24 Tips for Surviving in the Camera DepartmentShare this article:
Want to Make a Good Name for Yourself in the Camera Department?
Whether you are a new AC or a seasoned Camera Operator, it’s always a good idea to stay on top of your game. Complacency in the work place can lead to your replacement. We took some time to ask some experienced DP’s a few questions about the Camera Department. Do’s and Don’t’s, what cameras to know now, and how to get your name cemented in the DP’s rolodex.
First things first, know the big players.
Cameras are constantly changing and improving, so it’s a great idea to keep yourself up to date on what camera you will be expected to work with, no matter the production budget. Manuals and educational videos are available across the internet, so don’t be afraid to educate yourself during your down time. It will pay off in the end.
1) Big Budget Cameras to Know:
The Alexa is unsurpassed in it’s abilities. Although it is one of the pricier cameras on the market, you get what you pay for. Using the Alexa allows productions the ability to use less lighting, and gives little to correct in post. For informational videos about the Alexa, follow the link below.
This camera is slightly smaller than the Alexa. It offers run and gun style productions the ability to shoot a beautiful shot, while staying mobile. For information on the Amira, visit the link below.
2) Small Budget Cameras to Know:
These three cameras cannot provide the quality that the Alexa and Amira do, but they are major players in smaller budget productions. With the right lighting, and the right lens, you can create some amazing shots with these cameras. Beneath each picture, you will find a link to the brochures and manuals for each camera. Memorizing every manual is pretty impossible, but you should know where to get them so that you can refresh your memory before a shoot.
Canon 5D MIII
Now that we’ve gone over some high quality, popular equipment, let’s take a look at what YOU can do to help your career in the Camera Department.
Tips for an Assistant Camera:
3) Be Alert/Present
Stay alert to the needs of the Operator and the DP. Blend in with the surroundings, almost make yourself invisible, and support the camera department with anything they need. You should always be present and working on the job you’re on now, not thinking about your next job.
Anticipating the DP and Operators needs will be next to impossible if it’s the first shoot day and you’ve never worked with this crew before. So use that first day to really observe your surroundings and the behavior of the crew. Learn on your feet so that you can begin to anticipate the needs of the department.
5) But Don’t Over Anticipate – Be Respectful
There’s a fine line between anticipating and being overbearing. If you overhear a conversation between the Director and the DP, and you hear them specifically say they want to use another lens, then it is ok to preemptively change the lens before the DP walks over to you. If the DP is taking a moment to think about the shot, do not interrupt their thoughts with your own suggestions of what lens you think would look good. Find the line, don’t overstep and certainly don’t guess. If the DP asks for your opinion, give it. If they don’t, don’t. Be reactive, but do not step on toes. There’s a balance that you need to find.
6) Don’t be a Personality
In this generation of 5D filmmakers, it can be difficult to tone down your personality. Your job is not to joke around with other departments on set, or try to make a big impression right away. Your job right now is to assist the department well and to support the camera team, not to make the AD laugh.
7) Know the Camera
Try to find out which camera is being used before the shoot starts. If you are unfamiliar with the equipment, or a little rusty, download the manual, watch tutorials, really take the time to know the equipment before the shoot starts. There are times when a DP is not hands on with the camera, and is more focused on the lighting, so it’s important for you to know the ins and outs of the camera. Be prepared to step in for them to change a setting. Knowing the equipment well gives you the confidence you need to make a good impression.
8) Know your Distances
More often than not, your responsibility is to pull focus. Know your distances and start gauging pulling focus. If there is a heavy performance, you do not want to ask the production to redo the shot because you didn’t pull the focus correctly. Practice with different set ups so that you can be in tune with the camera and the lens.
9) Stay Off Your Phone
If you are on your phone, you are not assisting the camera right now and both the Operator and DP can see that immediately. Don’t take instagram shots while you are on set. If you are on your phone, you are not present.
10) Stay in the DP’s Line of Sight
A DP should never have to look around to find his 1st AC. The AC should be in their line of sight unless they specifically tell the DP or Operator that they are stepping away for a moment.
11) Don’t Talk to Other Departments About the Next Job
You shouldn’t be talking to other departments, or department heads, about your next job because the DP is the one that will bring you on to the next job. Theirs is the only opinion that matters right now.
Camera Operator Tips:
12) Check Out the AC Tips Above
A lot of the AC tips also translate to Camera Operators. Although you have made that next step up, you still need to be aware, alert and respectful.
13) Be Present Even During Down Time
As an Operator, there is a lot of downtime. During that downtime it is helpful to stay extremely present, but again not overbearing. You don’t always need to be talking to the DP, but just being there at a moments notice can really separate you from the rest. When the DP turns around, they want to see their Operator so that they can help facilitate any of the DP’s needs. Stay off your phone. It’s important to clearly portray that you are part of the team and that you want to create something great for that day.
The needs that a Camera Operator can anticipate are on a slightly larger scale than that of an AC. It is really helpful if the Operator takes on an active role in clearing the set. For example, they can talk to the Art Department about moving something that shouldn’t be in the shot, or ask a PA to remove water bottles, or even speak to the Sound Department about the frame line so that they know where the boom needs to be, especially once the shot has been established. It’s helpful for the DP to be able to step away to speak to the Director, or to oversee the Lighting Department, and know that the Operator is being helpful and productive. The other departments don’t need to go to the DP for every little thing if the Camera Operator is present and know what’s going to be in the shot. Being an Operator is not just about operating the camera, it’s about staying in the moment, and helping to make the shot and the day go smoother.
15) Know Where the Line Is
Again, anticipate as much as you can but don’t overstep. If it is a new situation, do not go around the DP and start talking to the Director about the next shot. Every relationship is different, so you may find yourself in a situation where the Director prefers to talk to the Camera Operator, and let the DP take care of lighting, but let them come to you. Your ultimate job is to serve the DP, but depending on the unique relationship you may need to just roll with it.
Always stay at the top of your game. You’re there to shoot and should be able to compose a shot better than anyone else who wanted the job. You have to keep the performance and the action in the frame. During your free time practice your composition, practice with Tripods, Shoulder Rigs, Sliders, Dollys, etc. Make sure you have a feel for the camera. The DP and Director will rely heavily on your ability to give them what they want right off the bat. It is invaluable to be able to provide them with the kind of shot they want without too much direction.
17) Know Camera Functions
Again, know your camera. If you are an owner/operator, you should know that camera like the back of your hand. If you are using a camera that you don’t have as much experience with, watch the tutorials, memorize the manual. The information is at your fingertips, so use it.
The Camera Department is a team that needs to work together. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts for the entire Department.
As simplified as it may sound, communication can make or break a camera department. Know what the shot is going to be, learn to relinquish some of the responsibility, and help one another bring the project to fruition.
19) Culture Fit
Whether it’s Grip, Electric, or Camera, you’ve got to find the right people to work together. The 1st AC is usually the guardian of this chemistry. If there is an established relationship between a 1st AC and the DP, the AC knows the needs of the DP so well that they can help find everyone for the shoot and make sure they fall in line. Try your best to work well with the group, you don’t need to be a standout star.
20) Be Part of the Team
Being a part of a Camera Department is being a part of a team. Be open to hanging out with the crew before the shoot even takes place. In a sense, they become your family for the duration of the shoot, and potentially after that. Everything you do should be in the best interest of the department, and not just yourself.
21) Let the DP Know You’re Available
Many DP’s will reach out to their crew before the shoot begins, to either grab a drink, have a BBQ or simply go over Camera Tests and other preparations. Sometimes, the DP is incredibly busy with pre-production themselves that they do not have time to reach out. If you have never met the DP before, don’t be afraid to give them an open ended call. Let them know that although the shoot is not until next week, you are available for anything that they need. Be sure to keep it light by letting them know that if they are super busy, you will simply see them on Day 1. That way if they are unable to respond, you know that you are not being brushed off.
22) Negativity Breeds Negativity
If anyone in the department is being negative, that just breeds negativity. That sort of atmosphere and attitude is contagious and can spread quickly throughout a production.
23) Don’t Be Better Than the Job You’re On
Own it. If you were better than the job you are currently on, you would not be on that job or you would not have accepted the position. You’re not better, because you are on that job right now. This connects with “Being Present”. Don’t hope and wish that you were on something else, because there are many people that would kill to be where you are. You are out there creating and you should own it instead of wishing you were somewhere else.
24) Don’t Complain
Never complain that you are not working on something, when you are working on your current project. This relates highly with the point above. Never, and I mean never, complain about your superior to another department. It doesn’t matter if the superior is in the right or the wrong, the point is that they are your superior and you are putting yourself at risk of not getting called back. Granted, if you are in an unsafe situation, that is something to complain about, but do it in the correct way. Take it up the chain of command.
As an AC, Camera Operator or DP, you are expected to show up and know how to do your job. It can be argued that the environmental tips provided above are as, if not more, important than your technical skills. If you have any helpful hints for the Camera Department that we may have missed, please feel free to leave your comments below.
For more insight from experienced DP, John Matysiak, follow this link: Director of Photography John Matysiak Articles
Have survival tips of your own? Share them in the comments below!
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