The Design and Operation of Skycam

By McConkey, Larry | American Cinematographer, April 1985 | Go to article overview

The Design and Operation of Skycam


McConkey, Larry, American Cinematographer


The 1985 Orange Bowl on NBC-TV opened with a perfectly ordinary shot: a close-up of several wildly cheering fans. Then something happened. The unsuspecting TV viewer was suddenly picked up by his suspenders, launched backwards over the railing and out into the vast space over the brilliantly lit football field - an armchair superman diving into the thick of the action. The fans in the upper seats were rapidly left behind as the camera swooped majestically down towards the tiny figures on the 40 yard line . . . rushing up on screen to meet their audience for opening kick-off. Skycam had arrived.

If not the payoff, this was at least the first installment back on an incredible investment of time and trouble: a small group of cameramen, designers and engineers had finally realized a dream, a dream that began five years ago.

Before this broadcast there had been two features, two music videos, a mega-commercial, and several live sporting events. The Skycam had worked on 35mm, 16mm and video productions: it had produced shot after incredible shot, many never seen before. In every conceivable setting, from a small indoor stage to the expanse of the L.A. Coliseum, it had proved to be a fast, efficient, graceful, powerful, truly amazing machine. But it was here, during our fifth national sports telecast, that everything finally came together. The networks had figured out how to incorporate us effectively into their shows and the Skycam proved that it is not merely revolutionary - it's practical.

According to the U.S. Patent Office, the Skycam is a "remote controlled, computer assisted, cable suspended mobile platform for the conveyance of equipment such as a camera." To a cameraman it's much more. It dollies, it booms, it flies, all tripod-steady in a space as large as 1000 feet square and 200 feet high.

Imagine a cube. From each of the top four corners hang a pulley. Below each pulley place a winch. Thread each winch cable up through its pulley and down to the center of the cube. From these four cables now hang a camera. Program a computer to know where the pulleys are located in space. Control all four winches with the computer, control the computer with two joysticks. Now, if you want the camera to boom straight up, pull the elevation stick (or "Z" control) up. The computer will pull in on all four winches and the camera will rise straight up in the air. Now, do you want to truck right? Push the other joystick "X/Y" control) to the right. The computer tells the two winches on the right to pull in, while the two on the left are let out. The camera obediently trucks to the right. Speed is controlled by varying pressure on the sticks, up to 20 miles per hour. Sounds simple, doesn't it? On this level, the space shuttle could be described as a way to lift people and cargo by lighting a big fire in a tube.

Garrett Brown (of Steadicam fame) invented the idea over five years ago. With a small model hung in the kitchen of his Philadelphia home (using thread and sewing bobbins as the cable and pulleys), he proved to himself that his concept had a chance. Armed with that slim knowledge and his usual optimism, he contacted a number of technically gifted friends to help him out. The saga had begun.

A Steadicam operator, I had known Garrett for several years when he first approached me with his scheme. Dissatisfied with existing systems, I had designed my own radio control for the Steadicam, adapting model airplane parts to do the job. Garrett asked me to be his partner, and work on a control system for the new device. That included everything from pan and tilt to keeping the camera upright and stable. I readily agreed, and persuaded my longtime friend and assistant cameraman, Tass Michos, to help me.

We soon had several other team members signed on as well. Larry Cone, a software wizard, along with Will Feibel (electronics hardware) had the job of putting a computer and four winches on speaking terms. …

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