What Can You Do to Save Time, Be Faster and Improve Your Efficiency as a Camera Assistant?

Are there times on set where you wish you were faster? I bet there are. Maybe it's the way you slate, or the way you mark, or you struggle to carry the camera. Whatever it is, you're tired of it: you're ready to boost your speed and maximize your efficiency.

Do you take too much time to do certain things on set?

I do.

I’m a short guy so sometimes it takes me awhile to lug heavy camera rigs to new setups. By the time I get there, I’m almost out of breath and forget to make the quick-adjustments the director of photography (DP) expects me to.

Meanwhile, I’ve seen camera assistants (AC) swap out lenses quicker than the DP could finish calling for them and I always wish I was that guy.

That’s why I’m constantly looking for shortcuts — ways to save time and make myself more efficient.

When I first started doing more first AC work, I noticed more and more the negative effect how I carried the camera was having on my speed. It’s not like I was terribly slow, but there was certainly room for improvement. A major reason for this was my pride as I would He-Man the entire camera+sticks to the new setup.

Eventually, I knew I had to change. So I pulled my 2nd AC aside and setup a new process with him. When the camera was being moved, I would release it from the head, carry it towards the new location, and he would follow me with the tripod/sticks. If we were changing to a high-hat or baby sticks, I would take the entire head and he would swap out the sticks.

I know what you’re thinking, “Duh! That’s the way you’re supposed to do it.”

Well, I wouldn’t be an AC if I wasn’t a little stubborn and now I don’t do it any other way unless I have to. By making this one simple change, I was able to drastically reduce the time between camera setups and I know the DP’s I’ve worked for appreciate it.

So, are there times on set where you wish you were a little bit faster?

I bet there are.

Maybe it’s the way you slate, or the way you mark, or, like me, you struggle to carry the camera. Whatever it is, you’re tired of it: you’re ready to boost your speed and maximize your efficiency.

I wanted to take the time to let you know it happens to all of us and to help motivate you to look for those time saving tactics and shortcuts that help you get your job done better, faster, and more efficiently (which helps impress higher-ups, which helps get you more jobs).

Starting tomorrow and for the next two weeks, I’ll suggest one time-saving method per day you can implement the next time you step on set. Some of them will be specific, while others will be more generic, but all of them will help you become a quicker camera assistant.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear what some of the things you struggle with are in the comments below.

Posts from this Series:

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=7717548 Lawrence Marshall

    What is the best way to keep the lens case organized?  I know this is 2nd AC stuff, but is there a good standard to organizing lens?  I have found that by writing the lens mm in white tape and sticking it somewhere near where I place the lens’ it helps.  
    What is the quickest way to quickly re-write the slate?  Do you use tape with pre-written letters/numbers or go dry erase all the way with scene/roll/take?

    What is your standard workflow for a new setup?  You’ve covered this in bits and pieces in other posts…I’m looking for a centralized posting.  Sometime like, 1) move tripod/camera to setup.  2) level camera  3) move the arm  4) change lens etc.  Don’t need to write just cuz I want it, but maybe it’ll pop an idea in your head.

    • http://www.michaelaangelique.com Michaela Angelique

      For me, to rewrite the slate . Keep the Roll number with the tape (could be white gaffer tape) and also the scene number (1,2,3,etc). Use Dry erase marker for the slate number (A-alpha, B-beta, etc) and Take number (1,2,3, etc). You know things that always change soon are slate number and the take number, so write them with dry erase marker. Usually when location is changed, mean scene number is changed.

      Always print out your call sheet everyday and bring it on the set. Then every day before the shoot, you can write the scene number on white gaffer tape and stick it behind your slate.

      For me, I prefer to use regular slate with magnets on the clapper sticks, it helps for the syncing correctly, doesn’t bounce and you can stick you camera report behind the regular slate.
      I do not like timecode slate, it’s very bulky and to write a camera report, it’s kind pain in the butt, you have to write everything again and again everytime the director takes another take, when using timecode slate, it makes you hard to move around and brings camera report paper and slate. Prepare your own slate.

      That’s what I do, if the movement is not too far, the 1st AC usually brings the camera on tripod. But if it’s more than 10ish feet, usually I ask to 1st ac if I can help him bringing the tripod and he can just bring the camera, faster and more convenient.

      I would suggest don’t level the camera too soon, wait until the dp is settled with his frame, then when the dp talks to his gaffer, level the camera. As first AC,in a dark set, it helps if you have flashlight that’s attached to your head, so if your 2nd AC still moves things around putting up video village, etc, you can level the camera by yourself by pointing the light from ur head while your 2 hands leveling the camera.

      Basically, what I do (I do 2nd AC most of the time) everytime we move on the next scene.
      I ask 1 st AC that he wants me to bring the tripod so he can carry the camera.
      Usually first AC, he is supposed to unplug the cable (bnc cable and sometimes sound cable).
      Then me and first ac move to the next location and I set up the tripod, he puts the camera.
      Then he talks to the DP, but I’m going back to the previous location, getting the monitor, wrangling cable, lens case, my ditty bag where I put the slate inside my bag.
      I go back to the location where the camera is, putting the lens close to the camera.
      Then put the video village and ask the BB electric to juice the monitor then plug the BNC cable again.
      Change the slate number and camera report, confirm any lens changing to the scripty and double check the scene to the scripty or AD.

      Hope that helps.

    • Adam Richlin

      On a short film I 2nded a while back, I got a lens case labeling system going that I have been using ever since.

      Check out this image: http://imgur.com/JqCa6

      I have colors for all the lenses, and I remember which is which. I always use the same colors for the same lenses (job to job) so its quick to figure out where I am. Lens covers have a color across them, it’s on a ring around the lens. I even skipped coloring one lens because we had one less color of tape than lenses on this job, but the system still holds up. 

      Then the hard mattes are also matching colors so it makes them quick to grab from the side of the case. The hard matte is one thing I often had trouble remembering as a 2nd, and I found that the color system helped remind me to grab it. I need a 50mm, so I need to get all the blue things in the case.

      Also, I label my ND’s with different colors and the words “Three” “Six” and “Nine”… it only takes one swap of 6 and 9 for you to be really embarrassed in front of the DP. For other filters, I label them 

      ” THREE ” = Grad ND 3
      ”           POLA          ”  = Polarizer
      ”          1 BPM          ”  = 1 (Full) Black Pro Mist 
      ”         1|8 BPM         ” = 1/8th Black Pro Mist

      And so on. Find a system that works for you, make it fast, and make sure everyone else can understand it reasonably well if you need to swap out one day. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrisrobinsummers Chris Summers

    Good Point to raise! Thanks Evan. You are correct about the head and legs camera moves. Thats a topic on its own.

    Lens Cases: Mark ALL the sides (including the top if space allows) with 1″ white or day-glo gaffer tape on top of Black 2″ Info is Lens MM, T-Stop & Minimum Focus, for each lens.

    Unit Bags: Mark what is inside each one. For E.g. Micorforce, LMB-5, etc etc.

    Time: When you’re standing around doing “nothing” go organise your unit bag or clean a box. Even if you’re a 1st AC it’s good to know where stuff is. As a 2nd you should do this all the time. It does 2 things, it cleans and organises all your kit, and it reminds you what you have and where it is. How many times I’ve just cleaned a filter or wrapped a cable then it is asked for. To know where something is saves the MOST time. 

    Have your gear next to you, not down the road.

    As for lenses. When I was a 2nd I was often able to have the lens next to my 1st before he could call for it. Because, I listened to the DOP talking to the 1st! He asks the 1st and by the time he turns around I’ve got the box open (because it’s next to me already :) and the lens is in hand. 

    As a 1st I listen to the DOP and the Director. I get into their heads to figure out how they shoot and why. Usually, or perhaps if you are lucky (I’m not sure yet) DOP’s have their favourite 3/4 lenses. That’s it.

    Of course this doesn’t ALWAYS happen ;) but when you’re on a roll, it’s great.

    There are so many more timesavers out there. it would be a massive list. i try to make up new ways to save time every day.

    I recently explained to a very new 2nd that assisting in camera is like Formula 1 racing. The time gaps between winning and losing are very small. Fractions of a second to a few seconds are the difference between getting it, or losing it. You need to shave seconds off every lens change, filter addition, handheld setup, etc etc.Sometimes you only have a few seconds. I’ve had it happen that a configuration change or filter or lens change was canned because it wasn’t quick enough. I never wanted that to happen again. Sometimes, you only get one take to pull a shot, if it was soft, that’s it. No second take. So, you gotta be on your game. Sure it’s not always 100%, but strive for that.

    Every single day we would look at how we could save time and just be ready all the time. Extra labels, uniform systems, prioritising commonly used gear, learning the DOP and Directors work patterns. You need to look and learn like you’ve never looked before.

    “Use the force Luke”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=563640091 Jason Cuddy

    Step 1: Remove camera from Head.
    Step 2: Grips do the rest.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chrisrobinsummers Chris Summers

      Depends on the country Jason. I used to be able to work that way, but now I’m in a different region.

      In the US, Camera is head and legs. Grips do flags and scrims. In the UK system (used in South Africa as well), Grips do head, legs and all, Sparks do flags and scrims. In Hungary, Camera does head and legs, the sparks do flags and scrims. So, geographically it’s different. Each method and system has it’s pros and cons I think.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=563640091 Jason Cuddy

    Step 1: Remove camera from Head.
    Step 2: Grips do the rest.

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  • http://movin-on-new-deal.com Michael S. Chandler

    I’m lovin’ this series. So many things that I wish all ACs would know. I think I might actually do a post coming up on my blog about how to successfully work with a camera dept. More and more lately I’ve seen shows where the relationship between AD and Team Camera is bumpy, and there’s no need for it.

    Great posts, thanks for the read.