2nd AC Camera Assistant on Beta to the Max

Five Ways a 2nd AC Can Impress Their 1st AC Beyond Belief

As the intermediary between the rest of the film set and the 1st AC, 2nd AC's are crucially important to the ebb and flow of the camera department. A slow 2nd will bring everyone down with them and, similarly, a fast 2nd AC will improve the speed at which the camera is ready. The more you, as a 2nd AC, can meet those demands, the happier you keep your department.

The bare minimum — that’s what a lot of 2nd Camera Assistants (2nd AC’s) get away with. They clap the sticks, fill out their reports, and fetch lenses from the staging area, but there’s something missing from their work.

It’s not usually their fault — they don’t know any better — but it has the effect of reflecting poorly on their performance and their chance of landing a job with the same camera crew again.

As a 1st assistant camera (AC), I’ve trained many 2nd AC’s who were fine at their job, but I’ve worked with very few who were great at their job. And which ones do you think are the ones I call up when I am staffing a camera department?

That’s right — the 2nd AC’s who went beyond the bare minimum, often exerting more energy than most of the crew for the benefit of everyone.

When that happens, the result is impressive. And by impressing their 1st AC, the 2nd AC can guarantee themselves a long and thriving work relationship for years to come.

So here’s five ways you, as a 2nd AC, can prove to your 1st AC that you’re an essential part of their camera department.

1. Help Get Focus Marks

The most prominent role the 1st AC plays in the filmmaking process is that of focus puller — the person responsible for precise movements of the lens to keep a subject in focus throughout a shot.

This is a tough job and one of the best weapons AC’s have against a tough focus pull are marks — measurements to subjects or landmarks to help them determine the right distance to set the lens at.

Even though the 2nd AC plays very little into the act of pulling focus (almost none unless they are asked to pull focus on a “B” camera), they can provide a lot of help to the 1st AC in grabbing marks.

The most obvious portrayal of this is when a 2nd AC uses camera tape to mark an actor in a scene, but that is as much for the camera operator and the director themselves as it is for the AC. Where you can truly help the 1st AC as a 2nd is by doing three things:

  1. Slate from an actor’s mark. When possible, slate the scene from the first mark an actor will hit. Since 1st AC’s have to pull focus for the slate anyway, this provides them one last quick-check of their measurements. Plus, if they weren’t given a rehearsal, it may be the only mark they have to go off.
  2. Pull soft tape to your slate. Though focus pullers have a variety of measurement tools at their disposal, one of the most accurate is the soft tape measure. The downside is not many 1st AC’s like to step away from the camera to use this, so help them out by being the one who grabs it, stands at the mark and holds it to your eyes (or whever the AC wants to focus).
  3. Be on top of actors’ marks. Nothing makes me happier than when a 2nd AC is on top of their tape marks. By laying down a mark, it makes the actors more consistent, the movements predictable, getting focus marks a breeze, and thus, focus pulling much easier.

I guarantee that, even if they won’t admit it, the number one thing on most 1st AC’s minds is pulling focus. They’re constantly working to get marks, read the scene, understand the blocking, and make sure that producers don’t have to watch dailies later that night that are blurry and soft.

If you help them in the pressure-cooker of pulling focus, you’ll definitely end up on their good side.

2. Listen to the DP as Much (or More) than the 1st AC

One of the “secrets” to being a great camera assistant is to stay one step ahead of your boss — in your case as 2nd AC, your boss is the 1st AC.

But even better is to stay one step ahead of your boss’ boss, the director of photography (DP).

Why? Because any task the 1st AC delegates to you is likely to come from the DP. If you intercept this chain of command, you’ll look like a mind-reader to the 1st AC while also being more efficient.

To do this, make sure you listen closely to any conversations the DP is having with the 1st AC — whether on the radio, next to the camera, or in the line for craft services. The minute you hear the DP request something that is normally delegated to you, get on it:

  • Does the DP mention switching to a 25mm lens? Have it ready.
  • When the DP complains about a squeaky tripod, lube it up and clean it.
  • As soon as you hear the DP ask for an ND6 filter, head to the camera cart.

You’ll be surprised how grateful your 1st AC will be when, as they’re asking you to grab the filter, you present it to them ready to go.

It makes them look good and makes you look great.

3. Relieve the 1st AC (Or Basically Bring Them Snacks)

I love being a 1st AC. Some crumble under the pressure, others hate the technicality of it, but I crave everything the job demands of you.

…Except one thing: you’re glued to the camera.

In many ways, being stuck to the camera is a unique opportunity to see cinematographers work their magic, directors pull performances from actors, and watch the filmmaking process unfold.

But it can be a real drag when it comes to the simple things: food, bathrooms, and 5-minute breaks.

It’s nice then for the 2nd AC to relieve the 1st AC of their camera watch duties or at least offer to do things the 1st AC wants to do, but can’t, such as grab snacks from crafty. If you can tell your 1st AC is tired, thirsty, or hungry, it doesn’t hurt to ask them, “Hey you want anything from crafty?” Or offer to keep a hand on the camera while they stretch their muscles and sit down for a few minutes.

After all, the little things matter.

4. Double Check Their Double Checks

Any 1st AC worth their salt is going to constantly double check levels, gauges, and their own work. That includes:

  • Battery levels
  • Digital media/film left
  • Pan/tilt locks
  • Focus marks
  • Lens exposure
  • And many, many more

But not every AC is perfect.

And the fact that they have so many things to be acutely aware of means that sometimes something doesn’t get the attention that it deserves.

If you need proof of this in action, just hang out on film sets long enough until you hear, in the middle of a scene, a defeated voice from the side of the camera say, “Roll out!”

The best 2nd AC’s act as another filter to catch the mistakes that can slip through the divided attention of the 1st AC. They’ll keep a keen eye on batteries, magazines, digital downloads, and the filters a DP wants for the next shot.

When you do that, you’ll act as a safety net for the 1st AC’s natural human fallabilities and they will love you for it. They’ll start to trust you more and remain confident that the camera will run in top shape between the two of you.

Further, it helps them to focus on their “big” responsibilities like pulling focus and assigning tasks from the requests of the DP.

5. Do Your Job as a 2nd AC Better Than They Could

After you transition from 2nd AC to 1st AC for a period of time, you begin to lose some of the hustle you earned as a 2nd AC. Suddenly, you trade the skills of juggling multiple tasks in the staging area to pulling focus under pressure.

While you don’t lose the skills of a 2nd AC completely, per se, you do suffer a bit of entropy from not exercising those muscles.

So the absolute best thing you can do to make your 1st AC fall in love with you is to be a better 2nd AC than they could be. The last thing they want to feel on set is that they should be doing your job because you’re not doing good enough.

But even good enough is not good enough, you want to impress them to the point where you’re irreplacable in their minds.

The best 2nd AC I’ve worked with made me feel this way — I felt that, if we had traded positions, I would not have been as good a 2nd AC as he was.

That’s the perfect kind of person to have work for you.

The Best 2nd AC’s Make Themselves Indispensable

As the intermediary between the rest of the film set and the 1st AC, 2nd AC’s are crucially important to the ebb and flow of the camera department. A slow 2nd will bring everyone down with them and, similarly, a fast 2nd AC will improve the speed at which the camera is ready.

The demands placed on a 2nd AC are tremendous because they are expected to accomplish tasks the 1st AC would do themselves were they not metaphorically strapped to the camera. The more you, as a 2nd AC, can meet those demands without the intervention of the 1st AC, the happier you keep your department.

And the happier the department, the more likely you are to get hired on another gig.

Because who would you want to work with: someone who did the job “good enough” or someone who did it “better than expected”?

“Good enough” is good enough in the short run, but long term film careers are built on the foundation of “better than expected.”

  • AR

    An important thing to note in #2 (Listen to the DP) is that a 2nd can learn a lot *listening* to the DP, but it is rarely their place to *talk* to the DP. Relay messages through your 1st, and they act as a professional filter for you.

    I’ve seen some younger 2nds get themselves into hot water by short-circuiting the chain of command without the 1st knowing, or simply talking during a DP’s “moving on” briefing when they shouldn’t be. No bueno :/

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Yeah definitely. And it also depends on your relationship to the 1st AC and the DP. If all three of you have worked together before, then a lot of the boundaries can be acceptably blurred.

      But if you are on one of the first gigs with those two, it’s best to keep your mouth shut.

  • Tony

    Evan always great articles but I could see some of this article heading south in my opinion. I always had that motivation to be one of the hardest working 2nd they would know. When I finally had my chance to work for one of my city’s well-known 1st. He immediately saw me as a threat. Especially living in a small city, he immediately crossed me from the list. I don’t know if it’s the city I live in but it was not pleasant to see AC’s rise up as I know more technically, worked on more formats, move a lot quicker and I’m equipped with better work ethics. Where would you know where to draw the line before you start to come off as a threat? I mean helping your 1st with his focus marks could be a little tricky. Me personally I feel out my 1st, give them a few days to get to know me if I haven’t worked with them before. Normally 3 days in my intuition would have told me what not to do and what to do to impress.

    I think some areas of your article for an AC who lacks intuition like most great AC’s have. May be shooting themselves in the foot.

    Again thanks again Evan for the time to pump out some great articles that helped me for my better judgement on set.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hey Tony — my immediate reaction is why would you want to work for someone like that anyway? I mean you could’ve downplayed your skills and maybe he would’ve hired you on more jobs, but would it have been worth it? Paycheck wise, maybe, but it sounds like someone who is a bit of a jerk.

      I guess if that’s your market you have to cater to it, but I have never liked that side of the business.

      I tend to disregard those who will discount someone because they may be a threat to them. In most cases, others on the crew will notice your hard work and hire you or recommend you.

      With that said, you do have to feel out the 1st AC and get to know what they do and don’t want help with. The first time you do anything as a 2nd AC you should, yes, tread lightly — but only if you’re trying to do tasks normally delegated to a 1st AC.

      It’s bad management of their department if a 1st AC sees you doing something they don’t like and gets annoyed about it, but doesn’t tell you. It’s uncomfortable as a 1st, but I have told 2nd AC’s before to not do something or that I didn’t like how they handled it. Similarly, I’ve been disciplined as a 2nd for overstepping my boundaries.

      It happens. Learn from it, move on.

      tl;dr Any 1st AC who gets angry cause you worked too hard isn’t worth working for and, if they have a problem, they should tell you.

  • Michael

    I also try to be the liaison for camera to other departments, so you can always get a stinger/quad box for your chargers (from electric), dirt for the sticks or on a ladder(from grips), and you’re on-board with scripty and sound for the slate. You are the coffee/water boy, and the morning/day is better or not because of you.
    Because, indeed, the 1st should never have to leave camera if you do your job well enough. Do you see a full apple around? Stash one. Same with sandbags and wedges. While your picking up snacks for camera, does crafty have power for coffee (most on set do not function without it). Help everyone (without neglecting your department). Thinking ahead is a muscle you can develop, and use at every level. Paying acute attention actually sets you apart from most. Facilitate. Work really hard, working hard is a given. And good luck…

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Excellent advice, Michael! I particularly agree with your statement “help everyone.” If you’re in a position to help, and you do, it usually gets rewarded by recommendations or a favor being returned later on in the show.

    • http://www.facebook.com/amishjim Amish Schulze

      While it’s always good to be knowledgeable of other departments needs, it’s often best to leave those jobs to those departments. Always, always, always ask before you try to do someone else’s job or take their equipment. If the DP calls for a “28 on a stick”, do you want someone from Wardrobe just grabbing it? I know 1st ACs that don’t even let the Loader or Camera PAs handle uncased Lens’s. Your example of “power for [making] coffee” is a perfect example of what you should NOT do, ever. The Electrics are tasked with maintaining distro for the whole company and need to track that so nothing blows, anytime you need to plug anything in, you should ask first, yes, even just to charge your phone. As important as coffee is, the Electrics don’t want to start the morning chasing down a problem because you were doing another departments job incorrectly. Crafty knows who to go to when they need power. The same with stashing Apple Boxes, although the Grips should be more than happy to get you one, they may only have 4 full apple boxes total, and if you hide one, now there’s only 3. What if they have to raise a table at the last second, and now 2 Grips are running all over looking for that last box that you stashed and the crew is standing around watching them. This happened with a ladder once, the Loader took the 4 step that lives on set to the Camera truck to move cases around on a top shelf and didn’t return it. We looked around for 3 days, got dressed down by the Key Grip for losing it and personally, I felt like crap for losing an important piece of equipment. Then at Wrap one day the 1st AC invites me up to the truck for some SIngle Malt, and there’s our ladder. I’m not gonna lie, I was a bit mad and I did say some things to the Loader that you wouldn’t want your Mom to hear. But, guaranteed he will never take another departments equipment without asking. Helping is great, making sure they want/need the help is the best. Sorry, if this sounds gruff, but no one ever wants to hear those words “Waiting on ________”(insert your department here), while the crew waits, dollars and sun burn away, because of someone trying to be helpful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Human.Gobo Jeremy Bernatchez

    “I love being a 1st AC. Some crumble under the pressure, others hate the technicality of it, but I crave everything the job demands of you.”

    Me too!
    I used to be in such a rush to start shooting, but now I’ve become a lot more relaxed about that, and thoroughly enjoy doing the 1st AC jobs that I’m doing. Not only is it a hell of a lot of fun, but I find focus pulling is a thrilling challenge, and I get to learn from some wonderful cinematographers.

    I also agree that finding a good 2nd is easy, but a great one can be really tough!

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Exactly. Good 2nd’s are everywhere. But the 2nd you want to keep hiring… that’s a rare find.

  • Lauren

    I just had my first 2nd AC gig on a 5 day shoot. Although I didn’t hit every rule successfully, the DP loved me because I was mostly on top of everything and each one of these rules definitely apply. It’s one thing to read about being a great AC but unless you’ve already got that muscle memory, putting theory to practice is a different story. I was aware of what a 2nd AC did, but now I actually have a better understanding and can really appreciate it because it was definitely demanding!

    Thanks for the advice!

  • James

    While I don’t work in camera department. I found this very very interesting. It’s made me massively want to try and get on as a camera trainee somehow

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Be careful what you wish for ;)