When the lens took its plunge and smashed into the turf, all of our collective stomachs dropped along with it. It was an accident, I know it was. I watched it happen. Nonetheless, the situation was serious.
Read on at your own peril – this story isn’t for those with weak stomachs.
The (2nd) Most Important Piece of Equipment
Taking care of lenses is crucially essential. The first thing I tell those new to camera assisting is the basic rundown of lens knowledge — the top piece of advice is to never drop one. Lenses cost thousands of dollars and no amount of care is too much when accounting for that much money.
If I listed out my priorities as a camera assistant, in terms of equipment, it’d go:
I was then relieved when I got a phone call for a job where I wouldn’t have to worry about handling lenses. I was working as an extra hand in the camera department instead of 1st assistant camera (AC) or 2nd AC. We joked that I was a third assistant camera.
Because my duties were limited in their scope, I wasn’t constantly having to buzz around on set matching shots, pulling focus, placing marks or changing lenses. In fact, I had some downtime to watch the hub-bub of movement alongside the camera department production assistant (PA) and, occasionally, the 2nd AC.
It was at one of these pow-wows that we were watching a blocking rehearsal happen some 100 yards away. The 1st AC had ventured over to the front lawn of a house with a 35mm Zeiss Superspeed lens mounted on a director’s finder (a real one).
As you learn to do while working on a film set, we were dividing our attention three ways between the conversation we were having, the blocking rehearsal in front of us, and the potential for any radio messages coming in through our ears.
None of us were really ready for what was about to happen next.
Gravity Always Wins
Like I said, it was an accident. I know I wasn’t up close, but watching from afar, it couldn’t have happened any other way.
Even though the lens was firmly mounted on the finder, that doesn’t mean the finder was firmly planted in the hands of the 1st AC whose face, when he let slip the handle resting in his palm, began to form the beginnings of an “Oh, shit!”
Slowly cresting from his hands, the lens-mounted finder started making a nose dive towards the earth.
It wasn’t long before the heavy hand of gravity slammed the front element of the lens into the turf.
Our conversation stopped. The radio stayed silent. Our attention now focused solely on the 1st AC who quickly picked up the lens from the ground.
A quick analysis of the situation showed the director of photography (DP) had not noticed and was still discussing the scene with the director. The lead actor was minding his own business on his cell phone. The 2nd lead actor, however, was standing with his mouth agape staring directly at the AC.
In a way, his reaction echoed what the rest of us, the camera department, felt.
I figured there were only two ways this situation could go. The first: that the lens is severely damaged, a PA takes it immediately to the rental house, and the camera assistant is in a world of pain. Just as important, the lens is out of commission for an entire day. The second situation is that the lens, despite being a high precision optical instrument, somehow survives unscathed and only those who witnessed what happened know the truth.
Both of these scenarios played around in our heads as we whispered to each other.
“Yeah, he totally dropped that lens,” said the 2nd AC. “Nobody say anything to him right now.”
We took our hands off the radios on our belt and watched as the 1st AC held the lens up his eyes. Watched further as he remounted it to the finder and looked through it, and ultimately, we watched when he handed that back to the DP who continued to block the camera.
“Everything is fine,” we heard him radio in.
I shook my head back and forth, thinking how I had just witnessed the luckiest lens drop in history. When that scene was over, the 1st AC explained what had happened. An accident, no doubt, but one that would’ve been hard to forgive had it gone like the first scenario.
“Now that we’ve talked about it, nobody ever mention this again.”
And we never did — except once: I brought it up at the wrap party over some drinks. But to be fair, he was the one that bought me the whiskey that inspired the question in the first place.