“A penny saved is a penny earned,” they say. On film sets, that adage works ten-fold. For all the thousands of dollars filtering through a production, every moment of time saved helps squeeze that budget just a little bit more.
Once there, you’re going to want to make these five quick adjustments so the director of photography (DP) or the camera operator can pop the shot off as fast as possible.
1. Level the Sticks and Head
New camera assistants have a hard time remembering to level the camera whenever they move it, but it’s very important in terms of composition to do so, especially on longer lenses.
I know this is a common mistake because I used to make it all the time.
It’s easy to think once you’ve lugged the camera to its new spot, raised it to the right height, and spun it around to point the right direction that you’re done — that is until you see an unintentional dutch angle in the works.
With Mitchell mount heads, try and isolate the bubble level so it is pointed towards one leg, then adjust that single leg.
Bowl heads are a bit easier to level because you loosen the tie down underneath the head, make your tiny adjustments and then lock it down again.
In both cases, however, it’s ideal to have the tripod sticks as level as possible before leveling the head. This limits the stress on the head itself and is a safer approach.
2. Adjust the Panhandle
Panhandles are also easy to forget. You tend to pull them out, screw them on, and leave them be. Part of that is because they stay in the same position for so long, but also because, as a camera assistant, you rarely use the pan handle for extended periods of time.
Yet every so often you move the camera into a tight corner, onto a high hat on the ground, or onto a dolly where the panhandle needs to be adjusted.
Camera operators and DP’s love when they don’t have to ask for anything from their camera assistants and this is one thing they will definitely chide you about if you aren’t on top of it.
Don’t be afraid to ask them how they prefer to have it or to have them set it the first time. After that and working with them for awhile, learn how they prefer the panhandle in different types of shot scenarios.
These are the small details that they’ll love about working with you.
Of course if you’re working with a gear head — in which case you probably know all this anyway — you can skip this step.
3. Adjust the External Viewfinder (EVF)
The external viewfinder is the most used accessory on the camera because without it you can’t see! Even with external monitoring systems, many operators prefer to exclusively use the viewfinder.
Adjusting the EVF is important because the operator needs a comfortable way to look into it to do their best job during takes.
In the past, because I never really looked into the EVF, I would forget to adjust it until I saw the operator struggling to press their eye to the chamois. That’s not the type of reminder you want to have to wait for.
Most of the time EVF’s will stay where they are, but on shots where the camera is raised very high or placed very low, it needs to be swung down or up accordingly.
4. Frame Up the Subject
Often while you’re moving the camera, the DP will be off giving instructions to other crew, talking with the director, or making a run at the craft services table. Basically they’re in high demand between camera setups.
I like to take this bit of extra time to frame up the subject for the DP. In no way am I trying to compose the shot for them, but it gives them a rough area to start when they finally come back and look through the viewfinder.
If you’ve worked with a DP long enough and on multiple projects, you get to the point where you frame the subject, they look at it and say, “Great! Let’s shoot.”
No you won’t get a “2nd Unit DP” credit on your IMDB page, but you’ll at least have the satisfaction that they appreciated your compositional skills!
5. Stabilize the Camera
Making sure the camera isn’t going to fall over may seem like common sense, but it’s ignoring these simple tasks that lead to those type of accidents in the first place.
Not all types of camera setups demand stabilization methods like sand bags or ratchet straps, but there are plenty that do. For example…
- When the camera is on sticks on a doorway dolly
- The camera is raised high up on sticks in a stairwell
- A wobbly high-hat on an uneven ground surface
- Protruding the camera over a balcony or ledge
- On process trailers or other moving camera rigs
For some of the more modest scenarios, simply find a sandbag and throw it on the base of the sticks or hang it from the middle if there is a hook.
For more complicated scenarios like process trailers, moving rigs, or instances where the camera is in a precocious place, talk to the grips about using ratchet straps and other methods. They are experts on securing equipment so it is best to defer the rigging to them.
Be Diligent and Fast
Speed is important for a camera assistant, but it’s more about efficiency — getting it done fast and right. So never sacrifice due diligence just because you’re rushing yourself.
With that said, the time it takes to do all of these steps should be less than the time it took for you to read them. If you really want to be quick, challenge yourself to do them in less than a minute.
When you make these quick adjustments, you’ll not only save time on set, but also make the DP or camera operator happy. And if they’re happy, you’re happy.