In the first part of this series, we talked about how preparation is key to working with a camera you’ve never touched before. If you don’t prepare sufficiently, you can be blind-sided by the simplest menu changes or quirky software bugs. Preparation also allows you to partially remove the burden of learning a new camera so you can focus on matters on set.
Basically, preparing is half the battle to be confident with a camera you’ve never touched before.
The other half takes place on set, beside the camera, staring down the lens.
That first day on a shoot is intimidating and compounded when you’re hooking up new gear, but don’t let anxiousness affect your ability to do a job you know how to do. While each job is different, your core responsibilities are what you’ve always done – just happens to be with a fresh camera.
(That mantra, “it’s only a movie,” becomes paramount in these situations.)
Still, there’s some approaches you can take to help you overcome that day one hurdle and start getting experience with that new camera under your belt. I’d like to share them with you now…
Show Up Early to Build the Camera
Whether you’re a below-the-line newbie or an industry vet, you’ve likely heard this phrase:
If you’re not 15 minutes early, you’re late!
And that’s true, especially for camera assistants. While many other crew get to arrive, have a muffin and some coffee, and mosey their way to set, camera assistants are usually building the camera, strapping tools to themselves, and getting the camera team ready to mobilize.
If you’re going to be working with a new camera, you’ll have to show up even earlier.
How much earlier? That depends on how much prep time you were able to have. But for a camera I’ve never taken with me into production, I like to give myself at least 15 – 30 minutes of breathing room. This allows me to take my time building the camera, confirming the settings, and troubleshooting any unforeseen obstacles without the pressures of an aggressive time-to-first-shot.
This is especially important if you didn’t get any prep time at all, as a commenter on the last post pointed out sometimes happens:
As much as everyone would like to be able to prep, sometimes you don’t always have that luxury. There’s been a couple of instances where they were last minute shoots and they weren’t sure what camera we’d be using or the lens package.
I’ve certainly been there before. Sometimes you get called in the day before a shoot or you’re dayplaying for somebody else who prepped the camera package.
That’s when showing up extra-early to build the camera is crucial. In those situations, you don’t know 100% for sure what the camera package will or won’t have and how you’ll have to build it to work within those potential limitations as well as within the wishes of the director of photography (DP).
Now, the film industry already demands a crazy schedule, so don’t go overboard and wear yourself out before the day is already done. But if it’s possible for you to arrive on location or on set (or even to wake up early in your hotel room) with enough time to build the camera comfortably, it’s well worth it.
And, as you shoot with the camera more, you can start rolling back to your regular schedule. Usually, after one or two days, I don’t feel the need to show up extra-early – just normal early!
Don’t Be Afraid to Slow Down, Get it Right
Film sets move at an ever-changing pace that modulates between chaos and monotony best exemplified by the “hurry up and wait” mentality. During those “hurry up” parts, you’re going to be pressed for time – you always are.
But when you’re working with a new camera, that time pressure in addition to your inexperience could cause you to make a costly mistake such as:
- Setting a menu item wrong
- Failing to properly format a card
- Forgetting to swap a battery that’s about to die
It may seem counterintuitive, but don’t be afraid to slow down to get things right.
Let’s look at a hypothetical situation in which slowing down would help…
Say you’re asked by the DP to change to 120fps in Varispeed mode because just now the director asked for an alternate take at that speed. You also need to do it ASAP because the magic hour lighting is perfect, but fading fast. So you go to the menu, adjust the settings, and give her the OK that you’re ready. She gives an OK to the Assistant Director (AD) that camera’s ready. The AD gets the ball rolling and you shoot your take. The director calls for playback and, well, turns out you only set the camera to 60 fps. Oops – by now, as luck would have it, the sun has disappeared behind a building.
Of course this is an extreme example set up to illustrate my point, but these type of “let’s do it now” scenarios happen multiple times a day on a film set. I’ve witnessed a camera rushed to roll because a train – to be part of the background – arrived 3 minutes early. I’ve had to pull focus without marks because makeup took too long with an actress and the sun was dangerously close to setting. I’ve had to bail out of a battery swap simply because the director didn’t want to wait.
These are all scenarios in which time is of the essence – and, yes, I’m telling you to take more of it.
Otherwise, how much time do you waste when making a mistake and having to either a) reshoot a take or b) clean up your mess? With that perspective, the few extra moments of time you take to confirm you’re doing what’s proper is worth it.
Be aware, however, that this sentiment may not be favored by a director or an AD. Often you’re in such a time crunch that it’s faster to just finish what you’re doing than to explain to them why you’re doing it. You might get hounded for taking too long or have to deal with the impatient calls to hurry up.
That’s fine because the alternative – getting reprimanded for fucking up – is significantly worse.
All that said, don’t be unbearably slow. Be diligent, but efficient. Measured, but decisive.
It’s a fine line to tread, but you must be able to walk it. Often, it’s the fear of holding everyone up that causes us to rush and make a mistake. Don’t be afraid of that. It takes a pro attitude to balance that urge to be fast while knowing you actually do need a few seconds – all while everyone else is telling you they don’t have extra seconds to give.
But when it means doing your job right, take those moments.
Utilize Your Crew to Watch Your Back
As a camera assistant, you have to learn to effectively manage and leverage the ability and skills or your fellow camera compatriots. Part of this is making sure everyone is watching each others’ backs.
When you’re working with a camera for the first time, make sure you brief your department on what you perceive as potential gotchas. If there’s someone in your department who does have experience with the camera, ask them to point out any flaws, quirks, or anything unique to the camera.
Basically, you all want to be aware of what bombs the camera might lob at you.
(Ideally, you’d take care of this during a camera prep if your crew is available during it. Also, ideally, you’d do this on every single job, but it’s crucially important on a production with new equipment and gear – whether it’s new to everyone in your department or just new to you.)
This could mean you ask the 2nd AC to watch battery levels more closely because the camera is notorious for sucking too much juice. It could mean you ask the DIT to watch for moire issues as they process footage throughout the day. It could also mean you have the camera PA be especially vigilant with the BNC cables running to the camera because the connector on the camera is shoddy at best.
Each member of your department already has specific duties or expectations related to the camera and, when your concerns over the camera overlap with those duties, it’s your responsibility to make that crew member aware of it and be extra vigilant about it. I remember working with the RED One for the first time and the 1st AC asked me to keep an eye on dropped frames since I was already supposed to make sure we didn’t roll-out on media space.
While it’s ultimately your job to keep the camera working, you may get distracted measuring focus marks, tweaking a Noga arm, or even going 10-1 before you notice something is awry – that’s when your crew step in and help troubleshoot the issue or bring it to your attention.
As you begin to work with the camera more, you’ll develop little ticks to adapt to it’s own unique quirks, but until then, enlist your camera department brethren to help you keep a watchful eye. You never know, after all, when that janky RED camera you rented from that dude off Craigslist will slip into time-lapse mode (true story: happened to me and it was weird).
Basically, Be Smarter and More Vigilant On Set
When reading both parts of this series, you may have noticed one central theme: preparation. Even this advice, to use within the production environment, is based around preparation:
- Arriving early to build the camera
- Confirming changes to the camera before you roll
- Slowing down to make sure everything’s good to go
- Asking your department to watch for mistakes
And there’s a good reason for this. Being professional means being proactive about potential mistakes. What you don’t want to happen on set is to have to be reactive and fix mistakes after they’ve happened. You’ll pay the penalty for that in either time or money or both.
From a camera assistant’s perspective, working with a camera is all about enabling the DP to execute on their creative vision. And lucky for us, most cameras all work the same: they have power buttons and run/record buttons and viewfinders and menu settings.
The trick is wrapping your head around each system in a way that lets you use them without stumbling or reorienting yourself each time.
If you do this, you’ll allow the DP to step up to the viewfinder and create their vision. If it’s their first time with the camera, well, they’ll have a whole slew of things to worry about, too.
But that’s an article for another time…