To read the essay, download it as a PDF file here.
The essay begins with a direct shot to “Job Bidders and Commercial Producers” with an objective that ensures “every show of a magnitude to warrant it makes use of the services of a professional 2nd Assistant, and that he or she is paid a salary commensurate with that of the Grip and Electrical Best Boy.”
That comparison, to grip and electrical best boy, is a key point in the paper. Wagner makes the point that every department on set usually has a key and a best boy, or something similar: “In the case of [the first AC], camera movement, reconfiguration, filter and lens changes and focus are involved.”
The best boy’s responsibilities include organizing equipment and helping prepare the department for future setups, per Wagner’s definition. By these qualifications, it is drawn that the 2nd AC is the camera department’s best boy. That is the crux of Wagner’s annoyance, it seems, because the 2nd AC is “not just a loader.” Instead, there is much more to the job:
Being a 2nd Camera Assistant involves a highly specialized set of skills, including a detailed knowledge of the theories and workings of a motion picture camera. Additionally, a disciplined attitude toward correct treatment of this delicate equipment is required. As the only person on the set who handles the film between the can and the magazine, and back to the can, he or she is in a singular position to waste thousands and thousands of dollars of effort in a single careless moment – IF they don’t have a proper handle on the job.
Thus, the 2nd Assistant is in a uniquely responsible position, and should be paid accordingly […] A professional 2nd Assistant is a highly skilled component of the Camera Department, an invaluable part of the crew, and has a direct hand in ensuring that the entire production runs smoothly. They are also often one of the hardest-working people on the set!”
I can’t say I disagree with Wagner’s assessment of the position. It’s often said that the 2nd AC experiences the lowest pay to responsibility ratio. On most sets, almost all of the footage shot will pass through the 2nd camera assistant’s hands before ending up in the final cut.
But where Wagner is most on point, I think, is when he talks about the dynamic between a first and second AC:
…the 1st Assistant depends upon the professional 2nd Assistant to organize, locate and prepare equipment for use. This especially holds true when moving around in remote (non-stage) locations where equipment changes are constantly being made. When the 1st does not have a trained 2nd Assistant, he or she invariably must leave the camera to get a called-for piece of equipment or case.
The 1st Assistant is usually busy doing what they must do for the specific shot or moving the camera from one place to another. They can mentally anticipate equipment needs for a few shots away, but unless they leave the set, often cannot implement these anticipations. The experienced professional 2nd Assistant will have the necessary equipment on set as or before the 1st Assistant asks for it. Multiply this by 20 such occurrences a day, and the Producer has saved a considerable amount of shooting time.
Thus, the 2nd Assistant is a vital element of the Camera Department, NOT a luxury, and the professional 2nd Assistant’s day rate should reflect the responsibilities of the position and be equal to the rates and OT deals received by the Best Boys in the other departments.
We feel the professional 2nd Assistant is such a craftsman and welcome your comments or questions on how this position can remain a solid, positive contributing part of teamwork within the Camera Department.
Though this paper was obviously written before DSLRs and Arri Alexas began taking a serious chunk of professional filmmaking, much of what it argues still holds true. Even on digital shoots, especially those with low budgets, the 2nd AC is also responsible for data loading and more basic D.I.T. responsibilities. Admittedly, however, the room for error when dealing with data is not quite as high as accidentally exposing film or loading the wrong stock into a mag.
I have worked as a 2nd AC for free and I’ve also worked as a 1st AC with an inexperienced 2nd who was working without pay. I can say fairly definitively that neither situation was ideal. When I finally got the chance to work as a 1st AC with a paid, professional 2nd AC, the workload between the department was more evenly distributed and allowed the shoot to run more efficiently. Not only that, but there are times where a great 2nd AC can save your butt and make you look good!
I do think, and I am extremely biased, that often productions forget how valuable a good camera assistant is. I touched on the topic a little bit in my “shoot the rehearsal” musing in which I questioned whether many first-time directors even know what a camera assistant is responsible for. Either way, I think all crew should be paid fairly and it can be frustrating when valuable work is exchanged for peanuts of pay. But thus is the freelancing world in an industry experiencing ongoing changes.
I can only speak for the camera department and I agree that the 2nd assistant camera is an undervalued position. Especially a solid, professional 2nd AC, who can speed up efficiency on set to a great degree. Perhaps it was Wagner who thought Bud Light might need to up their appreciation for the 2nd camera assistant, after all it is a subtle art that few have perfected.
Head on over to Wagner’s website where you can download the entire essay to read on your own. The undersigned, and assumed authors, of the manifesto are: Daniel Wagner, Steve Barnes, Henry Cline, Elizabeth Dougherty, Lee Dublin, Jamie Felz, Don Hayashi, Fritz Hershey, Sean Hise, Mark R. Jackson, Arthur Martin, Niran Martin, Steve Mattson and Amy Vincent.