Filmmaking Tips and Advice

RED Epic Camera Side Shot

The Stressful, Micro-Managed Grind of Working for REDz

Todd A writes a damning account of his time working at RED, the digital cinema camera company:

I have a post drafted in my blog titled “My birthday gift to myself this year: Retirement.” It’s dated February 26, 2012. At that time, I’d been working in the online marketing (web) department at RED Digital Cinema for about 5 months. I was sick of complaining about it to my friends and family. I didn’t want to be that guy who is always bitching about his job but never doing anything about it. Yet, I remained at RED for two more years. How is that possible?

Ouch – he already wanted to leave after only 5 months.

It’s surprising to hear such incendiary remarks considering the passion and devotion that usually surrounds RED’s users and fans. However, within the context of founder Jim Jannard’s forum posts and his recent exit into the shadows, it’s unsurprising to hear Todd speak out against, “the president making announcements on the community forum before the employees knew” and writing:

After the stressful product launches in December 2013, things quieted down enormously. Almost too enormously. It was quiet like “this is bad for business” quiet. But I knew NAB — the major broadcasting convention — loomed in April and I knew RED was bound to surprise all its employees with its plans for the show. “Keep the crises rolling” and all that.

Todd goes on to describe broken promises for bonuses and equity, long hours, and an unhealthy lack of organization. And in the comments, someone else named “Brian” added:

I was at RED from the start for 4 years . It is a good characterization of the place. Easy to understand why none of the first employees are no longer there anymore.

As RED matures from the disruptive force it was several years ago into a major player on the digital cinematography field, it’s going to have to address the problems and negative experiences of employees like Todd and Brian – even if they are in the minority.

(Todd wrote another post, too, about how companies can avoid the mistakes he encountered at RED.)

Slate Up in Memory of 2nd AC Sarah Jones

The Final Blow for Midnight Rider?z

Midnight Rider, the production that camera assistant Sarah Jones was working on when she was killed, has been trying recently to resume production by moving the shoot across the country from Atlanta to Los Angeles. But today, the subject of the biopic, Gregg Allman, asked the film’s director to abandon the production via personal letter:

“When the idea of you producing the film first came about, I was genuinely excited about the possibility of sharing my story with fans around the world. Unfortunately, all of that changed for me on February 20 of this year,” he wrote. “While there may have been a possibility that the production might have resumed shortly after that, the reality of Sarah Jones’ tragic death, the loss suffered by the Jones family and injuries to the others involved has led me to realize that for you to continue production would be wrong.”

This is huge. And it comes after actor William Hurt withdrew from the film. Hurt was set to play Mr. Allman and was on set when the train that killed Sarah Jones and injured several others came barreling down the tracks. Additionally, many crew have proactively stated they won’t work on this shoot.

So to summarize where Midnight Rider stands: the main star dropped out, the subject of the movie wants to pull the plug, and crew across the country have started boycotting their involvement.

What’s the point of moving forward? How do the director and producers exhibit such blindness to the tragedy and lack of guilt for what happened to Sarah? Even if it does move forward, how will they get a crew? It’s common knowledge within industry circles that doing so would amount to career suicide.

Cheers to Gregg Allman for understanding the situation and treating it with reason and sensitivity. Let’s hope that same sensitivity results in the production shutting down and that same reason prevails in a thorough investigation of the incident.

On Set: Checking the Gauge

So you want to be a camera assistant?z

Cinematographer Rob Ruscher, who I had the pleasure of meeting at NAB, interviewed me on his blog for his “Cool Production Peeps” series. Most of the questions cover topics I’ve discussed here on The Black and Blue, but I was happy to nail down an answer to this one I get asked a lot:

RR: What advice would you give someone that wants to be an AC [Camera Assistant]?

Learn the basics of cinematography – both digital and film – so that you understand the fundamentals of how cameras work and can have an educated conversation about it with the cinematographer. You don’t need to be a master of lens optics, but you should know things like how aperture affects depth-of-field or standards for frame rates and shutter speed.

Read Doug Hart’s The Camera Assistant: A Complete Professional Handbook and then read David Elkins’ The Camera Assistant’s Manual. They are similar in scope, but each cover various aspects of the job. In terms of education you can do away from set, those are the gold standard.

Finally, get on a set – ideally in the camera department as a trainee or PA, but really any position that puts you on set – and watch the AC’s work. Ask them questions when they aren’t busy like at lunch or at wrap when they’re breaking everything down. Offer to help them on future projects and hope they call.

There is, of course, much more to becoming a camera assistant, but cinematography basics, reading the AC manuals, and getting on set is the best general advice I can give. Further, as you delve into each of those things, you’ll find yourself branching off to learn more and build your skills.

One more thing: check out my free ebook Becoming the Reel Deal which focuses on starting your filmmaking career in the camera department. Thanks to Rob for the interview!


Digital Bolex encouraging women cinematographers through grant programz

Digital Bolex’s Elle Schneider writes about the company’s plan to offer a couple of D16 camera packages for free to productions that are lensed by women cinematographers:

Just listen to the way men explain technology to women at a trade show and this dichotomy becomes readily clear. Women are expected not to be able to use technology, instead of trying it for themselves and playing, they must be hand held, guided, ‘splained. And that’s a huge turn off to wanting to participate. It’s not a surprise to me that 99 of 100 requests I get to borrow one of our cameras for a project come from men. Women are taught not to ask. And if we as a company choose to work with, say, 5% of people requesting cameras, the numbers aren’t looking too great for the ladyfolk.

But let’s say that’s not the case. Let’s say a woman has surpassed all these odds, and has a fancy camera and knows how to use it. Would the industry be willing to accept the potential of such a woman and hire her to shoot a film?

I think so.

Which is why I’m going to stop soapboxing on the internet (okay, maybe not) and put my money where my mouth is. I’m very pleased to announce the Digital Bolex Grant for Women Cinematographers.

Starting this summer, we will be offering a pair of Digital Bolex D16 kits, featuring $10,000 in gear and accessories from some wonderful soon-to-be-announced sponsors, on a rolling basis to any narrative short or feature film project to be shot by a female cinematographer.

An excellent idea, especially considering how the numbers of women in film add up.

What Camera Assistants Don't Do

More women behind the camera means more money at the box officez

Using the Bechdel test*, FiveThirtyEight analyzed thousands of films to determine whether the presence – and prominence – of women had an effect on a film’s box office (emphasis mine):

We did a statistical analysis of films to test two claims: first, that films that pass the Bechdel test — featuring women in stronger roles — see a lower return on investment, and second, that they see lower gross profits. We found no evidence to support either claim.

On the first test, we ran a regression to find out if passing the Bechdel test corresponded to lower return on investment. Controlling for the movie’s budget, which has a negative and significant relationship to a film’s return on investment, passing the Bechdel test had no effect on the film’s return on investment. In other words, adding women to a film’s cast didn’t hurt its investors’ returns, contrary to what Hollywood investors seem to believe.

The total median gross return on investment for a film that passed the Bechdel test was $2.68 for each dollar spent. The total median gross return on investment for films that failed was only $2.45 for each dollar spent.

These two charts from their analysis really say it all:

How Women in Film Affect the Money Hollywood Films Make 1

ROI of Money Spent on a Film in Regards to Women Characters

So, movies that pass the Bechdel test have a better return-on-investment, but the filmmakers working on these films are given less money. What’s up with that? FiveThirtyEight asked the same question:

In the top 100 grossing films of 2012, women accounted for 4.1 percent of directors, 12.2 percent of writers and 20 percent of producers, according to a 2013 study by Stacy Smith, an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Of 4,475 speaking roles in those films, 28.4 percent were women. Smith says when more women were involved in the production of a film, it was more likely to have female cast members. In short, when one gender dominates the creative process for a picture, that comes out on the screen.

Bingo. Because women are underrepresented behind the camera, so goes in front of the camera.**

If more women behind the camera means more women on screen which, in turn, means more money made at the box office and pumped into the industry, well, that’s a win-win (not to mention the obvious moral imperative for more equality). Plus, as women fill roles above-the-line in greater numbers, I think you’ll see more below-the-line as well.

* As FiveThirtyEight acknowledges, the Bechdel test isn’t perfect. More on the limitations of the test here.
** The stats are even worse for cinematographers (only 3% were women out of the top 250 films of 2013).

The Camera Assistant's Guide to Better Cinematography

The Five C’s of Cinematographyz

From the archives of Fresh DV comes the “CliffsNotes” version of The Five C’s of Cinematography:

Cameras don’t tell stories, people do. Since we can all agree this is the case, there is really only one thing you need to tell great stories… YOU. However, none of us are born knowing anything about the tools of the trade. In an effort to improve the one tool all storytellers have in common, their mind, a must-have addition to their library is Joseph V. Mascelli’s The Five C’s of Cinematography. I picked this book up a few years ago, and I have learned more from it than any other resource on the subject. I’ve been to courses, classes, looked to chat rooms online, and experimented by trial and error; but none of those things have come close to the pure undistilled story driven explanation of cinematography found in Mascelli’s classic book.

The five C’s, if you don’t know them already, are:

  1. Camera Angles
  2. Continuity
  3. Cutting
  4. Close-ups
  5. Composition

Read the article for a better idea of what each means and how you deliver on them. And read the book if you’re serious about cinematography. It’s as relevant now as it was when the post was published 2 years ago and when the book featured in the article was published over 15 years ago.

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 additional 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.