Key Collaborators: The Camera Operator

In addition to my duties as a cinematographer, I am a camera operator and a fan of camera operators.

Many people say that the best job on the set is the camera operator and I agree. But that’s true only if you are good at it. If you aren’t, it can’t be hidden from the actors, the director or the DP for very long. Once discovered, your job suddenly becomes the worst job on the set. Filled with ridicule, humiliation and isolation. Then, you will get fired and never be invited back. Sound like the best job on the set to you?

There are certain expectations required from a camera operator. I will list them in no particular order of importance as each attribute is equally important.

1. Appearance – each day, you will interact with a lot of high dollar, above the line people. You make good money and have a high status position - so dress and groom accordingly. I have never met a successful operator who looked and acted like a slob.

2. Courteousness – Be polite, attentive and gracious. NOT cute, clever, magnanimous and a show off. The latter is amusing for a day or two and then suddenly - they just aren’t around anymore. Hmmm. - wonder why? Hint: The entertainment is supposed to happen in front of the camera, not behind it.

3. Fitness – we do a lot more hand held operating now so you must be strong and in good shape. These cameras are heavy - the takes are long and numerous. Made even harder if you show up to work hung over. Think about that the next time you are still out at 2 AM. No one likes a grumpy operator, and if you are – you won’t be around for long.

4. Team Player – an operator is the 2nd in command of the camera department so you need above average leadership qualities. On big days with additional operators, delegate fairly and clue them in to the nuances of the photographic and storytelling styles of the production. Warn them of hard-learned dos and don’ts. Each show is different and everyone knows it. All this information will be greatly appreciated and will be rewarded the next time these guys are hiring extra operators. In other words, be confident in your own abilities and be a stand up guy.

5. Punctuality – Never be late and only miss work if you are very, very, sick – are injured or have a family emergency. There are no other acceptable circumstances. Period.

6. Be Prepared – Read the script and all of the new pages as they arrive. Show interest in the story and the photographic style that’s being designed for it’s telling. Research the directors filmography – watch some of his films, review his past crew lists – call someone you know who has worked for him. Do the same if you are just starting with a new cinematographer. Knowledge is power and any inside information will help you assimilate quicker. Don’t be over confident and don’t blurt out any ideas. Be patient, you’ll have your opportunity to weigh in.

Have foul weather gear for all climates, and carry a flashlight for night work. Always carry a pen and a small notepad.

7. Pay Attention – Events can occur quickly during a shoot day, be on your toes and expect some out of the ordinary stuff to happen. When the mood starts to foul, keep your head low and stay off the radar until things get better. Keep your eye on the clock and the call sheet and you won’t need to be told that things are behind schedule. When things are going south, try to be part of the solution. Good camera operators are great problem solvers. Contribute if you can and stay on set! If you have to make a call – make it off to the side. Don’t become that guy that’s always on the phone. It's important to listen carefully, sometimes directors don't express themselves clearly. Avoid confusion, make sure you understand your assignment.

8. Covering the Scene – Camera operators need to know how to “block” a scene. And that means that you have to know the shots required and the order in which to shoot them to complete the scene and tell the story creatively and efficiently. Though this isn’t your primary job, you may find yourself operating for a director and a cinematographer who aren’t very good at blocking. It’s true! And this is your chance to prove your experience if you can help out in this area. In the English system, blocking is a primary responsibility of the camera operator and they work exclusively with the director, constructing the coverage for the scene.

9. Mechanics- And you thought the job was just panning and tilting. Well sure it is!

10. Composition – This is the most subjective part of your job and you must adapt to the preferences of the director and the cinematographer on this one. It’s their vision so you must go along with their taste in composition. You should never have to ask about headroom and how to balance a frame. It should be apparent once you start framing up – if no one says anything, then chances are, you are on the right track. Don’t ever be annoyed if you are asked to re-frame, it happens all the time - even to the best operators. Make sure you aren’t advised about the same thing twice.

11. Camera Movement – we like to move the camera and a good operator will be thinking about that while watching a rehearsal. Make sure the movement enhances a shot and don’t over engineer the means to accomplish that. Booming up and down complicates the operating a bit but makes a huge difference on many compositional and visceral levels. I get annoyed when I see a camera operator set the height of the lens in between the optimal height for both halves of the shot. Either he’s lazy, the dolly grip can’t boom competently – or both.
12. Actors – for the most part, actors like and make an effort to get along with the camera department. DON’T SPOIL THAT TRUST! I like and respect actors – I could never do what they do, but with some training and effort they could do what I do. Theirs is a God given talent and they are a big part of why we have our jobs in theatrical filmmaking. Treat them special because they are. Support them in any way, don’t be a stickler about there marks, cajole them into helping you with a shot because it will be better for their look and performance. Bring your “A” game; don’t spoil a take because you aren’t focused or paying complete attention. Be quiet and steady, like you would act around a spirited race horse. This gets harder as the weeks grind by so you must show strength and resilience! It will be noticed.

Most working camera operators are technically proficient and competent. What makes a great operator is performing the preceding list of expectations at a very high and consistent level.

Good luck – I hope this helps!

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