Doug Hart says in his book that a camera assistant is “as watchful as a mother grizzly bear with her cubs” with the camera. That’s no exaggeration. On set, I treat the camera as sacred as an ancient relic, as fragile as a Faberge egg, and as powerful as the images it captures. When your job is taking care of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, you don’t take it lightly — you make sure to do it right.
Adding a Second Camera
On one film that I was working as first assistant camera (AC), the production ended up getting a second camera in the middle of the shoot. Behind schedule already, the theory was that two cameras can get twice as many shots in the same amount of time.
This wasn’t originally planned so a camera department of three suddenly had to staff two cameras. The only additional crew added was an executive producer named George who had some operating experience and stepped up to man the additional camera.
I stayed as 1st AC on the “A” camera, while my 2nd assistant camera (AC) was pulling focus on “B” camera. The poor guy was running around — slating, marking, pulling — too much on his plate, in my opinion. But camera assistants don’t complain and so we dealt with what production gave us.
It didn’t help that, at the time, we were in the throes of a really difficult shoot.
Long days, over-scheduled locations, understaffed crew and inexperience were killing us. At the beginning of every day, the shotlist looked like an insurmountable wall — and most of the time it was.
When I was told the news that George would be operating the camera, I was understandably skeptical. Him and I had clashed before on this set. For some reason we didn’t get off on the right foot and there was always a bit of tension between us.
On set politics don’t interest me, however, so I tried my best everyday to look past this. Work is work and we didn’t have the time to be wasting it on minor arguments.
But there was one occasion that I felt like I was about to snap.
Cleaning the Lens
It was about halfway through one of the more difficult days that my 2nd AC came over after helping to set up “B” camera. I expected him to just start making small talk while we waited for the electricians to light the scene, but instead he delivered some potent news:
“So, I was over at the camera and George noticed how the lens was dirty. He took it off and started wiping it with his T-shirt”
I felt like I was punched in the chest.
We were shooting on Zeiss SuperSpeeds, a set of lenses that cost close to $25,000 and George had wiped his t-shirt on the front of the glass like he was cleaning off a Game Boy.
“He wiped them with his t-shirt?!” I exclaimed.
My 2nd AC nodded.
“Did you stop him?”
“I immediately grabbed it away from him and told him I’d get you to clean it.”
“Thank God,” I thought. My 2nd AC did the right thing and while I was upset at the situation, I was glad he told me. I knew that if that lens had ended up scratched or the coating was messed up that it was going to be me who was the one to blame.
As first AC, my job is to maintain all of the camera department’s equipment and make sure that it stays in top notch shape. As far as I’m concerned, any equipment maintenance should be done by me or dictated by myself. Yet because we were split up as a department, I wasn’t going to be able to be actively involved around both cameras.
By the time I reached the staging area of “B” camera, George had stepped away to crafty. I inspected the lens and luckily everything was OK. I did a proper cleaning of it and thanked my 2nd AC again for stopping him before any permanent damage had been done.
There’s a certain pride as an AC to be able to return an entire camera package complete, unbroken, and with everything in tip-top shape. Accidents can and often do happen, but there should never be a piece of broken gear because of a stupid mistake like that. It was a close call and, to be honest, I’m still surprised the lens came out unscathed.
I never did bring it up to George — I knew it would only strain our already thin relationship. Instead I asked my 2nd AC to keep a closer eye on him and had selected some choice words for it happened again.
It may seem like I’m making a big deal out of a situation that, ultimately, didn’t result in anything bad happening, but what this story really boils down to is job responsibility. On that shoot, I was hired to be in charge of camera maintenance and was stripped of my duty by George for that brief moment.
Maybe I wasn’t by the camera to clean the lens immediately, but I was only a stone’s throw away.
In the end, what upset me most was the amount of effort I go through to do a job right and how all of that hard work could have been compromised by a t-shirt wiping away the smudge on a lens.