We braved ticks, spiders, tall-grass, rain, and mud on day 5 of Assassinaut. The camera spent most of the day rigged for handheld shots which has its pros and cons for me, the camera assistant.
How to Get Better at Pulling Focus, Slating, and Being a Badass AC
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“Dolly on the move,” was a familiar phrase on Day 3 of Assassinaut. The camera spent all day either stuck on sticks or being pushed & pulled on dolly as we shot coverage of an important criss-crossing table conversation scene.
It’s day 1 on the feature film Assassinaut which I’m working on as 1st AC. And at the beginning of any shoot, there’s always anxiety, dread, and doubt, but it all gets washed away as soon as you blast off and start rolling on the first shot.
Cinematographer Rob Ruscher, who I had the pleasure of meeting at NAB, interviewed me on his blog for his “Cool Production Peeps” series. Most of the questions cover topics I’ve discussed here on The Black and Blue, but I was happy to nail down an answer to this one I get asked a lot:
RR: What advice would you give someone that wants to be an AC [Camera Assistant]?
Learn the basics of cinematography – both digital and film – so that you understand the fundamentals of how cameras work and can have an educated conversation about it with the cinematographer. You don’t need to be a master of lens optics, but you should know things like how aperture affects depth-of-field or standards for frame rates and shutter speed.
Read Doug Hart’s The Camera Assistant: A Complete Professional Handbook and then read David Elkins’ The Camera Assistant’s Manual. They are similar in scope, but each cover various aspects of the job. In terms of education you can do away from set, those are the gold standard.
Finally, get on a set – ideally in the camera department as a trainee or PA, but really any position that puts you on set – and watch the AC’s work. Ask them questions when they aren’t busy like at lunch or at wrap when they’re breaking everything down. Offer to help them on future projects and hope they call.
There is, of course, much more to becoming a camera assistant, but cinematography basics, reading the AC manuals, and getting on set is the best general advice I can give. Further, as you delve into each of those things, you’ll find yourself branching off to learn more and build your skills.
One more thing: check out my free ebook Becoming the Reel Deal which focuses on starting your filmmaking career in the camera department. Thanks to Rob for the interview!
From David Elkins’ The Camera Assistant’s Manual:
One of the most well known of the early cinematographers was Billy Bitzer, who shot most of the films of Director D. W. Griffith. As a Cameraman he did all of the jobs himself: carrying the equipment, setting it up, loading film, and so on. In 1914 D. W. Griffith hired an assistant to work with the Cameraman. This assistant was called a Camera Boy, and his job was only to carry the equipment for the Cameraman. Each morning, the Camera Boy would move all of the equipment from the camera room to wherever the scenes were being shot for the day. There was a lot of equipment, and many trips back and forth were required to get everything in place. In addition, the Camera Boy was required to take notes of what was being shot. There were no Script Supervisors at that time.
Around 1916, Cameraman Edwin S. Porter asked for an assistant after returning from a long location shoot. This Camera Assistant had some additional duties that the Camera Boy did not have. Because all of the early cameras were hand cranked, the Camera Assistant had to count the humber of turns of the crank and keep a log of the number of frames shot. Other duties included slating the scene, keeping track of footage, loading and unloading film, carrying and setting up the equipment, and anything else that the Camera Assistant may have been asked to do. Many of these tasks are still some of the responsibilities of today’s Assistant Cameramen (AC).
This track-record of how the AC has changed, and yet survived, comforts me when outside forces appear threatening to the job. Another 100 years from now, the duties and responsibilities of an AC may be dramatically different, but there’s always going to be a need for someone technical in the camera department to complement the cinematographer’s focus on the creative.
From the Book of Hart:
The Camera Assistant is wary as someone approaches the sacred machine, as watchful as a mother grizzly bear with her cubs. Yes, someone may touch the camera, may look through the eyepiece, may even change the direction the camera is pointing, but no harm shall befall that wondrous machine while the noble Camera Assistant is standing sentinel. No president, queen, or prime minister ever enjoyed protection as vigilant.
When hungry, the camera in the Assistant’s charge shall be fed – film in magazines on top or on the back, electricity through cables plugged into the back or side, heat when necessary, lenses and filters in front, oil for the mechanism inside. When the camera moves to the next set or location, the Camera Assistant places a casual but resolute hand on the magazine or handle, and walks alongside in a procession of vigilance and confidence.
This delicate precision machine is to be kept safe, warm, and dry at all costs, even when the Camera Assistant may not be. It is not only the potential expense that keeps the Camera Assistant so protective, it is “the job.”
Cameraman Chris Weaver lists his thoughts on what it takes to be an excellent camera assistant (AC):
Being a professional Camera Assistant can be the hardest job on the crew. It carries more responsibility than most people think and even worse… while everyone else is on a tea break, the Camera Assistant is usually working, loading magazines, filling out Camera Report Sheets or organizing the camera equipment for the next set-up.
The stuff I’ve written here is based on film camera assistants but the rules apply for video assistants too. So, without further ado… let us begin!
The job’s tough, but not too bad, Chris! Anyway, here are some of my favorite tips from the list:
5. When you are on a shoot, always try to listen in on conversations between the Director and the Cinematographer or Camera Operator. You can pick up on stuff and anticipate what will be needed next. (A big part of being a great Assistant is anticipating and being ready in advance)
26. Treat hire equipment as if it’s your own. It’s totally unprofessional and unacceptable to mishandle hired camera gear, just because it’s from a rental company. It’s precision equipment, treat it with total respect because if you don’t I guarantee it will be noted by other members of the crew. To professionals, this type of sloppy work ethic is like red rag to a bull!
29. Work with as many different types of cameras as possible so that you can easily switch from one type of job to another. If you want to be a successful freelance Camera Assistant you will need to have a working knowledge of as many cameras as possible, flexibility and versatility are key elements to being exceptional.
An older article – and one I’ve shared before on Twitter – but worth a re-read and a re-share.
Yesterday I wrote about how pulling focus off of a monitor is a “bad habit.” Several readers took exception with that premise and provided compelling reasons for why using a monitor is acceptable and even encouraged. It’s a discussion worth exploring and covering in more detail.
Any camera assistant worth their salt can pull focus using nothing more than a few measurements, their eyes, and a follow focus. But it’s become increasingly common to look at a monitor – instead of a subject – when pulling focus. So why is that a bad habit?
Cinematographer John Brawley explains why slating is important and also how to do it the right way:
I’ve been chatting with some of my own crew and some directors about slating technique and protocol and it seems in this digital age some discipline and technique has been overlooked…. and it occurred to me that it takes a huge amount of subtle knowledge to be able to slate properly. One director was bemoaning the fact that they had to keep staring at the loader’s face on the split right before every take during an important emotional scene. They also took an interminably long time to actually announce the slate as well, totally distracting the beginning of the take. ”Doesn’t anyone know how to slate ? Don’t they know how they can influence the beginning of a scene ? That they can set the tone for the actors ? Why are they taking so long to announce the slate and get out of there ? What ever happened to the discipline of the film days where you’d get the slate and only the slate in shot and get the hell out of there ???” It was a full blown rant…..
Like a butler, you need to be totally present yet not noticed. The way you speak, the manner with which you slate can greatly affect actor performance and the on set ambience. You’re also a constant visual representative of the camera department.
Spot on post with some great tips. Make sure to read the comments also where others contribute their own thoughts and experiences. Finally, check out my own series of posts on slating.