Zen and the Art of Camera Assisting

Zen and the Art of Camera Assisting

Camera assisting, I believe, takes a great deal of mental focus and zen can help push the mind to hone it's power to the fullest extent. There are many zen proverbs that can offer advice about camera assisting and filmmaking in general. In this post, I'd like to take a look at some of my favorites and what they have to say about a career in film.

Zen, the ancient Buddhist practice of attaining enlightenment, has a lot to teach in a variety of disciplines. Its proverbs are purposefully vague while being explicitly contradictory to force the practitioner to find meaning within them.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

I’m sorry to say that the feelings of anxiety and anticipation the night before a shoot never go away. In fact, sometimes they can get worse. Feature length productions, shoots where you are doing a job you haven’t done before, or shows where you know nobody on the crew are all examples of times where nervousness can be heightened. But no matter how daunting or lengthy the production seems, it is important to remember that it is broken down into days and those days into hours. Take the shoot one day at a time and work your hardest each and every day. Before you know it, you’ll be sipping champagne at the wrap party.

For those who are just starting out in the industry, this proverb will carry more weight. Whether you come from film school or another discipline, breaking into the filmmaking industry can seem like scaling Mt. Everest in a wheel-chair. Don’t let this intimidate you. The first step, getting the job, is the most important. Then the second step, doing the job well, is the most important. Then the third step, improving your skills, is the most important, so on and so forth. The immediacy of the moment and the focus each moment demands to put in your best work is at the root of this proverb. Don’t let scale scare you away.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

As a camera assistant, decision making is a large part what you will do. Specifically, finding the most efficient way to achieve a task. That is primary objective number one for the astute AC. When you first start out with little experience, as the proverb states, “there are many possibilities.” As that set experience grows, the options at your disposal will whittle down through various reasons. Certain ways to do things may be too cumbersome or take too long.

Take my recent article on which tools to measure focus with as an example — I’ve used each of them enough by now that I realize which one is best in which situations so when those scenarios arise, the decision is already made for me. An expert, or experienced, camera assistant will have methodologies for problems or scenarios on set that are more honed, more practiced and have a track record of success. Use experience as your tool to make the decision making process easier for you, even if the only experience you have is on small shoots.

“Be master of mind rather than mastered by mind.”

This is one of the essences of zen: concentration. It is also a key element of being able to be a good focus puller. Being able to achieve an isolated and determined state of mind is the best tip I can give for pulling focus. More than any job within the camera department — and arguably on set — pulling focus demands a high level of concentration and will punish by way of soft focus those who get distracted. This is what I work hard to achieve every time I place my hand on a follow focus. It is also one of the reasons I love the job.

It is easy to become overwhelmed while rack focusing: There are times where an actor won’t hit their mark, or you forget how far the chair was from the table. It can be stressful and stress will always distract so remain calm and cool. As you do it more, you settle into this position of pressure quite easily. Part of mastering the mind is to learn from mistakes, but forget their consequences. The best camera assistants are able to do this and part of the reason they’re not afraid to call themselves out on a botched focus job is because they realize they’re human. Mistakes are natural to us.

“From the withered tree, a flower blooms.”

Speaking of mistakes, they often have a devastating effect. For those who are proud of their work or determined to do well, a mistake can be a huge hole in the ego. Don’t take it personally though. You’ve heard it all your life and it actually is true: mistakes can teach you lessons. Part of growing as a camera assistant will be making mistakes and recovering from them, no matter how bad they are.

Those mistakes can include:

The important part to focus on is not the “withered tree,” but the blooming flower. Think about the mistake and what can grow out of you to make you better at your job. The lesson is usually to avoid doing the mistake again, but oftentimes it will enlighten you to a process you weren’t aware of before.

“Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.”

Translation: don’t let success change who you are. Success is, of course, a relative term. For some camera assistants that may mean getting into the union, for others it may mean working with a world class director of photography like Roger Deakins. But it is essential to remember what helped you achieve that level in your career. Don’t change how you approach things because your goals have been met. Like the famous sign from London in World War II, “Keep calm and carry on.”

Out of all the proverbs I researched in putting together this post, I respect and admire this one the most. Too often, especially in Hollywood, a prominent personality or figure will rise to the top only to fall down a steep cliff. Usually it’s as a result of losing some part of what made them successful in the first place. If you’re good at chopping wood, then keep chopping wood. More crucial than this, however, is the real underlying message of this proverb: humility. Stay humble and treat everyone, including yourself, as such.

Develop an attitude of calmness

I prefer specific practical advice to “big picture” discussions like this, but I think these proverbs have a lot to offer in terms of the way we can all approach work. Especially when working freelance, the right attitude can make or break how often you get hired. At the heart of zen is the urge to develop an attitude of integrity, concentration and calmness — all traits of an exemplary crew member. But if all is lost and if all of these proverbs fail to make it into your life, then I leave you with one of my own: “In the end, it’s only a movie.”