How Steadicam Changed ‘The Shining’

Point of View

How Steadicam Changed ‘The Shining’

The Device at the Centre of Kubrick's Cinematic Language

Five years after the disastrous release of Barry Lyndon — a slow burn epic that tanked at the box office and was largely ignored by critics — director Stanley Kubrick decided that he was ready to return, battered and bruised, to filmmaking again. 

Holed up in his office with a stack of horror novels, keen, finally, to make something that appealed to the masses rather than just his committed fanbase, Kubrick leafed through the paperbacks. When he didn’t like one, he hurled it against the wall. His secretary, in the next room, listened to the rhythmic thunks of the rejects. Then — silence. She poked her head around the corner. Kubrick was reading Stephen King’s The Shining.

The director was a perfect fit for the material. Despite his reputation as a cold, disaffected anthropologist, Kubrick had always balanced his more robotic instincts with his ability to discover moments of gentle grace. The ending of his film Paths of Glory, in which a tired band of soldiers watch a nervous, frail local girl burst into rousing song, is powerful precisely because of the horror that surrounds it, a trembling scrap of humanity to be found in the littered detritus left after war.

Image: The Shining via Warner Bros. Pictures

King’s novel was filled with such moments. Largely a reflection on the author’s own alcoholism and journey to sobriety, the book made the horrors of addiction shudderingly literal, giving the demons that drive the tormented hero, Jack Torrance, to madness, their own rotting faces. Cruelty that makes humanity more beautiful, humanity that makes cruelty all the more unimaginable. It was all there. Kubrick just had to decide how to bring it out.

The answer, predictably for a director that had made his name with torturously long shoots and an exacting eye for detail, was repetition; precision. Rejecting a version of the screenplay that King himself had written, Kubrick stripped the novel of its excess parts, and extracted its core message: that there is, within each one of us, a deep strain of evil, and a deep strain of absolution. Which one wins out is, for the most part, a question of chance.

That process of extraction infuriated King, who felt that the novel’s strong supernatural themes had been too greatly diminished. King would only grow more frustrated when, shortly after, Kubrick hired Jack Nicholson to play the wild-eyed Torrance. King thought that Nicholson was too intense, and that the story would be better suited with an everyman at its center; that Torrance’s sad, inevitable decline towards total destruction needed to start from a place of relatability that Nicholson couldn’t provide. Author and filmmaker had departed from one another, and they would never cross paths happily again.

Image: The Shining via Warner Bros. Pictures

Such alienation became the theme of the production. Shelley Duvall, who had been cast as Torrance’s desperate wife Wendy, was tortured by Kubrick from day one. Everyone who worked on a Kubrick picture expected a certain level of punishment – mind-numbing and excessive takes, a focus on details so minor that most other filmmakers would glance over them without batting an eye – but Duvall got particularly unpleasant treatment.  Her role as Wendy required her to exist in a constant state of nervous collapse, forever either on the verge of tears, or raggedly sobbing.

At first, Duvall connected to that place of trauma by reliving her own personal horrors, and listening to the same handful of devastating songs on an old Walkman. But after a while, her body “rebelled”, begging her not to spend another day in tears. Not that the limits of the physical form bothered Kubrick: he kept pushing her, leading to such unbearable levels of stress that her hair fell out in clumps.

Even Nicholson suffered from the director’s exacting nature. The script was so constantly in flux, forever in the process of being cut-up and re-worked and swapped around, that Nicholson would throw the new pages he was passed directly into the bin, learning his lines on the fly. And then, when the cameras started rolling, he would be thrown into screeching agony for hours, often shooting until long after midnight.

Image: The Shining via Warner Bros. Pictures

Yet in the midst of all that horror, and that anguish, a curious hero emerged: the steadicam. The device, invented by Garrett Brown, had already revolutionized cinema four years before. Prior to the development of the device, moving a camera required fitting it to rails, leading to a swathe of logistical problems – going up stairs, moving through crowds, and sweeping gently through spaces, were all next to impossible tasks. 

The steadicam changed all that. A rig that could be mounted to the camera operator, allowing the camera to float easily around its subjects, it expanded the cinematic language almost overnight. Bound For Glory, a biopic about Woody Guthrie directed by stoned-out auteur Hal Ashby, was the first film to feature the steadicam, but within years, it had been utilised by everyone from Sylvester Stallone to John Schlesinger.

From left: Jack Nicholson, set documentarian Vivian Kubrick, Brown, Kubrick and clapper loader Kate (née Peter) Robinson on the Overlook stage. Image by Garrett Brown

But it was on The Shining that the steadicam showed its full potential. Prior to Kubrick’s use of the device, the steadicam had been deployed sparingly, mostly to capture figures moving at speed — Stallone running the Philadelphia streets in Rocky, Dustin Hoffman stumbling through the night while besieged by forces he could not name, let alone face, in Marathon Man. Kubrick, however, made the device the centre of his cinematic language. For him, it was no mere means of filming sudden bursts of movement: it had an eerie, gliding quality that allowed him to move inhumanly, to dance between his doomed protagonists as they fought futile and bloodied wars with themselves.

Almost all of the most famous scenes in The Shining — the young Danny Torrance wheeling through the corridors of the Overlook before running into the horrifying vision of a pair of twins; Wendy stumbling backwards up the steps, wildly swinging a bat, while her deranged husband comes for her — were captured with the steadicam. But even the film’s quieter, more restrained moments were shot using the device too. A single sequence, early in the film, in which Wendy and Danny talk at a dining room table, was shot with steadicam, the camera gently, almost invisibly, moving from side-to-side while the pair talk. The message: that even before the eruption of madness, something eerie sat at the heart of the Torrance family.

Image: The Shining via Warner Bros. Pictures

The Shining is not the same film without the steadicam. It would lack its eerie eye — its terrible, haunting quality, that kind of painful embodied nature, as though we too are wandering the echoing halls of the Overlook hotel, watching a family in terminal decline. How fitting then, that amidst the torturous production of the film, a love story would emerge between two men — a director and an inventor — and the device that allowed them to tell the story they had always wanted to tell. Humanity that makes cruelty all the more unimaginable, cruelty that makes humanity more beautiful — behind the camera, as well as in front of it.