It must’ve been the hottest summer in history when I agreed to drive an hour away to shoot a commercial in my home state of Virginia. I was warned it would be a long day, but that’s always subjective — I’ve worked 8 hour days that felt long and 15 hour days that flew by. It all depends on how much hustle you’re asked to put into your work.
But one thing I don’t think myself or my body will ever get used to is lugging around 50 lbs. camera rigs for 16 hours. Combined with the fiery heat that had been pummeling the East Coast of the USA that summer and I earned my pay on this shoot.
At one point, we had just wrapped a few shots at a local ice cream shop and were heading out onto the street and into the heat.
I hoofed it two blocks with the camera, sticks, and head to the next setup. I arrived by setting it down out-of-breath with sweat dripping down my face. When I turned to see how far behind everyone else was, I couldn’t help but laugh: the producer, director, and assistant director were all leisurely following while eating fresh vanilla ice cream cones.
“How perfect,” I thought.
In that moment was a glimpse of the essence of what differentiates below-the-line and above-the-line crew members: I moved the camera, they ate ice cream. I was sweating from the heat, they were chilly from the frozen dessert. I was out of breath from lifting gear, they couldn’t speak because of the delectable dairy resting on their tongues.
So maybe I was a little bit bitter, but can you blame me? How could you bust your ass two blocks in one direction and not feel slighted for having missed out on the ice cream social?
The warm water in my back pocket was all I had to quench my thirst as I waited for them to arrive. By the time they walked up, I had the camera ready and had framed up a general idea of what I thought the director of photography (DP) wanted. He made some minor adjustments to the frame and turned to the director who poked his face toward the monitor, squinting his eyes from the bright sun, and said “further down the street.”
Immediately I put my shoulder under the camera, pushed my legs up, and felt the baseplate dig into my muscles. After about 20 yards, I set it down.
20 more yards.
“Sorry, just one more street.”
Finally, I placed the camera down on the corner of the street and let the DP do his thing. As I wiped the sweat from my brow, I caught a brief glance of the director smiling as he dropped the last bite of his ice cream cone into his mouth — but he never took his eyes off the monitor on the camera.
“Roll on that!”
I obliged by pressing the record button and counting out 15 seconds in my head.
“That’s awesome! You good?” he asked the DP, “Great. Let’s move on.”
And so I placed my body under the camera again and felt its weight grip into my skin…
Later that night, as I took off my shirt to climb into bed, I noticed a smattering of red marks on my shoulders. They looked like dozens of tiny bruises, but I wasn’t surprised. Anytime I work with a camera rig as heavy as the one I carried down the street, the blood vessels under my skin burst and my body appears as if it’s ripping itself apart.
As I sat there admiring my battle scars — poking my muscles to stimulate the soreness — I realized what an insignificant issue the ice cream cone really was. On the surface, it was comical, but underneath the stereotypes of a lazy director and a hard working crew member is something more nuanced.
While it’s true I busted my ass during which they ate ice cream, it’s unfair to say one of us worked harder than the other.
As a camera assistant, my job is inherently physical, rough, and full of sweat. Meanwhile, their job is mentally draining, emotionally exhausting, and full of a different kind of pressure. At the time I envied their ice cream cones, but I didn’t bother to consider the weight on their shoulders.
While I shoulder the camera for a few blocks, they shoulder the responsibility of an entire shoot.
Eating the ice cream was their momentary escape and the time it took me to get down the street was their brief window of opportunity to enjoy it.
While I end up with the physical marks of the baseplate imprinted in my flesh for a few days, they have the pressure of the finished product with them for weeks, maybe even years.
Yes, they got to eat ice cream while I hauled a camera, but when I go home at night I sleep easy knowing the job is over. When they go home, they still owe an edit, a sound mix, and have to please an audience, or worse, clients.
But still, I never did get my own cone.
So as I drove out of the parking lot of the hotel the next day, I stopped by a 7-11, filled up the biggest Slurpee cup they had, and spent my drive home not worrying about whether we shot enough coverage or if the performance of the child actor was believable, but wondering the best way to get rid of a brainfreeze.