How to Handle Pressure and Perform Better On Set

How to Handle Pressure and Perform Better On Set

There are so many ways to trip over yourself in this industry and pressure is nothing more than a mind game and a trick of the thoughts. Seize control of it and you'll be able to do your job well and accomplish the toughest of tasks.

There’s nothing more threatening to your success on set than pressure. Allowed to roam free in your mind, pressure will cripple your skills and laugh at your resulting failures.

What’s even worse is pressure is found everywhere in the work you do:

  • Pressure to keep shots in focus
  • Pressure to keep magazines/footage from getting lost
  • Pressure to keep a camera running smooth
  • Pressure to do everything quickly
  • Pressure to perform

If not dealt with correctly, pressure will crush you.

It’s scary stuff, trust me, I’ve been there. That’s why I want to help you overcome your pressures and get back to doing your job at the level you know you’re capable of.

“Don’t Screw It Up”

Pressure is nothing new to me. It’s always just… been there.

In school, it was common for me to type papers at the last minute or rush to finish homework during breaks before the bell rang. When I used to do live sound mixing for a local choir, the pressure of providing an entertaining program and the consequences of missing cues in a live show environment was something I thrived on. The pressure motivated me.

So when I started camera assisting and had to stare pressure in its face and kick it in the ass, I was fairly comfortable, but not immune.

While you encounter pressure everywhere on set, for me it crops up most often while pulling focus. It looks easy, but rarely is. There’s something about the combination of a packed video village, a fairly simple task, and the insurmountable amount of ways to screw it up.

This is the position I found myself in at the backend of a 30-foot dolly push into two characters over the course of a three-minute take. Shooting on a 50mm Zeiss Superspeed lens wide open, my depth-of-field was already shallow at the start of the dolly move and almost nothing by the end. I took my marks and prepared for the worst.

In the first rehearsal, I spent the whole time thinking, “Don’t screw this up,” and, of course, screwed it up.

Later on in the same shoot, we were approaching a 16 hour day when the director and cinematographer agreed to combine 6 shots worth of coverage into one long tracking shot. It would be handheld, wide open Superspeeds, and span the length of the entire first floor of a house.

Again, the pressure was ridiculous. Nailing the shot meant wrapping out for the day. Buzzing any part of it meant returning back to one and seeing everyone’s tired eyes disappointed that I had screwed it up.

That single shot was one of the most ridiculous amounts of pressure I have ever felt to perform.

Five Steps to Help You Deal with Pressure

To help myself in these moments of stress, I go through a loose five-step process. I find that if I am able to do all of them, I have no problems performing.

While everyone handles pressure differently, I guarantee if you take the time to implement at least one of these, you will feel less pressure than you did before.

Step 1. Be prepared

Preparation is key to conquering pressure. From it flows the rest of the steps and your ability to deal with the demands of the job without crumbling.

Depending on what you’re doing, preparation can mean a number of things. It could mean getting all the marks you need for a complicated focus pull or it could mean studying a camera manual in case a camera fails and you need to troubleshoot the problem.

Preparation, if done right, takes place long before a shoot ever starts and constantly while it is going on.

If you have been camera assisting for awhile, then you already know that half the job is preparing for the worst so when it happens, you’re in the best possible position to deal with it.

Step 2. Be confident

From preparation breeds confidence. If you know you have done everything right before what’s supposed to get done, you’ll be (more) comfortable dealing with it.

Confidence will allow you to be aggressive and assertive when dealing with problems and situations on set. If you know you can get the job done, you’ll jump right in to do it.

When a difficult focus pull comes up, knowing that it’s something like you’ve done before allows you to approach it with ease.

If you are approaching a task you have never ever encountered before, find confidence in your ability to adapt and be resourceful. You may not be perfect, but you know you can be good. At some point, there was a first time for every tiny skill you acquired.

Step 3. Relax

Take some deep breaths. Sit down for a moment on a lens case. Dip away from set to grab a snack at crafty.

Pressure is another form of stress which has a cure: relaxation.

If you’re stressed, you’ll see every new task or moment as an insurmountable hurdle and an obstacle in your way. Once you’re able to relax, you’ll be able to take all the demands of your job in stride.

Relaxed is the natural state of being for a camera assistant. When the camera crew gets stressed out, it stresses everyone else out since the camera is where everyone’s hard work and money gets fed into.

Only you know what helps you relax the best so find some free time, let someone know you need a few minutes, and then come back to set ready to rock.

Step 4. Concentrate on the job, ignore everything else

Sports psychologist Simon Hartley explains that pressure is an internal conflict in our heads constructed by our own minds, meaning you can deconstruct it just as you created it. Hartley goes on to reveal that pressure is mostly a result from mixing up what you perceive to be “the job” as the desired outcome.

In the case of the camera assistant, the act of pulling focus is the job while a shot with perfect focus is the desired outcome. It’s a subtle distinction but an important one so let me put it another way: actually turning the follow focus or lens barrel is your job, while the footage being in focus is the outcome.

Concentrate on the act of the task, not what you want the task to accomplish. If you are prepared, confident, and relaxed, the desired outcome will come as a result of your focus on the task at hand.

But concentration is only half the battle:

If I had stood at the free-throw line and thought about 10 million people watching me on the other side of the camera lens, I couldn’t have made anything.

– Michael Jordan

Easy for Michael Jordan to say, right? After all, the man basically personifies the sport of basketball, is ridiculously rich, and is so good he could have shot free throws with two broken arms and still brought home 6 championship rings.

And he did all that with more pressure than you or I will ever have to deal with. If ignoring everything worked for Michael Jordan, it can work for you too.

There are a million distractions on film sets ranging from a room full of extras to the crowd hovering over video village like vultures.

Do your best to block all of that out. Tap into your inner zen and ignore any distractions outside the camera. Nothing outside of what you need to do deserves your attention.

Step 5. Put the moment into context

Here’s the secret sauce that will help you more than any of the other steps. If you learn to do this well, you will find pressure melt away like butter on a skillet.

You simply take whatever it is you’re doing and acknowledge that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that important.

There’s a well-known phrase in the industry designed to take the pressure off you when something might go wrong: “it’s only a movie.”

My philosophy on set, and in life, is not to worry about pressure if it isn’t potentially fatal. I ask myself, “If I mess this up, will I still be alive at the end of the day?” and if the answer is yes, then I’m OK to go.

If you’re still skeptical, let’s evaluate the worst-case scenario for screwing up a focus pull or flashing a magazine: You get fired.

Yup, that’s pretty much the worst that could happen. And it sucks, I know.

But you know what else? You still go home at the end of the day, you still go lay in bed that night, you still get to wake up the next morning and try for another gig.

So don’t get caught up in the rush of set work, the stone-serious faces around the monitors worried their movie stinks, or the thoughts about what could happen or what may take place. It’s only a movie.

It’s All About Focus

It’s true that pressure can cripple and crush your abilities. The flipside is that finding freedom from it allows you to work without limits.

There are still times I find myself falling down the slippery slope of self-doubt — it’s an ongoing battle. But being able to conquer that trepidation has resulted in some of the proudest work I’ve ever done. Those two difficult shots I mentioned above added an incredible dynamic to the film they’re from (Yes, both are in focus).

There are so many ways to trip over yourself in this industry and pressure is nothing more than a mind game and a trick of the thoughts. Seize control of it and you’ll be able to do your job well and accomplish the toughest of tasks.