Any first AC will know that a hard, steel tape measure (a 30 ft. FatMax, I prefer) is a great tool to have in a kit. Laser tapes are best for long lenses and soft tape measures are good, but not as quick. With hard tape, you can shoot it out on a moment’s notice and catch a measurement for a mark.
This can get confusing as the distance goes up, however, making it harder to read the inches/feet markings on the tape measure. The FatMax, like I have, only marks the footage every foot, costing me a few moments of time to find which foot I’m at or to do some division math with the inches.
Either way, going along the tape measure and marking the foot next to every inch mark with a Sharpie or other permanent pen can be very helpful. If you’re confused by what I mean, here’s a picture of my hard tape:
As you can see in the picture, I have added a 7 next to every inch within 7 feet that way I can read “7 foot 9 inches” easily. This is a good addition because the tape measure I have gives the footage mark, then counts up to 12. Those numbers up to 12, however, are useless if you don’t realize what foot you’re at. This tip is also great in preventing misreadings and making marks more accurate.
It may sound dumb, but it really is useful and quicker than figuring out how far along the tape measure you are. It makes the whole action of swinging out the tape and finding a mark a more efficient process. Unfortunately, that kind of hastiness means putting a giant piece of steel in the middle of a set where not everyone is paying attention.
Safety is an important consideration for all actions on a film set. At the pace things flow, it is vital that everyone, from crew to talent, takes safety seriously. As a camera assistant, measuring marks for focus is part of the job, and that sometimes means flinging a tape measure out into the ether of the set.
Actors are usually the ones most in danger of being poked in the eye from this practice because that is exactly where a camera assistant should be measuring to. The eyes (or eye-brows) are what is almost always the focus of the shot. Because of that, the tape measure often ends up only a few inches away from an actor’s eye while an AC gets a mark. The true professional actors might even grab it and help stabilize it near their eye, but many will not even notice it’s there.
To prevent the wrath of angry talent, I highly suggest flagging the end of your tape measure with some fluorescent camera tape. For my tape measure, I used bright orange duct tape (that needs to be re-done, admittedly.) This makes the end of the tape measure more noticeable to everyone on set and is a bit of warning for those to “watch out.”
I have also heard of other AC’s using small items like a boxing glove key chain to add to the end. In general, it should be brightly colored, soft, or both.
This practice is also good to extend to anything that juts out from the camera or equipment. That includes rod support, which is what I had to do on one short film where the camera was constructed in a unique enough way that the ends of the rods were often close to actors eye level. I balled up some brightly color tape and made the ends of the rods stubby and less hurtful to bash into.
Remember, sometimes the small things can make a big difference in terms of efficiency and safety. Don’t overlook what could be simple additions or modifications to your toolkit to make yourself a better and more reliable camera assistant. Or even more invisible.