Camera assistants don’t know any speed slower than “fast.” We rush to move the camera, change the lens, add the filters, get monitor up, ninja our way on set for focus marks, and by the time all that’s done, everyone else has caught up ready to roll camera.
In that haste, it’s easy to let something slip or for changes to be made without you noticing. While not always malicious, these small changes can have a big effect on a quality take and force everyone else to reset and go again.
Not necessarily the ideal outcome for the invisible camera assistant.
Instead, keep the pace up and right before you get ready to punch that little button on the side of the camera, do these 7 last-minute checks.
Directors of photography (DP) are constantly checking, re-checking, and even changing the stop at which they’re shooting at. It can be difficult to keep up and they aren’t always the most effective at communicating to you when they want it changed.
Couple that with an accidental bump on the lens or a DP experimenting with different exposures, but not resetting the barrel, and you set yourself up to shoot at the wrong T-stop.
If you know what stop you’re supposed to be shooting at, give a quick look on the lens to make sure you’re at it. If you aren’t sure, turn to the DP and ask quietly, “Shooting at a [insert stop], right?”
9 out of 10 times they’ll say, “Yes,” but the one time they say no and correct you to the right stop you’ll be thankful you asked.
2. Focus Marks
Before rolling camera, confirm your focus marks as quick as possible. This can be as simple as asking your 2nd assistant camera (AC) to slate from a mark or as complex as shooting a laser tape measure to the mark for a last time.
I have been guilty in the past of rushing through other concerns with cameras (mag changes, lens changes, cleaning, moving sticks, monitor, etc.) that I don’t get a chance to even get focus marks before the rest of the set is ready to roll camera.
In many cases, last-minute focus marks may be all that you get so make them count.
You can try to roll camera without having any focus marks, but I wouldn’t recommend it. So what I’m saying is check that a) you even have marks and b) that they’re accurate.
Simple check: Do you have enough feet/space on your magazine/media to shoot another take in the scene? If you don’t it’s best to reload now instead of roll-out in the middle of a great take.
If you’re extremely close to shooting, like camera already up on the shoulder of the operator, tell them you may roll out during the take and recommend you reload. Sometimes they may be OK with rolling out.
Your ability to predict roll-outs and reloads is helped immensely if you pay close attention to the amount of time elapsed in previous takes in a scene. Figure out a baseline time frame and estimate from there.
4. Battery Life
The worst and most embarssing thing that can happen to a camera assistant is for the camera to completely power down during a take. It’s bad for the equipment and it makes you look absent-minded even if you had a million other things to take care of.
Plus, if you’re shooting RED, you’ll wear a mask a shame the entire 90 seconds it takes for the camera to boot while everyone thinks, “They should’ve had that battery situation on lockdown.”
It’s not uncommon to use the same camera system to shoot standard material along with varispeed footage. As the camera assistant, you are responsible for resetting the camera to the proper settings and modes that go along with these shots.
If you forget to change between framerates, you risk losing heavy amounts of data/film from the shot being in slow motion or losing the ability to have a slow motion version of the take without heavy motion blur.
You want to constantly be positive you’re shooting at the right speed for each particular shot, especially if you are heavily mixing the framerates throughout the day (i.e. one shot at standard speed, the next at 60 fps).
6. Shutter Speed and Angle
Shutter speed and angle can have a subtle, yet profound, effect on the look of a shot. Because of that, you want to be sure they are always on the correct settings.
This is rarely a major issue unless you are changing framerates (see above). In that case, it is imperative that the shutter angle and speed both scale appropriately with the framerates you shoot at — unless the DP is going for a certain “look,” in which case they should inform you.
Though shutter speed and angle remain fairly constant throughout a shoot, because of their ability to change the look of a shot, you want to be sure it’s all accurately set.
7. Color Temperature
With film cameras, color temperature is determined by loading the right kind of film into the camera. If you’ve done your job, the correct film should be inside the magazine and your check right before rolling camera is more of a formality.
On digital cinema shoots, even though color temperature is often meta-data, it still effects how the image is perceived on set and even in the early editorial stages. I’ll be the first to admit that I am guilty of failing to change color temperature many times on cameras like the RED One.
Still: “It’s just meta-data” is no excuse for slacking on your job.
Even on certain digital cinema shoots where you are recording with a baked-in look or to an external recording, the color temperature will not be meta-data and have to be fixed in post-production.
This may not seem so bad at first, but if you’re working for a DP who is mixing color temperatures with their lights in camera, it can make a huge difference whether you’re set for tungsten (3200 degrees) or daylight (5600 degrees).
Before You Roll is Better than During a Take
In all of these situations, if you notice a problem or a change that needs to be made, always take care of it before you roll camera. At times, this will mean you have to delay shooting for the rest of the set, but it’s better to address a problem than to ruin a good take because of it.
While it may seem like a lot to have racing through your mind, most of these checks can be done in less than 10 seconds while you wait for “roll camera!” Done correctly and you’ll stay out of the way to help the set run smoothly — which is a good thing.
Please leave a comment and let me know what kind of checks you do right before rolling camera and why they’re important.