Make no mistake: filmmaking, especially below-the-line crew work, is intensely physical.
Whether you’re running heavy stingers or moving RED One cameras, there’s a level of physicality that is associated with both a hard day’s work and an earned paycheck.
How a Lack of Physical Ability Could Cost You a Job
A few weeks ago I went to lunch with a cinematographer friend of mine who had just returned from shooting a short in Canada. He initially wanted to bring me on the project, but I wasn’t available. So I asked him how the camera assistant he got worked out.
“He was OK,” he said.
I pushed him further and asked why his response was so lukewarm.
“Well, he wasn’t terrible. But I felt bad when he struggled to move the camera and stuff.”
It’s not that he wasn’t a capable camera assistant (AC) in every other sense of the word, but he wasn’t able to keep up with the physical demands of the job. My friend said there were moments where the AC wouldn’t let him or others help move the camera, but his inability to do so quickly cost the production precious time.
I doubt my friend will call that AC again — even if he was great at the other parts of the job.
I don’t relay this story to scare you into picking up weights or starting P90X anytime soon, but to stress that even though I talk mostly about the mental demands of camera assisting on this website, there are definite physical demands as well.
In fact, it’s something I haven’t spoken much about on The Black and Blue at all.
Part of the reason is because I’ve never paid much attention to it — ever since my first job, I’ve come home physically tired, so I took it for granted. It wasn’t until I was at lunch with my friend that it dawned on me that there are AC’s who may be skilled in all parts of the job, but lack the physical capabilities for it.
The Three Physical Demands of Camera Assisting
In my mind, there are three areas in which AC’s must be physically capable to do their job correctly:
- Heavy Lifting
- Bursts of Cardio
- Sustainable Energy
Heavy lifting will be the most tiring and the most prominent. Bursts of cardio will be less frequent and most people will have little issue with it. Sustainable energy will sneak up on you during lunch or a long scene setup and cripple your ability to work hard for the rest of the day.
There are others, but these are the three main areas of physical exertion that I notice most frequently on set. So let’s take a look at each one further…
1. Heavy Lifting
Cameras weigh a lot. So do film magazines, lens cases, monitors (the worst), and tripod heads.
The camera gets heavier each time you lift it up on the shoulder of the director of photography (DP) for a handheld shot — for the 15th time, the 20th time, and the 50th time.
At the end of the day, you have to load everything into a truck, van, or car and then unload it at a hotel or back home.
No matter how hard you try to escape it, you’re going to lift a lot during a normal 12-hour day and it’s not going to be 3 lb. weights or 5 lb. bags — but upwards of 50 lbs.
Yes. 50 pounds (or 3.5 stone for you Brits).
I once weighed a RED One camera rig I was working with and it came in at a hefty 42 lbs. We were shooting handheld the whole week, so I was carrying that sucker around all day.
(And don’t think if you’re a DP or camera operator you have it any easier. You don’t. It’s often more work to operate a steady shot. You’ll find out you have muscles you didn’t even know existed.)
So as an AC, you should plan on being able to lift at least 50 pounds if you want to be a successful — and be able to lift that weight repeatedly without major issues.
It’s OK to be tired from the lifts or even to grunt, but if you slow down substantially by the end of the day because the camera is too heavy for you, it won’t reflect well on your work.
2. Bursts of Cardio
Whether it’s because you have to run alongside the DP for an intense tracking shot or because you’re hustling to get to set, you need to be able to have explosive bursts of cardio energy.
This shouldn’t be a problem for most people. Even the most out-of-shape among us are used to running in spurts when we have to. If a murderer was chasing you down the street, I bet you’d find a way to outrun him if possible.
Though most won’t find a little cardio troublesome, you should be aware of any medical conditions like asthma, knee problems, or anything that crops up when you exert too much cardiovascular activity. While it’s rare to have to do anything more than a brisk walk on set, sometimes that’s enough to inflame those issues, too.
You know your own limits — I can’t advise you on that — but I want to warn you there are occasions where the cardio may push those boundaries.
3. Sustainable Energy
12 hours is a long time to do anything — let alone bust your ass hustling around a film set.
Even standing around for 12 hours can drain a substantial amount of enthusiasm.
To do your job as an AC at a competent pace, you need to have enough energy to do all of the above for an extended period of time. You won’t have to spend all 12 hours lifting and running, but you’ll be surprised at the number of hours — spread across the day — that you do spend doing those things.
But this sustainable energy doesn’t just apply on a day-by-day or shoot-by-shoot basis.
It also matters for your career — many AC’s have been forced into early retirement because of a lack of energy or physical problems like bad backs, bad knees, or simply exhaustion.
The physical nature of crewing below-the-line can really take a toll on you if you aren’t prepared to keep up with it for an extended period of time.
Keeping Yourself in Shape for Camera Assisting
The easiest way to deal with the physicality of camera assisting is to exercise on your off days and maintain a (somewhat) healthy lifestyle.
I’m not saying you need to be able to run a marathon to be a camera assistant — you may even struggle through a 5K like me — but you do need to be in shape for the demands of the job. That includes heavy lifting, spurts of cardio, and an energy level sustainable for double-digit hours.
Being fit as a fiddle doesn’t necessarily translate into being an astute camera assistant, but struggling to lift the camera — and move it on a moment’s notice — is going to affect your performance poorly in the eyes of the DP and the production.
It’s not so much that you need to be in peak physical shape to be a great camera assistant, but you’ll be much better and faster if you can last a whole day on set without getting sore the next day.
If you work with enough consistency, your days on set will end up being your workouts and you’ll find the tasks much easier to accomplish. During your off days, however, it’s up to you to keep your energy level and physical capabilities up to par.
Because when you spend days, weeks, or months away from the job, you’ll find that every piece of gear weighs at least twice as much as it did the last time around.