Tips for Surviving in the Camera Department
Posted on: May 08, 2023
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 workplace can lead to your replacement, and we wanted to help you on your journey. We asked experienced DPs a few questions about the Camera Department, and received lots of great information that can benefit both ACs and Camera Operators. Here’s what they suggest you can do to help your career:
1. Stay alert and be present
ACs need to stay alert to the needs of the Operator and the DP. Blend in with your 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.
As a Camera Operator, there is a lot of downtime. During that downtime it is helpful to stay extremely present, but not overbearing. You don’t always need to talk to the DP, but just being there at a moment’s notice can really separate you from the rest. When the DP turns around, they want to see their Operator ready to help facilitate any of the DP’s needs.
And regardless of where you are in your career, please 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.
2. Anticipate your department’s needs
Anticipating the DP’s and Operator’s needs will be next to impossible if it’s the first shoot day and you’ve never worked with this crew before. Use that first day as an AC 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.
That said, 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 (eg: talking to the Art Department about moving something that shouldn’t be in the shot, asking a PA to remove water bottles, or even speaking 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, all while knowing 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 knows 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.
3. 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. 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. As an AC, your job right now is to assist the department well and to support the camera team, not to make the AD laugh.
If you’re a Camera Operator in a new situation, do not go around the DP and start talking to the Director about the next shot. Every relationship is different—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.
4. Know your camera
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 downtime. It will pay off in the end.
If you’re an AC, 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 and 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. And if you are an owner or Camera Operator, you should know that camera like the back of your hand.
5. Know your distances
More often than not, your responsibility as an AC 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 setups so that you can be in tune with the camera and the lens.
6. Understand the composition
Camera Operators should always stay at the top of their 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, dollies, 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.
Got any hot tips we might have missed? Let us know on our social media channels. In the meantime, take a look at the thousands of jobs posted on Staff Me Up and throw your hat in the ring today!
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