For Matthew Moriarty, being a steadicam operator means doing a job that works in tandem with an actor’s performance so that the clearest possible version of their shared storytelling comes across onscreen.
Speaking to Backstage, the “Aquaman” and “A Quiet Place Part II” camera operator details why handling a steadicam is like riding a racehorse and how a fear of failure can be a crucial part of cinematic success.
What does a steadicam operator do?
The camera operator works for both the director of photography, who is responsible for the entirety of the photography on the film, and the film’s director. The steadicam [is] the free-floating gimbal rig suspended from a spring-loaded arm attached to the operator with a vest. The system allows the camera to be isolated from the movements of the operator, resulting (if you do it right) in shots of incredible smoothness, even over uneven terrain.
But it’s not autonomous. It takes an operator to make it sing. I use a lot of horse analogies when it comes to my job and I liken the steadicam to a racehorse: It’s a magnificent creature but you still need a jockey to win, place, or show.
I use the steadicam when the shot calls for it but my screen credit is generally that of “A camera/Steadicam operator.” The “A camera operator” is really a hub for all the departments because [they are] the one pointing the camera. You’re part technician, part storyteller, part umpire.
What is your process when you’re approaching a new project?
My process has changed quite a bit as the business has changed...You begin with the script because it defines the “what”: What happens, what is the story, what is this movie. “A Quiet Place Part II” is a great example not only because John [Krasinski] had envisioned some rather daring shots, but also because his script is literally a series of meticulously described shots, leaving no doubt whatsoever as to how John saw the movie. The clearer the “what” in the script, the less disagreement there will be on the “how.”
If the script is thin on detail, you then often have storyboards or occasionally a full-motion previz that VFX has prepared to guide the work. You also have creative discussion [to] help nail down the “what” of the shot or shots. Determining the “how” of a shot is where one’s experience comes in. What tool or combination of tools would work? Most importantly, what does the audience need over the course of these 53 seconds of screen time? All of this is undertaken in collaboration with dozens of other people, both within the camera department and without. Making films you’re always in the position of starting with the thing you can least control–like where the sun is or isn’t shining–and working backward from that into the realm of things you can control. Experience is what helps you know which path to take at any given juncture.
How did you get started as a camera operator?
The camera department has a long tradition of apprenticeship and I consider myself fortunate to have come up through those ranks. I started as John Bailey’s intern on “As Good As It Gets” in 1996. Then I got into the union in 1997 as a film loader, became a second camera assistant [and] spent [a] brief period as a first assistant. I became an operator in 2004 on a movie called “Must Love Dogs.” My first shot was a big crane move that swung right into Diane Lane’s closeup. It was a huge risk for John to take [me] on, moving me up among a group of people neither of us had ever worked for, on a full-sized studio picture with major stars.
I learned something very valuable during that film about how to succeed in the film business: those who work hard, who care, and who are pleasant to be around will have an almost unlimited number of mistakes forgiven by those who hire them. Fear of failure is also a big part of success below the line. It motivates you to anticipate problems and solve them before there’s an actual disaster. I also learned that operating the camera is a craft unto itself. The steadicam is just a tool; operating is the job. After a few years of being John’s “A” camera operator, he asked me if I wanted to also do the steadicam. My first steadicam shot ever was running around Home Depot with Diane Keaton on a movie called “Mad Money.”
“A failure to get the shot by below-the-line technicians is greatly frowned upon by those who sign our checks. ”
What is a typical day on set like for you?
Mondays are usually a 7 a.m. call. We’ll have a safety meeting and then they’ll let the director rehearse the actors. Depending on the show, I’ll sit in on the actor-director rehearsal. Other times, they rehearse without me and I’ll only see the action when they do the marking rehearsal, where all the department heads and stand-ins get to see what the actors intend to do in the scene.
Once we’ve gotten the rehearsal, we’ll find the shot, the director goes away and the lighting crew takes over the set. That’s when we’ll build the dolly track or the dance floor or place the crane base, or where I’ll suit up in the steadicam. Then they bring the actors in and we start shooting. You see the scene, you figure out where to put the camera, you light it, you shoot it, next setup.
A normal shooting day is 12–13 hours, including lunch. When they call wrap, I park my steadicam on the stand, bid “thank you” and “goodnight" to my colleagues, and, unless there’s a sidebar meeting about some bit of work coming up, I go home.
How does your work impact actors on set?
I grew up around actors and I have great respect for them and their process. Once you’re using the steadicam and you’re doing moving shots with actors, it really does become a dance. You can feel each other’s rhythms and you cue off each other and you [both] know immediately whether it’s going well or badly. When you’re doing these complex moving shots with an actor who’s very camera savvy, you end up high-fiving each other after a good take. You each know the sort of skill it took the other to pull it off.
What do you look for when hiring your crew?
I look for someone who has a great work ethic, is pleasant to be around, focused, and efficient. They need to understand that a failure to get the shot by below-the-line technicians is greatly frowned upon by those who sign our checks. So, they need to develop a solid method for disaster-proofing their particular area of responsibility–all of which they will learn by watching the good people in the positions above them and making a commitment to learning.
What advice would you give aspiring steadicam operators?
I think “get yourself a good mentor” is the best advice I could give anyone. I can understand how there must seem a “can’t get there from here” aspect to what I do. You can’t get hired until you’re in the union and you can’t get in the union until you’re hired. It can seem daunting but the truth is, you start wherever you can–as a prep tech at Panavision, for example. Then people get to know you, they decide they want to make you a loader or a digital utility and, next thing you know, you’re in the union with health insurance, making big movies.
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