Have you ever thought how powerful you would be if you were able to read minds?
Think about the possibilities as a camera assistant: you would know the exact moment an actor was going to move off their mark and you could circumvent communication breakdowns and prevent costly mistakes.
You could even look into the future to find out what lens the director of photography (DP) wants next and have it on standby.
In essence, you’d be remarkably better at your job — everybody would beg you to work for them!
OK so maybe if you could read minds you wouldn’t put it to use doing below-the-line crew work. And in any case, it’s probably never going to happen anyway.
But there are still ways to appear psychic to those around you.
You can do your best to anticipate and predict what the DP wants and, when you’re right, it will seem like you read their mind. They’ll be both amazed and pleased that somehow you managed to get everything exactly how they wanted, all without even telling you.
And the effect will still be the same: they’ll beg you to work for them time and time again.
So, let’s take a look at a few ways you can read the DP’s mind and stay one step ahead of them.
Look at a Shotlist Beforehand
At the beginning of everyday, on many shoots, there will be some type of shotlist available whether as a detailed list or as storyboards.
Do your absolute best to procure a copy of one of these so you can already get inside the DP and directors heads to find out what they’re planning.
If there are limited copies, you may have to do a bit of swindling to get one. My favorite line is, “Oh let me have a copy. I’ll hold onto it for [the DP].”
Once in your hands, the shotlist is like reading a map of the day. And just like any journey, you may get lost, find shortcuts, or simply change your route, but it’s always good to have a general idea of direction.
With the shotlist in your posession, after one setup, you can look at the list and find what’s next and make moves from there.
Is it a Medium Close-Up? You know how the DP loves to shoot those shots on a 35mm — so get it on the camera.
Is it the first exterior shot of the day? You can bet those Neutral Density filters sitting in your ditty bag can get thrown on the camera.
Is it a shot from Scene 28? Remember that’s the scene where you and the DP tested that special shutter speed technique on the camera.
All of these little tidbits of information get you one step further to having the camera ready before you’re even asked to change it. With doing nothing more than putting a piece of paper in your pocket, you’ve taken a few steps towards reading the DPs mind.
Eavesdrop on Conversations
Camera folk are quiet people. It’s not that we don’t enjoy talking, we are just listening to the sounds of the set. While everyone else is chatting it up between setups, we’re waiting for any indication of what is happening next with our baby, the camera.
I encourage you to take this one step further: don’t just listen, but eavesdrop for any hint of what’s happening next on set.
Sometimes to be a little psychic, all you need is a little supersonic hearing!
Before any major setup changes, the DP, director, and assistant director will often form a little huddle to discuss the plans for the next shot. It doesn’t always happen, but sometimes one of them will make some sort of clue as to what you need to do.
Here’s a few phrases I’ve overheard and acted on:
- “We’re gonna have to go to a high-hat on that…”
- “You wanted to go with a really wide — like 18 — lens, right?”
- “Yeah, definitely. Eye level is where we’ll want to shoot him at…”
- “Can we just punch in for a close-up?”
As soon as you hear anything worth acting on, seize the opportunity. Send your 2nd AC or Camera PA to fetch what’s needed and have it on standby. Be ready to mobilize the camera at an instant. More often than not, the huddle breaks with each of the three barking commands.
If you’ve been listening intently, you already have a head start. The DP will be impressed that you already have everything nearby and you’re unbelievably prepared for what they need.
A word of caution: don’t go full monty in situations like these. The reason you haven’t been told to do it yet is because it hasn’t necessarily been finalized. So while it’s good to be prepared, the last thing you want is to switch around the setup only to be told you’re going “one more time before moving on.”
Watch, Learn and Guess
Almost everything you do to appear psychic is going to be a sophisticated form of guessing (isn’t that what the “real” psychics do anyway?) so don’t be surprised that your last step in reading minds is to take that to heart.
The best way to guess accurately more than you guess inaccurately is to survey and study who you’re trying to figure out. In this case, the DP. But you also have to watch the context in which they’re acting.
You’d be surprised the minute details that come out when you really start watching. You’ll begin to account for things you’ve never thought of before — things like when they prefer to operate sitting on an apple box versus the ground.
You can figure out what kind of lenses they prefer on certain shots, how they like to have the panhandle set, whether or not they want to operate with an EVF or a monitor, or which shots are going to be handheld.
And the more you begin to take notice, the more you begin to read their mind and will have answered questions before you even need to ask.
Obviously, time spent working with them is a significant factor here. This is why so many DPs have “their guy” they bring with them because that person can anticipate, plan, and act with previous experience backing them up.
As camera assistants, our job is to remove the technical aspect of camerawork from the director of photography so they can focus on creative needs. If you are able to stay one step ahead of the DP, that’s one less thing distracting them from their creative demands.
And they will love you for the fact you’re able to do more work without them micro-managing you.
All of this would be easier if we could mind-link with the DP (But, then again, do we really want to get inside their heads?) and pull information as we need it.
Unfortunately, that’s not happening anytime soon, so we’ll have to be resourceful and, like any great magician, make possible what appears to be impossible.
“It’s like you already knew,” the DP will say.
And you have my permission to coyly reply: “I did.”