For our first Steadicam feature interview, A Steadicam Life, we had the opportunity to speak with Steadicam Operator Ari Robbins. Since the beginning of his career Ari has been a loyal Tiffen Steadicam user as well an important part of our Steadicam community.
Tell me about yourself.
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. My Father was a surgeon and my Mother was an artist and a dancer, I like to think the two of them perfectly blended together to create a Steadicam Operator. Once my father retired, I moved with my parents to central cost of California and began taking interest in the filmmaking industry.
What was your initial inspiration to become involved in the industry?
Growing up in a household that took a great interest in art and filmmaking, I was constantly encouraged to think expressively and explore my creativity. My older brother, a cinematographer himself, also played a major role in my decision to explore a career in film. Having an older bother in the industry and the predisposition to question and think artistically, allowed me to ask him those important questions that ultimately lead me to my final decision… I was essentially grown into the profession.
Right out of high school I contemplated pursuing a career in video game creation. I enjoyed the hand eye coordination and visual aspects of the job, however I couldn’t envision myself sitting at a desk all day, I was young and wanted to be out in the field physically creating. Essentially, my interest in filmmaking stemmed from my initial desire to become involved in video game creation. I recognized a similar type of creative license amongst the two professions, however I knew that I would have a greater opportunity to be more physically hands on with my work, if I pursued a career as a Steadicam Operator.
Was there a specific experience that influenced your career path?
Sometimes when things fit they just fit.
I moved to LA in 2004 as a new Steadicam Operator with no clients, no resources and very little experience. I began my career working for free, booking any job I could just to get the exposure. However, during these first few experiences I was lucky enough to work with Steadicam Operator Nick Franco, who little did we know at the time, would be a key part in establishing the foundation of my career. It was Nick who first introduced me to Steadicam and gave me the opportunity to try a rig on and get a feel for it… I can still vividly remember my first experience putting on a rig.
Tell me about your first experience with Steadicam.
From the moment I tried on a Steadicam, and I believe this happens for a lot of operators, it clicked. Everything in your body feels right and any sense of uncertainty you may have been experiencing disappears. That was the start for me and I feel like that’s what happens for most people, it is just this intimate connection with something, which may sound strange as it just a bunch of steel, metal and electronics, however it really is a very deep connection.
When most people put on a rig for the first time they will more than likely feel the physical burdens of the machinery on their body. They will feel the weight as it pushes and pulls on against them, making their first experience quite uncomfortable. However, the very first time I put the rig on with Nick I didn’t feel that burden, it didn’t feel strange to me. It is difficult to describe, but my initial reaction was one of complete amazement and comfort, it felt natural having the rig on. Although it seems strange to say about an object, it was love at first sight.
Can you describe the connection you have to your rig?
A couple of years ago I was getting ready to catch a flight for a job in Hawaii and I had my rig stolen right out of my car. Amazingly enough Tiffen was able to find me a sled and got it to me within 4 hours, allowing me to get there the next morning, which quite was brilliant. It only took two weeks for me to get a new rig, however the really interesting feeling was that right after it was taken from my car, I wasn’t worried about the insurance, the money, the broken window, missing the plane, rather it actually felt like a part of me was gone.
As you work with your rig you begin to develop such an intimate connection with it. My rig was something that I had cried on, bled on, sweat on and traveled the world with and when it was stolen it really felt like a part of my being had been taken from me. I knew every scratch and detail of that rig and then all of a sudden to have it ripped away, it really shocked me how connected I was. It was a very interesting experience and although it may seem strange to have that kind of connection to an object, it really is so much more than that, it’s a part of my life. My rig is my other half…my better half probably.
Why did you decide to go with a Tiffen Steadicam rig as opposed to another setup?
This is a big question because it affects everyone from the ultra experience operators to those whom are just starting out. It’s a question that Steadicam operators always understand because it is so important to them…it announces us in such a way that says this is what I believe, this is what I stand for.
My “Why Tiffen Story” starts at the very beginning of my career with one of my first experiences in a Tiffen Steadicam workshop. Starting out, I was working as a key grip for an independent filmmaker who owned a ton of film equipment, he was a very cool and interesting long term LA local. One day I stressed to him that I was interested in a Steadicam workshop and that there was an upcoming one with limited positions left. I explained to him that I was unsure of it and that I might wait until the next one to really immerse myself in the profession. That was all he needed to hear. He looked and me and with nothing but the best intentions asked if this was something I really wanted to do. I responded with a confident yes and with that he essentially let me go from the job. He told me that if I wanted to work with Steadicam I had to leave my job working for him and go purse that dream… and that is exactly what I did.
That shove was probably the most important shove of my life, and a week later I was in that workshop getting trained by some of the most amazing operators in the world. What I found right off the bat with Tiffen was that there was a real sense of belonging, with real roots in the art, design and construction of the Steadicam itself. When those elements are carried through, and you are officially introduced to Tiffen, you are being brought into a family, a family of giving back, sharing and communicating, it is truly is an outstanding feeling.
One of the most beautiful things about a Tiffen Steadicam rig it is never the same and it is never different. You get this outstanding piece of machinery and every time you use it the feel remains the same, but its possibilities are endless.
The Tiffen Steadicam headquarters has always been a place for me to get the support I needed with working professionals. Day and night there was always someone there who was willing to go above and beyond to get me the help I needed…I honestly couldn’t imagine working with anyone else.
There are just so many people on the Steadicam team who come together and contribute valuable advice and suggestions. I have had crazy tools built for weird custom one off circumstances, all thanks to the innovative thinking of Tiffen. The visionaries behind the engineering and design of Steadicam really understand the details of what the tools are going to do. These are the individuals that were there, they were the ones designing these astonishing moments in time when everything was just beginning. You are always seeing a slight modification created to make your life easier. Perhaps it is a small knob or lever, either way the change always saves me time and makes my job easier… it is simply fantastic.
Working with Tiffen has made me the happiest Steadicam operator there is. Knowing that myself, and my fellow operators, can communicate with Tiffen on a personal level, sharing our thoughts and ideas, makes owning and operating a Steadicam rig all the more special. There is such a strong relationship that you develop when working with Steadicam and it is almost as if you can communicate with your rig and know exactly what it needs.
Tell me about some of your earlier projects.
I feel like my earlier projects were my way of training. It may seem a bit odd, considering most people like to train at home and then go get a job, however my circumstances allowed me to go out and get hands on experience from the very beginning. All I really wanted was the experience, I didn’t necessarily care about getting paid for my early work, it was more about proving oneself.
In those first years it was a struggle, in fact it was a huge struggle. As the industry changes I feel as though operators starting out now have a slightly easier beginning route to get opportunities, but a harder time moving forward. When I started it was brutal. My first 2 years were many days spent coming home crying wondering if I made the right decision. The people didn’t behave the same way, the jobs requested different things, and the low budget industry that was present during that time didn’t have the ease that there is now. My earlier projects were my school of hard knocks.
I owe a lot of my beginning career to Cinematographer Joseph White. From the very beginning Joseph and I clicked, and I believe he saw the potential in me and my willingness to venture outside of my comfort zone. He was the one who brought me out on my first low budget film and really introduced me to the world of Steadicam. It is because of him that I had the opportunity to allow my passion to grow.
How have you seen your experiences evolve from the beginning of your career to now?
I always tell people that if you are having good days in the beginning of your career, you are doing it wrong. As a Steadicam Operator, who has one of the most physically and mentally demanding jobs on set, it should never be easy. Throughout your career, especially in the beginning, you are really going to feel the burden of your newfound profession. However it is always important to remember that while your burdens may seem overwhelming at times you must never loose sight of your passion for the art… something so beautiful should never come easy.
I have a series of tattoos on my forearms. On my right, I have a traditional image of a camera, similar to that of the “camera emoji,” highlighted with smoke and a red stripe though it. This side of my arm, and the tattoos it displays, symbolize every time I have dropped a camera. On my left forearm, I have the same camera with a small halo and rays of light shooting out of it for every time I catch a camera.
As a 24-year-old Steadicam Operator, this was my unique way of proving myself in an industry that didn’t have many younger people in it at the time. As one of the maybe three operators in all of LA who were working low budget movies, I decided I needed to express my dedication and willingness to learn in a very real and honest way. I was earning my stripes, and doing all that I could to keep an open and honest relationship with the directors I was working for.
The beginning years were all about learning and striving for greatness. There are times when I wish I could go back to those earlier years, as I find there is something so special about learning and the transformation that takes place as one progresses in their career. Those first years are such a beautiful thing and everything that can go wrong most certainly will… enjoy it.
Do you find that your style and technique vary depending on the project you are working on?
I like to think that I operate the same way as a digital card. After concluding a project, take the information off of me that you need, put me back in the camera and just like that I am a clean slate ready to be used again. My conceptual approach to creation is just that, as I prefer to start fresh with every project I am on.
Are there elements of your technique that will always remain the same?
As strange as it may seem, the constant in my work that will always remain is versatility. As a Steadicam operator there is nothing more important than having the ability to adapt to your surroundings and become creative in the environment you have been placed in, becoming stuck to a specific viewpoint may only harm your creative process. As Steadicam Operators we are really just replicating life, aiming to create a sense of reality of which our viewers can most closely relate to. Just as every life on this planet is so very different, so must the approach to creating new content.
Having this need for versatility is one of the biggest reasons I go with Tiffen, as doing so will always provide you with what you need to get the job done. I can honestly say that I have never been in a position where my equipment has kept me from thinking outside the box and capturing exactly what the director is looking for.
Having had the opportunity to watch some of your outstanding work, I could clearly see both the skill set and creativity you possess. Can you give me some insight into your creative process and how you go preparing for a project?
This is a tough question because I wouldn’t say that I necessarily have a definitive process. Of course there are always the basic principles of filming that you like to follow, however for the most part I try to take on each new project with an open mind. What I will say though, is that before every project I will be sure to know exactly whom I am working with and the projects that they have worked on. Once you have studied the individuals you will be working with and for, understanding the kind of techniques and style that they like to implement, it is important to not allow this information to influence how you will go about working with them. Knowing how someone has liked to do something in the past is important, however you cannot let it influence how you will preform for them on their newest project. A director may come to you with a completely new and different idea, unlike anything they have ever done before, and if you let your previous opinions of them influence you it could pose as a disadvantage.
Tell me a bit about what it is like working on a television show, like Pretty Little Liars, compared to that of a music video like “Thinking About You.”
The beauty of this business is that you never know where your projects are going to take you. Whether you are shooting a very interesting hip hop rap video, an all character driven dialogue piece, or even a strange commercial for an off brand medicine that you will see at 3 am on television, it is all about trusting your heart and truly listening, not just with your ears, but with every sense of your being.
As a Steadicam Operator, your job is to take everything in and embrace challenges and new opportunities for creativity as they present themselves to you. We get to be the hands and eyes of so many beautiful things and it’s our job to bring those things to life by listening to our environment and trusting ourselves.
As one of the most highly anticipated films of the year, LaLa Land has taken the industry by storm! Can you tell me more about your experience working on this film?
I will say this and will carry it with me for the rest of my days…working on La La Land was single handedly the most amazing experience of my entire life. Every moment of being on that movie was the greatest feeling, it was true bliss of the most unconditional kind.
When we were in production for the film we had hoped that people would feel that extreme sense of love that we all felt while making it. I remember being on set experiencing true bliss, dancing around filled with joy and taking such pride in what we were creating. Having the opportunity to work on this project, and experience that feeling, meant and will always mean everything to me. I feel like this movie was the one, it was the one that I was supposed to do. This is what all of these years of struggling, learning and growing where leading up to.
Do you have any advice for individuals looking to get into Steadicam operating or perhaps those looking to expand upon their skillset?
For operators who are looking to improve and get to that next step I would say keep going. As an operator you are going to have days that challenge you to think differently about your approach, however you must not let these days discourage you from pursuing your dreams, you will accomplish your goals.
For operators coming in I would tell you to research and understand as much as you can, that is the most valuable thing. There is no right way or wrong way to create and there is no one who is going to be able to tell you what is right for you expect you. Go out there and find out, listen, examine but don’t make anything you hear be concrete for you. Just as no two people are the same, neither are two operators, everybody is different and it is for those reasons that we are all so special.
Go a little further as opposed to going a little less and apply that philosophy when it comes to asking questions, trying new things, making adjustments to your gear and purchasing. Everything about Steadicam revolves around the principle of the more you put into it, the more you will get out.
What do you hope to get out of your future experiences?
In the future I hope to experience beauty, love and a dream come true everyday, creating things that make this world a happier and more enjoyable place to be.