The Grip and Electric departments, collectively known as G&E, are amazing.
During long scene setups, you could spend all day watching them place flags, lay track, strike lamps, drop scrims, and fly in sandbags. I have a lot of respect for them because their efforts go largely unnoticed by audiences and, at times, production itself.
But what is also fascinating about G&E is the crazy amount of techniques they have for very specific purposes — there’s a lot to learn from them.
As a camera assistant (AC), you have to continually improve and evolve your knowledge to be better at your job. And the grips and juicers have a lot to teach us if you’re willing to watch and listen. To start, here are 7 techniques you should be stealing from them to use in the camera department.
1. Place the Sandbag on the Foremost Leg of a C-stand
This is Gripping 101 — make sure you place the sandbag on the tallest leg of a C-stand and make sure that leg is underneath the weight.
But let’s back up a bit further: you should always add a bag of dirt to stands that are holding something valuable, heavy, or high in the air.
In the camera department, there isn’t much we place on stands besides the camera and a video village monitor. For the monitor, you should keep a sandbag on it at all times and make sure it moves whenever the location of video village moves.
For the camera, it’s much more circumstantial. Whenever you’re feeling uneasy about the tripod, use a sandbag to counterweight whichever way you would expect the camera to fall.
2. Utilize the Levels of Thickness in Stands
If you are hoisting a light from a stand into the air, it would be silly to start with the bottom most tier of the stand because you won’t be able to reach the other tiers as you raise it higher. So start with the top tier instead and work your way down.
There is one caveat, however, which is that you should never start with the top tier and use only the top tier. The bottom tiers of C-Stands and other types of support systems are thicker and thus more sturdy. You want to use them as much as possible (which strengthens support and the center of gravity).
So even though it’s smart to start with the top tier when you’re raising a light up high, if you’re only going a short or medium height, use the bottom tiers.
As a camera assistant, you will find this advice most valuable when it comes to tripods and sticks — use the thicker levels of the sticks when raising it up instead of the skinnier supports.
3. Run Cables Clean
To run a cable clean means to keep it neat and tidy without becoming a hazard on set. The best G&E departments are very stingy when it comes to running cables clean. This is for a couple of reasons:
- A clean cable run is easier to trace and fix if there is a problem
- Clean cables are safer for sets with foot traffic
- Organized cable runs are faster to break down
On more than one occasion, I have been granted permission to run a stinger to a monitor or battery pack with a stern warning from the Best Boy Electric: “Just make sure you run it clean, OK?”
And though it’s the juicers who watch over all things with a charge, it’s technically the grips who are the gatekeepers of safety. They won’t be too pleased either to see a loose cable tripping people up.
Keep this in mind when you’re running not only stingers for the camera department’s needs, but also when you are running BNC cable for video village. It’s not always practical or possible to run a BNC cable completely clean depending on the camera position in a scene, but you should do your best to get as close to it as possible.
Some tips for running cables clean:
- Use the walls as a guide. Run a cable alongside it until it’s perpendicular to where you are plugging it in.
- For hallways or areas where a lot of people are walking, run the cable under a mat or use tape to secure it
- Always have enough slack for the cable to lay flat and not swoop up into the air
Like I said, video village cables aren’t always possible to be run completely clean. In those cases, have somebody wrangle the cable or watch over areas where people could trip — this is why there are production assistants.
4. Level Carefully with Wedges
Laying dolly track is one of the most obvious demonstrations of what grips do. They have to measure it, precisely place it, and then, most importantly, level it and make sure it is safe for people and a camera to ride on.
And like anything the grips do, they pride themselves on doing it quickly, precisely, and safely.
Next time you’re on a set, stop and watch this process. They will carefully place the track and rough out the area where it goes. They will then refine that, start locking it down, and a team will pull out the level. Pay attention to how carefully they place wedges and how delicate they are when levelling.
This is one of those cases where going slower is actually faster. If they rush to level the track, they will most likely end up with something leaning one way or the other and have to start over.
When you have to use camera wedges to level a camera on a hi-hat, keep this in mind. Don’t go all crazy just shoving wedges underneath because you think it looks level. Take out a level (or use the Clinometer iPhone app) and carefully place the wedges underneath until you have a true level camera.
Of course, there are times where you are leveling not to the Earth, but to a frame within the frame, in which case, trust your eyes.
5. Protect “Hot Points” with Sliced Tennis Balls
When you step on a film set for the first time, you might not notice, but there are tennis balls everywhere stuck on the ends of C-Stands. At first, this seems like a really odd place for them to be, until you consider they’re there for protection.
This is one of my favorite G&E tricks — you slice open a tennis ball and then pop it onto the end of a sharp object like the arm of a C-Stand. Now whenever somebody accidentally runs into it, they will get hit by the tennis ball instead of a (more) damamging metal rod.
It may hurt, yeah, but it hurts a heck of a lot less than steel.
For awhile, I was amused by this but never found any practical need for it in the camera department. That is until I was on one shoot where we got stuck with obnoxiously long rods for our camera system. There were a few occasions where these became dangerous and almost hit talent or people when it was in handheld mode.
So my quick fix was to take a huge wad of gaff tape and stick it on the ends. It took no less than 10 minutes for a grip friend of mine to walk by, pull off my tape, and slap on a tennis ball instead.
6.”Sell” Changes Before Implementing Them
Grips and electricians are asked to change a lot of things between setups: flags, scrims, lights, track, apple boxes, and whatever else is stuffed away in the grip truck.
Unfortunately, directors of photography (DP) aren’t always the most decisive and can change the changes –and maybe even change the changed changes (those poor guys).
To avoid this unnecessary merry-go-round of equipment, a lot of G&E crew will pitch their changes to the DP before setting them up fully. Say a DP asks to flag off a light, the grip may walk up with the flag and set it where the DP said by hand. Then they will remove it and put it back in again, giving a visual comparison.
“Are you buying what I’m selling?” asks the grip.
“Yes — right there! That looks great!” responds the DP.
Once the DP has “bought” the position of the flag, the grips will fly in a stand and set it up.
Camera assistants should learn to do this as well. It’s a bit harder to do with some things like lenses (which you have to mount), but it’s easy to do with zoom lenses, exposure, filters, french flags, or when you’re splitting focus.
Before you commit to making marks at T4.0, make sure that’s the T-stop the DP wants you at. Offer them choices.
This little technique saves so much time and works like a charm with indecisive DP’s who have a tendency to change changes once they actually see what they’ve asked for.
7. Use Anything You Want for Marks
When I was working as camera utility on Below the Beltway, one of my main responsibilities was to wrangle BNC cable during camera moves. It wasn’t the most exciting activity, but it did give me a great opportunity to watch the dolly grip at work.
This dolly grip was very skilled — an industry vet — but I’ll always remember what he used to make marks: his cell phone. He’d push the dolly until they got to the first position, then he’d lean over and place his cell phone on the ground.
If there was a 2nd mark, he’d use his wallet.
Eventually he would ask the AC’s to lay some tape for him or he’d grab something more permanent. But the lesson I learned was your mark can really be anything.
Once I saw this, I started using it for everything. As 2nd AC, if I got asked to mark an actor, I’d just thrown down a Sharpie.
Or if I was walking around the set with the DP during a blocking rehearsal and he said, “This is where the camera should go,” I’d put down a pen or pencil.
The possibilities are endless — just take whatever you have on you that’s fairly disposable and throw it on the ground. When you have the time later, pick it up, and mark it with some tape.
You Can Learn A Lot by Watching Grips and Electrics
Even though G&E and the camera department have a reputation of butting heads, I’ve always gone out of my way to work well with them. I consider G&E my below-the-line brethren and I truly respect what they do.
And because I’ve actually taken the time to talk with them and become friends with them, I’ve picked up some tricks that have helped me improve as a camera assistant.
This is how you become a better AC: you glean techniques from other crew and adapt them to your own job. Don’t stop at these seven techniques listed — keep a watchful eye and see what else you can pick up.
Finally, as a bonus, here is one last technique (perhaps the most valuable) you can learn from grips: always keep beer in stock for your own department.
What techniques have you seen other crew use on set that you applied to your job? Please share your thoughts in the comments!