Sometimes you have to call up the professionals — like The Wolf
Too many productions cut their budget by cutting the camera assistant (AC). This is a mistake. When the director of photography (DP) worries about the lights, the grips, and composition, do you really want to leave them also shouldering the duties of lenses and filters?
Not every project is going to need a camera assistant — documentaries, corporate events, and reality TV often get by without a true blue camera assistant. There are also situations in which you can’t afford a camera assistant and decide to go with a skeleton crew. Then there are times where you may give the duties of a camera assistant to a production assistant or intern.
All of these situations are fine, but there are definitely scenarios in which you’ll want to hire a professional camera assistant. To counteract this stigma the camera assistant has as a dispensable member of the crew, I’ve come up with five situations in particular.
Producers and production managers, this one’s for you.
1. When you have an aggressive schedule
Let’s face it: when don’t you have an aggressive schedule?
It’s always been a part of filmmaking to make your film appear beyond its budget and that often means pushing those pennies to the limit.
Aggressive schedules demand more from the cast and crew to work efficiently and quickly while staying professional and not lowering the standards of the process. A professional camera assistant is a specialist in this area. Even when schedules aren’t overwhelmingly demanding, they strive to be the first ready without you ever noticing.
A truly pro AC will make tricky troubleshooting tasks disappear with ease and get the camera up and running before you even think twice about asking.
If you still don’t want to hire an AC, think about this: without a camera, you can’t shoot anything, so having someone who can make sure that camera is always ready to go means you’ll always be ready to shoot.
2. When your film is packed with camera movement
In pre-production you have extensive talks with the director about fantastic and sweeping camera movements. They’re excited and passionate and you want to do everything possible to help fulfill their dream shot.
You bring on the director of photography (DP) and he loves the idea too, but starts bringing up cranes, jibs, dollys, and other camera movement systems that are just as complicated to control as the shots they seek to shoot.
If you are planning on heavy amounts of camera movement, a professional AC is going to be essential. They will know the best way to build a camera to be mounted on certain rigs, they will make sure it is safely attached, and, most importantly, they will be qualified to pull focus on the thing.
When your camera is waving 30 feet in the air, suspended at the end of a large jib, do you want to settle for anything less than professional hands?
3. When you are renting a professional camera
Most of us come from a one-man-band sensibility. Whether in high school or a smaller film school program, you’re probably used to wearing as many hats as you have to for your films.
But knowing a little about every job doesn’t make you an expert at them as well.
If you’re renting out the newest whiz-bang camera and it’s the most professional and badass thing you’ve ever set eyes on, you may not even know how to use it.
Then comes in the profesional camera assistant who, while maybe also not having used the camera, is trained to adapt and learn new camera systems quickly and with ease. Besides being able to pick up controls on the fly, they also know what’s important to learn — such as sensor settings and exposure control — and what features are nothing more than snazzy junk.
In short, a professional camera assistant will know professional camera systems better than anyone else on set, which is important when you’re dealing with equipment that expensive.
4. When you are working with film
Speaking of professional cameras, if you’re working with film, you’re going to want a pro AC.
If there’s any disadvantage of film over digital it’s that it’s a whole lot easier to waste loads of money when working with film. Pulling focus is a trickier game, loading magazines is prime opportunity to ruin some stock, and the mechanics of the film camera are dependent on constant maintenance and care.
Unless you have heavy experience working with film yourself, don’t settle for anyone. Get a pro who has worked with a wide range of film cameras and knows the in’s and out’s of them.
5. When you want your shots in focus
Lastly, the most important situation you’ll want to hire a professional camera assistant is when you want your shots in focus. As a main duty and responsibility, camera assistants — also known as focus pullers — are the most well-trained at racking focus between subjects in a scene.
It may seem like a simple job, because it is, but that doesn’t mean anybody can get on the follow focus and crank out a 30 foot dolly move at T1.8.
It amazes me the amount of productions who aren’t willing to hire and pay for a professional AC when most of their footage can end up unsuable by the sheer fact that it was out of focus.
There is no way to become great at pulling focus without doing it and that experience is what you get with a professional AC. They know the tricks to pulling focus, the common mistakes, and how to weave all of that into the balletic movement of the lens gears.
If having crisp footage isn’t important to you, consider the consequences that take-after-take of waiting to get critical focus takes: time wasted, frustrations built, and talent disgruntled.
Are Camera Assistants Essential?
So, are they crucial to your success as a filmmaker? As always, the unsatisfying answer is, “it depends.”
Many productions don’t demand a camera assistant on the crew, while many others do. It’s all about looking at the needs of your production. To help you with that, I’ve listed five scenarios in which I know I would want a professional camera assistant and not some inexperiened PA to be handling the duties.
Ultimately, however, it’s all about the costs vs. the benefits.