You may think the check the producer cuts to the lead star of a film is the biggest transaction on set. But I’d argue that the lens hand-off between a 1st assistant camera and a 2nd assistant camera is up there too. In this single moment there exists multiple chances to send unprecedented amounts of money shattering into the ground. So if you’re going to be exchanging lenses, avoid the devastation of a broken lens and use this method to swap lenses like a pro at the top of their game.
The process of exchanging the lens is going to be different for the 1st assistant camera (1st AC) and the 2nd assistant camera (2nd AC), so I have broken down the approach for each job.
For the 1st Assistant Camera:
Once a director of photography (DP) has requested a new lens, the 1st AC should immediately parrot that request to their 2nd AC. The 1st AC’s job during this process is to stay by the camera and prepare for the lens swap.
1. Remove anything in the way of the lens
You’re going to want to remove anything attached to or blocking the lens such as matteboxes, follow focus, and any other accessories.
2. Unlock the lens mount while holding onto the lens
Hold onto the lens while you undo the mount so that the lens doesn’t come detached and tumble onto the ground.
3. When the 2nd AC arrives, place the lens face-down into their open palm
If you place the lens face down, you don’t have to worry about the lens slipping through their hands. It also guarantees that they feel the weight of the lens in their palm as an extra warning that it’s being passed onto them.
4. Grab the new lens and say: “I got it”
“I got it,” is the universal verbal cue that you have a firm grip on the lens and it’s OK for the other person to let go. This phrase may change according to preference, but some kind of verbal cue is necessary.
5. Mount the new lens to the camera
Once the exchange is complete, mount the new lens to the camera, place the follow focus and mattebox back on and let the camera operator or director of photography know the new lens is up.
For the 2nd Assistant Camera:
After the 1st AC has requested a new lens, repeat the request back to ensure you heard it correctly. Once confirmed, drop everything you are doing and get the new lens. A shot can’t be blocked, rehearsed, marked, etc. until the new lens is on the camera.
1. Fetch the lens from the lens case
The lens case should be as close to camera as possible without being in the way. Sometimes this means right next to the camera, other times it means around the corner of a room.
2. Set the lens to focus at infinity and WFO on the iris
For those unaware, WFO refers to the T-stop of the lens and stands for “wide freaking open.” The reason you want to set the lens to infinity and WFO is so when the lens is mounted, the camera operator won’t see pitch bitch or super blurry images and think something is wrong.
3. Remove the lens caps
Leave the rear element lens cap inside the lens case, but hold onto the front element cap in a pouch should the 1st AC request it. Depending on who you’re working with, the 1st AC may prefer to hold onto the cap themselves.
4. Latch the lens case
The lens case should always be locked by at least one latch (though I prefer two). This is important because you never know who may walk by and decide to pick up the case to move it. If it’s not locked, the case will open and lenses will tumble out.
5. Once at the camera, place your open hand palm up to retrieve the old lens
Hold the new lens in one hand but place your empty hand out to retrieve the old lens. The 1st AC will place it face down into your palm so you can feel the weight of the lens.
6. Say: “I got it”
The 1st AC should not let go of the lens in your hand until you say “I got it.” Also never say “I got it” unless you truly do have it.
7. Hand the 1st AC the new lens
On the first day of a shoot, or during prep, ask the 1st AC how they prefer to be handed lenses. As an example, some AC’s like working on the dumb side instead of the smart side and will want a lens handed to them with the markings appropriately positioned.
During prep/camera checkout go over protocol with the 1st AC (if you haven’t worked together before) that they prefer. Many times this conversation will be brief since you may have similar methods, but there are slight variations for everybody’s working style. For instance, they may use another phrase over “I got it” or they may like to be handed a lens with the front cap on.
When you spend so much time cleaning lenses and protecting them from t-shirts, the last thing you want to do is drop one yourself. The best way to be careful is always hold onto the lens an extra second or two after hearing “I got it.” I’ve become so used to doing this that I find myself holding onto beers for an extra second or two when I pass one to a friend.
Lastly, don’t get nervous when handling lenses, just take the process seriously.
How do you make sure that the lens exchange goes smoothly? Ever had any close calls?