That means popping the camera off the sturdy base of a tripod and into the hands of an operator. For the camera assistant, this creates a few issues that you need to be able to keep up with.
After working many films shot exclusively handheld, I came up with three tips to help you for those times where the camera operator turns and says, “Load me up!”
How to Make Shooting Handheld Easier
These tips are focused on practical issues that have arisen for me over the course of many shoots.
1. Minimize the Time the Camera is Up
Some camera systems are obnoxiously heavy (RED One, I’m looking at you!) while others are fairly light. But even the lighter rigs still wear on an operator’s shoulder after hours of handheld work.
As a camera assistant, minimize the time the camera has to be on an operator’s shoulder by putting it on at the last possible moment and taking it off immediately after a take has been cut.
This is especially crucial if you are shooting long takes or action-heavy tracking shots.
There’s a story of a top-tier director of photography (DP) who operated his own camera handheld and whenever the take was cut he would let go of the camera. He expected the camera assistant to make sure it didn’t fall to the ground. That’s a bit extreme — and irresponsible — but it proves a larger point: it’s the camera assistants job to have the camera between takes.
2. Be Mindful of Cables Connected to the Camera
Not every production can afford wireless systems for their cameras. Especially on digital productions, you’ll be dealing with an array of cables going to, from and through the camera.
Be careful of these during handheld scenes that you nor the camera operator trip over them.
If you are a 2nd AC, you should slate the scene and then wrangle the cable. This takes away one less worry from the 1st AC.
If you are the 1st AC, try and find a PA who is willing to wrangle the cable. It’s not a tough job — you just need a pair of hands to hold the cable off the ground so nobody trips on it.
If you can’t find anybody to wrangle the cable, throw the cables over your shoulder or hold them in the hand you aren’t pulling focus with making sure that they don’t fall on the ground near the operator’s feet.
3. Keep a Light Touch on the Follow Focus
A major problem on low budget productions shooting handheld or Steadicam is they don’t often shell out the bucks to afford a remote follow focus. While it’s not as bad in handheld situations as Steadicam, it still complicates pulling focus.
One issue in particular is affecting the camera operators “flow” while pulling on the follow focus. Especially if the follow focus is sticky or cheap, you may have to put a lot of effort into turning the disc and accidentally affect camera movement in doing so.
To combat this, try your best to have a light touch on the follow focus. On longer lenses, even the slightest bump from your hand onto the rig can cause a major shift in the frame.
A Graceful Struggle
Shooting handheld is difficult for camera assistants, operators, and even talent. You will, at times, find yourself in odd positions or rushing to catch up with the camera.
Be mindful of your surroundings and always make sure there is enough clearance in the space you’re shooting for you, the camera, and the operator. And, most importantly, always have a firm grip on the camera before and after takes — they don’t get along very well with gravity.
None of these tips help with pulling focus because it’s a subject I want to tackle in the future. In the meantime I will say that pulling focus while handheld is a rewarding, if not stressful, experience. The best thing you can do to help is become a master at guessing distances between two moving subjects.