The View from the Other Side of the Camera

The View from the Other Side of the Camera

If you want a true sense of the presence of a film set, you have to step in front of the camera where all the lights point on you, where the camera is pointed at you, and where everyone's attention falls on you. For some that experience is exhilarating. For others, daunting. For me, it was a chance to have fun.

I’m used to sharing a view of the scene with the camera.

I’m comfortable crouching low and aligning my eyesight with the barrel of a lens or watching a monitor to see the world as the camera does.

I used to think that from behind the camera I had a real sense of the presence of the set. I could look to video village to see the crowds or glance to my left or right where flags and lights stood. From next to the camera, a 360 degree turnaround could give me a glimpse of the entire set.

But I was wrong. If you want a true sense of the presence of a film set, you have to step in front of the camera where all the lights point on you, where the camera is pointed at you, and where everyone’s attention falls on you.

For some that experience is exhilarating. For others, daunting. For me, it was a chance to have fun.

The One Department Without Cameos

It’s not an uncommon scenario for productions to pluck away non-busy crew members to fill a role in a scene. Most of the time they get thrown in for a scene or two with glamorous character names like “Man Reading Newspaper #1” or “Woman with Heel Boots.”

Because of the nature of their job and their inability to say no, production assistants (PA’s) are the best candidates to go in front of the camera. Followed by assistants from other departments and, every now and then, higher-up crew who think it might be fun to have a cameo.

There’s one department that almost always gets left behind in this selection process: the camera department.

Camera assistants (AC) spend most of the day stuck to the camera like the velcro on their gear. You can try to pull them away, but it takes a bit of effort and a loud “rrrrrrpppppppppp” noise comes with it.

But the real reason us camera guys and gals get left in the dust when it comes to cameos is because we’re always needed. The camera operator has to move the camera, the 1st AC has to pull focus, the 2nd AC has to slate, and the Camera PA is on stand-by to run to the camera cart at a moment’s notice.

So as I watched my friends on the set of my first film ever, Ghosts Don’t Exist, get added one-by-one to the final scene of the movie, I couldn’t help but feel a bit envious.

When would it be my turn?

“You’re Not Trying to Be An Actor, Right?”

Out of the six schools and universities I applied to in my senior year of high school, I only ever visited one of them: University of Southern California.

It was on this trip I was lucky enough to score a meeting with Marvin Minoff, the producer of Patch Adams, who graciously spent time giving me advice about the film industry.

I remember walking into his office and before I could even sit down he asked me: “So you’re not trying to be an actor, right?”

When I confirmed that no, I was more interested in things behind the camera, he let out a sigh of relief.

I’ve never really been interested in being in front of the camera. I used to do it in my own movies in middle school, high school, and even college, but only as a means to an end since I was the cheapest and most available actor I knew.

But the excitement at scoring a cameo in a movie I knew would end up on DVD and possibly in a theater was too much to pass up. Luckily I wouldn’t have to wait long for one.

“We Need a College Looking Guy to Chug Beer”

The Yuengling sitting in the refrigerator at the crew house was calling my name.

Even though I wasn’t staying at the house (working locally bites back), we had just wrapped early on Below the Beltway and I yearned for a tasty beverage.

When I arrived, I was surprised to see the 1st and 2nd AC building the camera instead of wrapping it out. The reason we had wrapped early, it seemed, was the extra little scene scheduled to be shot at the crew house.

I ventured into the backyard with the Camera PA where the scene was being dressed by the director, the director of photography (DP) and the actor. They were all drinking beers and kindly offered one to the Camera PA and I. While we casually talked about the scene and drank our beers, the extras arrived groomed and dressed like they were going to church.

The scene was to be one of those quick smash cut-aways in the final film. Its premise was a politician’s aide has a party, gets drunk, and burns letters from constituents on a barbeque while his friends chant around him.

But the button-up types who arrived were hardly the type of crowd that would gather around a fire of burning letters screaming bloody murder.

That’s when the director turned to the Camera PA and I, “You guys. You should get in the scene.”

“You want us in there?” I asked.

“Yeah definitely. We need college looking guys to chug beers.”

They say if you cast the character then most of the acting is already done. Well, I was already drinking a beer and was also in college, so consider the casting spot-on.

When the scene was shot and I brought the footage inside, the director leaned over my shoulder to see a perfectly timed tilt of the camera as I leaned my head back to chug my beer. It was a beautiful shot, with yours truly front and center in the frame.

“Haha! That’s perfect. That’s the shot that’s going in the final cut right there,” said the director when the clip came to an end.

I smiled and toasted my beer at him, proud to add “Featured Extra” to my growing list of filmmaking hats.

Ready to Win My Oscar

Part of the reason I was so excited to see Below the Beltway when it finally came out was because of my small role. Everytime I told the story of my cameo after that, I always made sure to include the part where the director told me it was a perfect shot.

When news came that the film would be airing on Showtime, I signed up for the premium cable service, set my DVR, and sat down to watch it with my Dad and brother.

About 15 minutes into the movie the cue line came, “What happened to all of those constituent letters anyway?”

CUT TO: The same scene. The aide responds and the scene carries on all in one shot.

CUT OUT: My cameo. Completely removed. Likely deemed an issue with pacing and flow. I rewinded out of desperation, but I knew it wasn’t there and I had been cut out — no wonder Marvin Minoff didn’t want me to be an actor!

Still, I finished watching what turned out to be a light-hearted film and basked in the pure satisfaction of seeing my name in the credits which confirmed my suspicions: behind the lens is where I belong.

  • Keith

    I was one of those crew members who was pulled to do some second unit insert shots on a big movie coming out next year. One day, a makeup person came up to me, grabs my hands and inspects them, then asks “Can we use you?” Fast forward a month and I had shot about 10-15 shots of my hands and feet doing random things. I am _definitely_ not an actor, and it was a weird experience being on the other side of the camera since you were, as you mentioned, the focus of attention. While you were used to being on the side of working with others to make the talent look good, now you were that “talent” watching everyone around you scuttle about doing their own respective jobs. I had to go to the costume person, then to the makeup person, then to the prop person, then to set with the lights baking and the AD telling me how to do the action–which the action could be as mundane as moving an object into a certain location, yet under the pressure (especially when they’re shooting film!) it becomes incredibly hard because you don’t want to mess up. And I did mess up several times, which only made the pressure worse. Then you are sitting there and the prop person comes by to make sure the prop looks good, the makeup person comes by to make sure the makeup looks good, and the costume person comes by to trim something off the costume–all kind of treating you like you’re a canvas to be painted on more than a person. Not that I’m complaining, but that’s just what it’s like in front of the camera.

    So in the end it was a pretty cool experience, though I don’t foresee signing up to do double work in the future. It will be an interesting thing to not only see the film when it comes out (it was my first “big” movie, which will be in theatres), but to witness the quick less-than-a-second glimpses of myself in the film projected onto the big screen. I’m sure my fiancée will appreciate me poking her for every shot I’m in, if she won’t already appreciate me talking about “remembering that day of shooting”, haha.

    • Evan

      Great story Keith, thanks for sharing it. Luckily my cameo was simply drinking beer and doing what I was already doing and the shoot was lowkey since it was more of a pickup shot.

      I can’t imagine what the pressure must be like with makeup, hair, continuity. It’s all crazy to me. People underestimate a lot of what actors do, but it’s a tough job. Tough in different ways than crew work.

      I’m sure it will be worth all the hassle you went through though to see yourself on screen in a theater for a brief moment. No matter how small of a part, that’s gotta be pretty cool :)

  • Phillip Jackson

    I always feel terrible for the extras with or without lines that show up to film sets hoping to get a shot of them in the final cut. I feel even worse when it’s a scene that took a good about of time to shoot because to the cast and crew you’d think all that effort would end up in the final cut. But time and time again you see those long hours cut into 20 seconds that was originally written to be 5 minutes worth of action. 

    • Evan

      Yep yep yep. I learned that the hard way, as you read above, but after that I’ve never cared to have a cameo again. I’d do it, but I’m in no way dying for.

      I feel bad for the extras too, especially because they spend so much time on set as you mentioned.

      On the other hand, I don’t feel bad for those extras that are on set because they sleep with producers and get to eat first. They can get cut out for all I care :P

  • Steveo

    even though I normally DP, I almost always get cameos.I make it part of the job. Most often its my finger pushing a button, sliding a switch, ect where the camera is close anyway, so its easy to reach in as I’m already in the right spot. Another time I set up the camera, showed the director how to hit record, and proceeded to strangle a 8 year old girl in a murky over the shoulder shot… also was a silhouetted  stumbling stoner once, and I did a walk across the frame right in front of the camera as a bank customer in a spot. 

    friend of mine always get to play a TV camera op on a couple of national shows he’s worked on. they just grab him from video village where he normally lives.

    • Evan

      Haha that’s pretty cool Steveo! Some people like doing it and I guess you’re one of them. It can be fun if it’s the right stuff and you only have to do it for 10 minutes or so

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  • Oliver Kember

    Haha, what a fun story. Oh well, another time eh.

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    I’m a goofball when I get in front of the camera, though I don’t like to see the footage (personal reasons). I’m mostly fearless behind the camera and apparently do quite well in front of the lens.

    Over the years I’ve amassed enough credits for an acting resume, which is something I never set out to do and surprised I have.

    My approach has been, “Yeah, I guess.” If someone else isn’t around to do it, I’ll step in. I assume the person asking knows that I’m not an actor by any stretch. I’ll do my best, and try to not screw up your movie, but overall, I’d rather stay behind the camera.

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