Filmmaking Tips and Advice

Be a Faster AC #3: Maximize Your Camera Prep

Prep time for your crew adds production value.z

Arthur Vincie at Pro Video Coalition breaks down the intricacies of scheduling and accommodating prep time for film crews. The money paragraph(s) – and the reason why this article is awesome:

So the real question is how difficult you want to make things for yourself.  Sometimes you have no choice – you’ll hire fewer people, keep their prep days to a minimum, and either do things yourself or let them go.

Don’t get too gung-ho about this, however – you don’t want to be figuring out the bagel order instead of directing your actors, or typing up an equipment run list instead of a shot list.  In that sense, prep (and other non-shoot) time does add production value, even if the connection isn’t obvious.  Usually, a compromise can be found between the “deluxe” prep needs and the bare bones minimum, and you’ll also be telling the crew that their time is valuable, which can go a long way towards ensuring loyalty, as well as a better shoot.

I applaud Vincie’s thoughts that prep time adds production value. Within the camera department, I can think of several ways a solid camera prep translates into a better on-screen film – the most important being that a prep gives AC’s time to troubleshoot and learn about issues with a camera package which allows them to build the camera faster, spend less time fixing problems, and have more time to shoot.

I’ve been on several jobs without a prep where someone from production picked up the gear. This is not ideal. It means I’m walking on set the morning-of hoping they have everything that’s needed.

Because of that, even if I don’t get paid for prep days, I like to have them scheduled to make my job easier during production. How long should be scheduled is typically dictated by the size of the camera package, but really just use common sense as suggested by Vincie:

There’s no magic formula for figuring out how much prep each person on your crew needs, since each script is different, but you can use common sense.  If the script is a gory monster story set in one house, your location department’s prep needs are not going to be that huge (since you’re not hopping from place to place); but your hair/makeup and visual effects staff will need a lot more time to prepare molds, do makeup tests, and possibly buy supplies.

There are some general guidelines, though.  You can plug these into your budget as you build it and then see where you land.  Even if you’re in the (crappy) position of not being able to afford to pay the crew for all the non-shoot days you need, you’ll be better prepared.  Sometimes you can make a deal, wherein you pay the crew members for a set number of prep days and give them flexibility as to when they work.  Most people, I’ve found, want to do good job even if they’re not getting paid for every minute of it.  But they appreciate being able to take days off during preproduction to go make some real money.

The article is pragmatic, practical, and covers prep expectations for various departments. Great read.

Why Camera Assistants Don't Need a Showreel

The Birth of the Camera Assistant

From David Elkins’ The Camera Assistant’s Manual:

One of the most well known of the early cinematographers was Billy Bitzer, who shot most of the films of Director D. W. Griffith. As a Cameraman he did all of the jobs himself: carrying the equipment, setting it up, loading film, and so on. In 1914 D. W. Griffith hired an assistant to work with the Cameraman. This assistant was called a Camera Boy, and his job was only to carry the equipment for the Cameraman. Each morning, the Camera Boy would move all of the equipment from the camera room to wherever the scenes were being shot for the day. There was a lot of equipment, and many trips back and forth were required to get everything in place. In addition, the Camera Boy was required to take notes of what was being shot. There were no Script Supervisors at that time.

Around 1916, Cameraman Edwin S. Porter asked for an assistant after returning from a long location shoot. This Camera Assistant had some additionally duties that the Camera Boy did not have. Because all of the early cameras were hand cranked, the Camera Assistant had to count the humber of turns of the crank and keep a log of the number of frames shot. Other duties included slating the scene, keeping track of footage, loading and unloading film, carrying and setting up the equipment, and anything else that the Camera Assistant may have been asked to do. Many of these tasks are still some of the responsibilities of today’s Assistant Cameramen (AC).

Think about how much filmmaking has changed since 1916. Almost 100 years later, camera assistants are still on set having evolved their duties as the tech behind filmmaking transformed.

This track-record of how the AC has changed, and yet survived, comforts me when outside forces appear threatening to the job. Another 100 years from now, the duties and responsibilities of an AC may be dramatically different, but there’s always going to be a need for someone technical in the camera department to complement the cinematographer’s focus on the creative.

Do You Think I Should Avoid Running On Set?

Crew Call: The Below the Line Podcastz

The Anonymous Production Assistant is Kickstarting a podcast in which each episode is an interview with a different below-the-line crew member (an idea that’s long overdue):

I’ll interview the unheralded crew members that toil below-the-line (which is Hollywood speak for anybody who’s not a writer, director, producer, or actor). Not just the department heads (although they’re obviously very important); I’ll talk to everyone from assistant editors to art directors to rigging grips.

Do you know what a gaffer gaffs? What a best boy is best at? What a production accountant counts? Listen to Crew Call and find out!

For those of you new to the business, it’ll be a great way to learn what everybody does. For more experienced listeners, it’ll still be a great way to learn what everybody does. ‘Cause let’s face it, you have no idea, do you?

I’ve pledged my share to get a sweet T-shirt, but I also have a vested interest in the project getting funded because I’ve already been interviewed for the first season along with these crew:

I am a huge fan of Hollywood Juicer and Dollygrippery, so it’s truly an honor to be in the company of Mike and Darryl as the initial group of crew lending our perspective about life below-the-line and experience within our respective departments. I’m genuinely excited to hear their take on the industry.

The podcast will be fully funded with a modest $1,845 and it’s almost there, so please head on over to the Kickstarter page and donate what you can! Also, be sure to check out The Anonymous PA’s blog.

Sunday Gospel for the Camera Assistant

From the Book of Hart:

The Camera Assistant is wary as someone approaches the sacred machine, as watchful as a mother grizzly bear with her cubs. Yes, someone may touch the camera, may look through the eyepiece, may even change the direction the camera is pointing, but no harm shall befall that wondrous machine while the noble Camera Assistant is standing sentinel. No president, queen, or prime minister ever enjoyed protection as vigilant.

When hungry, the camera in the Assistant’s charge shall be fed – film in magazines on top or on the back, electricity through cables plugged into the back or side, heat when necessary, lenses and filters in front, oil for the mechanism inside. When the camera moves to the next set or location, the Camera Assistant places a casual but resolute hand on the magazine or handle, and walks alongside in a procession of vigilance and confidence.

This delicate precision machine is to be kept safe, warm, and dry at all costs, even when the Camera Assistant may not be. It is not only the potential expense that keeps the Camera Assistant so protective, it is “the job.”


NAB 2014: See You on the Show Floor

I’m writing this while waiting in the check-in line at my hotel in Las Vegas for the 2014 NAB Show. This line is pretty long and, well, I shouldn’t be surprised after the cab driver from the airport said NAB will bring an estimated 96,000 people into the city of sin. It turns out that number isn’t so crazy – last year NAB had 93,602 registrants come to Vegas for the yearly Mecca of filmmaking gear.

I’m normally not a gear-junkie, but NAB offers me a chance to get up-close-and-personal with the new cameras and equipment I can expect to see popping up on sets and in rental houses. Plus, it’s a trip to Vegas, right? But NAB is also about connecting with others in the filmmaking community. One of the things I’m most excited for this week is to shake the hands of people I’ve only known through this site and put faces to their virtual counterparts.

So while I don’t have any set schedule or specific plans for the convention, if you see me walking around please don’t hesitate to stop and say hello! You’ll know it’s me if I’m wearing black and/or blue. And if you’re still unsure, my badge has my name listed along with this website.

I hope to see you on the floor of the convention center! Now, excuse me while I have a few beers to try and mentally prepare myself for the explosion of gear and equipment I’ll be subjected to tomorrow.

- Evan

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC Cinematographer with Light Meter

ASC Close-Up with Cinematographer Roger Deakinsz

American Cinematographer interviewed Roger Deakins in April’s issue for their ASC Close-Up column. Among other things, Deakins is asked,”What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?” The same question that 88 other cinematographers have given thought to. He replies:

A onetime producer and studio head advised me to forget my ambition of becoming a cinematographer. Luckily, for me at least, I am not good at taking advice.

A brief interview, but always nice to hear from the man behind 11 Oscar nominations.

More Roger Deakins wisdom here and his thoughts on digital cinematography here.

pb-sidebar Win $250 of Royalty-Free Musicz

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As part of their sponsorship, Premiumbeat is giving away a $250 credit to their site! To enter to win, simply leave a comment on this post sharing what your favorite movie soundtrack is.

A week from now I’ll randomly select a winner and have Premiumbeat hook them up with the prize.

Auto-focus and the human element

Auto-focus and the human elementz

Speaking of pulling focus automatically, Philip Bloom took some time to evaluate Canon’s new dual-pixel autofocus on the C100. After a lengthy intro from Bloom about why he prefers to pull focus manually and the challenges of video auto-focus, he finally lets Canon convince him to try it out:

For me there are two types of shooting where if it worked, autofocus could be very useful. Firstly where you couldn’t touch the lens…steadicam/ glidecam/ movi type devices. Secondly, wide open shallow depth of field, where human error isn’t too likely to get good results.

So there we go. I was going to shoot on the gorgeous Movi (a piece of gear I have had for a few months and have gotten quite good at, but mostly have to use in single operator mode which is very limiting due to focus issues. You really need a focus puller!) , some hand held wide open shots and some tripod shots.

And his verdict? Positive, but tepid:

You will understand more once you watch the video below but one of the biggest issues for me was the limitation of the auto focus area just being that small square in the middle. Never in every shot are you going to want your focus to be dead centre.

He adds later on:

Am I a convert? I would say yes…I am impressed enough to be booking my C100 in when I get back from NAB and also my C300 in May. How much will I use it? No idea. I think on the Movi I will use it a fair amount actually. That’s why it’s a shame it won’t be on my Movi camera of choice, 1DC. At least my C300 will have it, and this feature with the Zacuto grip relocator could be the answer to my one man 3 axis brushless gimbal problems!!

Just in this iteration I really wish we could move the area to be measured ourselves, and also change the reaction speed of the autofocus. Fast works well, slow also works well at times!

Going back to my opening paragraph about I don’t believe it will ever work the way I want it to, why is that? It simply cannot read my mind. That is what autofocus needs to do, to understand what I want in the frame to be in focus etc…Once we have that bluetooth implant for the cerebral cortex available, we will have the best of both worlds! Mind reading autofocus with mechanical precision…then again will my mind deliberately make the autofocus no longer work as well? Perhaps it will be trying to replicate the (flawed) human touch…in which case we are back to square one…

Isn’t this the problem with auto-anything? It can never factor the human element into its complex calculations and algorithms. Auto-exposure always shoots for “correct” exposure even though an “incorrect” exposure – by the software’s standards – may be more artistically interesting and suitable for a story. Auto white-balance can get all sorts out of whack if you mix color temperatures. And the auto-ISO function on my DSLR often overestimates how bright I want an image to be.

Auto-focus, too, has these issues when applied to digital cinematography. In Canon’s implementation, you’re limited to focusing on only what’s in the center of the frame. What happens if the chest of talent is in the auto-focus area, but they’re leaning forward and their eyes are not? What if you want to have two objects on each edge of the frame and rack focus between them? And with that rack focus, by the way, you can’t choose the speed of it (which has a strong effect on the mood of the shot).

These auto-focus advances are technically impressive and I’m sure some people will have a use for it, but ultimately it’s limited in function. For now, pulling focus is still the realm of the camera assistant.