Thoughts on Camera Operating

Yours truly behind the "B" Camera on "The Way Back"


Much more than panning and tilting.

To be the camera operator on a project means you see all the performances first, in real time, with your own eye. It’s a privilege, and thrilling. You may have been instrumental in the choice of lens and where you place or move the camera, or - been told exactly how to do the shot by the DP or Director. Often times it’s a combination of many inputs, actors included. Take photographing Steven Seagal for instance. First, he’s very tall and likes to be photographed with the camera above his forehead pointed slightly down. This requires a riser on a dolly for height and the lens, never to be wider than a 40mm. We rigged the camera this way for every shot on his project. Other actors prefer their close-ups with the camera farther away on a longer lens and want to know exactly how tight the shot is. Many actors don’t care and are not the least bit interested in you or any details. Just three examples of the variety of situations a camera operator must be aware of and roll with during the course of production.

Before anyone gets put behind the camera to participate in situations like these, they must emerge from the obscurity of birthday party videos, freebies for friends, student films, “Z” camera on music videos, “D” camera on 2nd Units and so on. In other words, it’s a long road from “D” camera to the highly prized “A” camera slot. But know this: tons of experience and being set savvy doesn’t protect you from a personality issue an actor or a director might have with you. If you can’t hit it off with the director or an actor within a day or two, you’ll either be dismissed or you’ll quit. Certain situations cannot be taught or coached, they just are. And getting along might be as much as half of the job of camera operator. In fact, I’ve worked on big movies where the “B” camera operator was flat out average at his job, but everyone liked having him around for his humor and positive energy.  I hire people that are really good operators first and then we’ll see where the chips fall personality wise. Generally speaking, I prefer quieter crewmembers.

Being healthy, flexible and enthusiastic to challenges are positive attributes found in the best operators. Interpreting the script and adopting your skills to those unique visual goals set forth by the director and DP are absolutely essential to the collaborative success and your longevity on the project. Always try to be a part of the solution if you want to be invited the wrap party.

I don’t mean to scare anyone away from this gig. You’ll have years to observe good and bad camera operators before you get a shot at the job – if you want it. I say that because what we do can be sometimes personally dangerous. Filming from helicopters, lifts, underwater, around trains, planes, boats and on insert cars can be hazardous. Fatal accidents do occur. Also, the best operators learn to put their egos aside when it comes to operating on stunt units. Stunt guys do crazy things with their bodies and it’s our job to get these shots in one take. If you don’t think you can – then don’t take that angle. If you think you can but blow the shot, the stuntman has to do it again, if he can’t, the gag is unusable. Both are two very bad outcomes and will affect your future employment chances. What we do involves lots of time, money and often - serious consequences. Successful camera operators bring they’re “A” game to work every day because, as the great Tom Ackerman, ASC says, “There are no group hugs in the movie business.”

Our natural tendency is to center punch subjects.

There’s a difference between how you view the world with your eyes as opposed to looking through an eyepiece. Humans started out as hunters and their focus was on prey. Our ancients never considered framing because the target was always aligned in the center of their view - dead center.  Once the guns, slings, spears and arrows were put aside, we picked up cameras and “aimed” them instead. Next time you pick up that old family album, check out the framing of those photos. My guess is that many of them are center punched, as a hunter would aim. I love family photos, wish that all of us had taken more; and I understand that recording an event is more important than fulfilling the criteria for a photo shot by a professional. Notice that in the photo above photo, the toddler’s head is right in the middle of the frame. (crosshairs?)

Inexperienced camera operators must fight the urge to center punch subjects and compose frames that are more pleasing to an audience who are scanning the whole image as one big canvas. We compose shots to convey the emotion of the story, like in the wide shots of “Tender Mercies”, where to me, the huge sky enforced the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. I don’t remember a thing about that movie except for the wide shots. If the framing hadn’t featured that gorgeous sky, I wouldn’t remember the movie at all… that’s the power of composition.

I have re-framed the photo to represent how a professional camera operator might see the shot.

A camera operator maybe the best job in the film industry… if you’re any good.

If you’re not, it’s probably the worst job and you won’t be doing it for very long. Can you get better at it? I guess, but you’ll never be on the set of a major motion picture if it doesn’t come naturally to you. I have promoted several people in my career from 1st Assistant to Camera Operator. For the most part these guys have been successful, but I don’t use them. It’s like kicking a bird out of a nest. They’re supposed to fly away. My relationship with operators is a bit more standoffish than it is with focus pullers.  And that might be because I can operate a camera but have never pulled focus. More on that dynamic later.

I’ve been the “A” camera operator on 5 low budget feature films. I’m certainly competent but not as good as the guys I use. I was also the DP on these pictures so you might say I could have been a bit distracted. Nevertheless, there are way better operators than me. If it were a pickup basketball game I would be chosen, but I wouldn’t get the ball very much.

How do you become a good operator? You have to learn the script, adopt the visual style of the cinematographer, listen and observe. Camera operating is an extremely creative and technical job. The technical responsibilities range from inspecting the set for unwanted bogies, dust on an otherwise clean reflective surface, paint imperfections, lens flares, tears in costumes, bad makeup or hair, staying out of mirrors, etc. The creative responsibilities transcend panning and tilting, it’s becoming a part of the scene un-obtrusively: create a flow, make music. Think James Horner, not Bela Bartok. I’m not a fan of indulgent camera moves or framing. Call me old fashioned - we are the audience’s eyes and must always respect that.

Rehearsals dictate blocking. Blocking dictates shots. Shots dictate operating.

The best operators are in on the shot from the beginning. First, you have to assume they have read the script. I can always tell when they haven’t and they’ll get an earful from me about why they should. I don’t ever expect extra operators or day players to be up to speed on the story or the style and they’ll know to hang in the background and wait for explicit instructions. The “A” camera operator should watch the rehearsal closely and begin to figure out the blocking independent from the DP. We all see little things that an actor will introduce during the rehearsal, some good and some bad. Experienced actors will know to condense the acting area and will limit their movement so that they can concentrate on their lines and avoid gratuitous running around. Inexperienced actors tend to go broad in line delivery and physical activity. It’s the job of the director, DP and the camera operator to massage an actor into a space that is efficient to shoot while giving them the sense that they have contributed to the process. Some actors just want to be told where they can be and what they can do. They should go into radio. To me, an actor’s physicality should be character driven, what they do and where they are when they aren’t speaking is extremely important to the storytelling. The best actors know this and I love photographing them. But I digress.

Blocking is the process of designing your coverage based on the rehearsal. I cannot overstate the importance of the choice of the first couple of shots in the blocking process. This camera plan will determine the next few hours of shooting and it must be as economical as possible. These first shots will set up a logical flow of angles and sizes that any operator with any experience can follow and add their expertise to. Once we start shooting the scene, it’s my job to study the shots, keep track of the coverage and add any special shots that become evident quickly. I have had many disagreements with directors about blocking. It’s a fight I don’t back away from and rarely lose. An operator’s input in these matters is sometimes helpful. Risky for them because of the potential ire they may endure from the wounded party.  But it’s a bruise they have to endure from time to time. And even if they say something really off the wall, the tension of the moment is broken and each party will settle the dispute after a bit more reflection. An operator can provide that invaluable misdirection. Directors fixate on shots and will jeopardize the flow of the coverage to get what they want. So sometimes, a blocking issue stems from this obsessive compunction. I have to identify that quickly and propose a plan that accommodates these quirks while keeping the big train on the tracks. Many directors say yes to everything, so I’ll caution the operators from proposing ideas without my permission.

So to all you young operators out there – it’s not just panning and tilting. To be a good camera operator you must be well prepared and willing to stick your neck out for a shot or an idea that you think might really help convey the meaning of a scene.

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