So You Want to be a Camera Assistant

I’ve been working as a camera assistant lately and thought it would be a good idea to share what I have learnt with you.

If you are planning on working your way up through the camera department, to maybe one day work as a Cinematographer then you might need to become familiar with the other departments.

My Top Five tips to get you started.

1. Do your research
Find out what a camera assistant does.

2. Get yourself work
Don’t expect that you can start off as a 1st AC right away. Most people need to prove themselves first. Try starting out as a 3rd AC or possibly grip. Depending on the size of the shoot, you don’t want to start off too high and disappoint by clearly being inexperienced for the requirements of that role. Also, be honest. If you are just starting out, don’t pretend otherwise.

3. Get yourself a kit
It is hard to get started as an AC because you will be expected to have a certain level of gear on hand to use on set. This may be expansive at first but it is definitely better to have your own stuff than to ask to borrow someone else’s. Many 1st and 2nd Acs understand that you will still be developing your kit and will often have things you can use. If you have your own kit you are more likely  to impress your superiors. See my links below for developing an AC kit.

4. Network
Networking is such a crucial part of working in the film industry. One of the best chances for this are on set. Get to know the Camera crew; 1st and 2nd AC, Focus Puller and DOP. Your best chances for future work will be to build a good rapport with them. Work hard, impress and you may get a call on a future project.

5. Know your Gear
Learn as much as you can about camera gear and lighting. You are going to need to know your stuff if you plan on working on set. Make sure you keep up to date with the latest gear and technical updates. You don’t want to get caught out on set talking about something that is no longer current. you may lose the camera departments confidence in you.

The Camera Department

Before I go into detail about working on set as an AC, here are some basic guidelines for the responsibilities of the camera department. These are sourced from Wikipedia. If you want more information regarding these roles it is in your best interest to do further research.

Director of Photography/Cinematographer
The Director of Photography, DoP or DP, is the chief of the camera and lighting crew of the film. The DoP makes decisions on lighting and framing of scenes in conjunction with the film’s director.

Camera Operator
The Camera Operator uses the camera at the direction of the Cinematographer, Director of Photography, or the film Director to capture the scenes on film. Generally, a Cinematographer or Director of Photography does not operate the camera, but sometimes these jobs may be combined.

Focus Puller/Ist Camera Assistant 
Sometimes the 1st AC is also the Focus Puller.
The First Assistant Camera, 1st AC or Focus Puller, is responsible for keeping the camera in focus as it is shooting, as well as building the camera at the beginning of the day and taking it apart at the end.

2nd Camera Assistant
The Second Assistant Camera, 2nd AC or Clapper loader, operates the clapperboard at the beginning of each take. The 2nd AC is also in charge of overseeing the meticulously kept camera log book for the editor. Additionally, the 2nd AC oversees organization of camera equipment and transport of the equipment from one shooting location to another.

3rd Camera Assistant/ Camera Production Assistant
The Camera PA, Camera Intern or Camera Trainee, assists the crew while learning the trade of the Camera Assistant, Operator or Cinematographer.

Working as a Camera Assistant On Set

So you have your kit, you know your gear and you finally have a job on set. What now?
Here is a bit of advice how to impress and do your job well. If you do a good job, obviously it improves your chances of getting more work.

Turn up early
Nothing is worse than turning up late to your first job. Not only is it a bad first impression, but you may find yourself feeling bad for the rest of the day, trying to make up for your lateness. Being early is impressive.

Be a bad smell
This doesn’t refer to hygiene (good hygiene is important of course) but the importance of being on set at all times, at the hand and foot of your superior. You need to be nearby whenever possible in case they need you to run for anything. the last thing you want is the 1st AC doing things for you because you weren’t around or ready to help.

Focal Marks
Even though a 2nd or 3rd has little to do with focus pulling you can still be of great help by assisting the AC or Focus Puller to measure the focal distance. If you are going to do this, make sure you do it well.
Be alert to giving actors marks by their feet when needed. Here is a good guide to using tape for actors marks.
Use Tape Effectively for marking Actors
Another tip would be to slate from where the actors first mark will be. This will save the focus puller having to pull too far after the slate before going for a take.

Eavesdrop on Set
Keep an ear out for conversations on set which may be an opportunity to help out. If you hear the DOP talking to the director about ‘going tighter’ this could be a good sign to bring the lens kit closer incase they want to swap a lens. What would be more impressive is if they mention the lens and before they can ask you to go get it, you have it ready for them.

Slate properly
As mundane as the job seems, it actually is very important and takes skill to do it well. You need to be quick, get it centred in the frame where possible, at the right distance from the lens and most importantly correct.
I use to get confused as to which take I was up to. I couldn’t remember if the one marked was the one we just took or if I had prepared the board for the next one. A 1st AC showed me a helpful tip to get it right.
* When you mark your take put a full stop after the number.
* Before slating rub the full stop out so the slate is clean for the take
* After you have slated cross out the take. If it is a whiteboard slate run your finger through it. The important thing is to see the take number has been done so you don’t slate it again by mistake.
Take a look at my link below for more tips on slating.

Video Split
You may need to set up a video split for the director to watch the shot away from the camera. If you want to impress do it without being asked to.
Set it up in a convenient place. Find a seat for the director and angle the monitor so it is at a good angle for the director.
You will need to run a cable to the camera. As much as you want to do your job quickly, don’t get in the way of the camera crew prepping for the next shot, however try and get connected as soon as possible.

Relieve the AC
Keep an eye out for chances to help the AC take a break or have a snack.
If you aren’t busy it could be a good opportunity to get snacks and water for the crew. If they have been working hard for awhile they will appreciate it. Make sure that if you do this not to disrupt the shoot. Also, don’t do it if you think you may be needed soon. Your job is your priority.
Alternatively if there is down time you could ask the 1st AC if they would like you to mind the camera so they can take a short break.

Keep an eye on the camera and gear
Double check their checks. As much as they are on top of things occasionally something may slip. You may notice a battery level is low. This is an opportunity for you to grab another and point it out to them. Other areas where you can be a safety net for the 1st AC would be keeping an eye on the remaining digital media, Pan and Tilt Locks as well as loads of others. If you are there as a back up for the 1st, that will free them up to focus on other important areas.

Data Wrangling
Data wrangling is dumping the footage off the camera cards onto at least 2 back up drives.
A large set will often have someone to focus on wrangling the footage however there may come a time where you will be asked to do this as well. So learn how to do this properly before you show up to set.

Make yourself Indispensable
Try to be better than anyone else at that job, including the 1st AC (remember they use to be a 2nd AC and know how to do your job). The last thing you want is to see the 1st AC doing your job. Work hard and fast. Impress them to the point where you become irreplaceable.

Resources

Top Five Links I found on ‘The Black and Blue: Filmmaking Tips for Camera Assistants’
1. The Ultimate Guide to a camera assistants toolkit
2. Five Important Factors for calculating your day rate
3. 100 Great Resources for Cinematographers and Camera Assistants
4. Five tips for holding the slate properly
5. Five ways a 2nd AC can impress the 1st AC beyond belief

Other helpful resources for Camera Assistants

The Camera Assistants Manual – Focal Press – by David E Elkins
Cinematography.com – Forums regarding Camera Assisting
AFTRS Camera Assisting workshops – For a quick tutorial on how to work as an AC attending workshops like this could be a good starting point

If you liked this post and would like to see more like it, please follow/like my Facebook Fan page. I keep it up to date with all the projects I am working on and promote opportunities for others when I hear of them. Here is the link to the page: Ehran Edwards Facebook Page.

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