swimmer.
“The astonishing, and lucky thing, about this little invention was you could show someone the effect and not show them the cause. You could show them the impossible shot and they would have no clue whatsoever how you did it,” Brown said.
One additional idea Brown had: filming his wife running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. This caught the eye of Avildsen, who asked, “Where are those steps? How did you do that?”
The rest, of course is history.
The early Steadicam was not all smooth sailing; it did present some challenges. From an operator’s commentary from The Steadicam Letter (March 1989), Brown said, “My only problem was keeping the camera running in the cold. The two CP batteries weren’t strong enough, particularly after a dent in the center-post started rubbing against the internal motor shaft. We made the well-known Art-Museum-Steps shots with [Ralf Bode, director of photography] running along beside me carrying two automobile batteries to jump-start the Arri [camera]!”
The Steadicam also captured Stallone running through South Philadelphia’s Italian Market and alongside the antique sailing vessel, the Moshulu. That ship shot was recorded from a van, the first-ever Steadicam captured from a moving vehicle.
In 1978, Garrett Brown won an Academy Award of Merit for the invention and the development of the Steadicam, but he didn’t stop there. In 1979, he invented the SkyCam, which flies over and shoots stadium sporting events. In 2006, it won him a scientific and engineering award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). In 2009, he was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame, and the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2013.
Brown also invented the DiveCam (following Olympic divers) and the MobyCam (an underwater camera which follows Olympic swimmers). In all, he holds 50 camera device patents worldwide.
Of course, in the 21st century, the Steadicam is a non-negotiable given. New generations of camera stabilizing systems have since evolved, creating new possibilities in the digital age. It’s was Rocky’s run, though, that showed the world how the Steadicam could fly now.
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