photo credit: Mohd Khomaini Mohd Sidik
If I asked you to define the responsibilities of a camera assistant (AC), would you list “pulling focus” in your top three?
I bet you would. You’d be crazy not to!
No other task you do is so blatantly noticeable to everyone else on set. The camera operator sees it through the eyepiece as well as those at video village every take. In post-production, the editor watches subjects go sharp or soft.
But as digital cinema cameras continue to evolve, will pulling focus become an obsolete skill? At what point do the cameras start doing it for you? And if that’s the case, what are you — as a camera assistant — left to do?
Auto Focus and Focus in Post: The Future?
Though I appropriately touched on this subject last week, I felt compelled to return to it when I was tweeted yesterday about someone upset the new Canon C300 camera didn’t have auto-focus. It occurred to me, at that point, that auto-focus for high-end cameras is likely inevitable given the cheapening of those tools and the democratization of them.
It was also a natural reaction to be taken aback at the announcement of Lytro’s digital camera, which allows you to focus after a picture is taken on a computer.
“How long until this is capable in video?” I thought to myself, “What happens then?”
And so the existence of the camera assistant is brought into question: “If you don’t need to pull focus, why do you need focus pullers?”
Simple: focus pullers and camera assistants do infinitely more than just turn a knob on the side of the camera to keep subjects crisp and clear.
As a camera assistant, your responsibilities extend way beyond your ability to pull focus — you live and breathe cameras.
While we try to stay quiet about it, we also organize and prep all the camera equipment, establish and watch over an efficient workflow, and keep the director of photography (DP) from having to lug equipment so their efforts are devoted to creative challenges like lighting and composition.
The Need for Camera Assistants
I don’t know if or when cinema cameras will all have auto-focus or focus-in-post like the Lytro cameras, but I do know that there is always going to be a need for somebody to watch over those cameras and maintain the high-end technology a production pours thousands of dollars into.
There’s always going to be a place for a camera assistant-like crew member who not only can operate a camera, but understand it enough to troubleshoot through technical issues.
When nobody else knows how to get the auto-focus to work or to calibrate the focus-in-post feature of our future cameras, it will be the camera assistant who saves all their asses.
Sure, the responsibilities of the job may morph over time, but the true spirit of what we do — run the camera department — is going to survive no matter what form the camera and its crew members take.
Not every production is going to appreciate this. At a certain budget, ACs become a commodity. We’ve already seen this in the current state of the industry. And just like those productions today that choose not to hire an AC, they will be a bit more cumbersome with their camera.
That’s fine. That’s OK. I’m not worried.
I’m not worried about the future of the camera assistant because I realize we offer so much more to a film set than a keen eye for distances.
And if there is anything the best AC’s are good at, it’s being resourceful. So maybe we don’t stand next to the camera during every shot. Maybe we won’t have to pull out a tape measure with ninja-like reflexes.
So we camera assistants will find ourselves somewhere else on set contributing.
As the tools we use for our jobs continue to evolve, we will too and, ultimately, survive the notion that a crew can be without an AC.