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?)

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