I was terribly nervous the first time I secured a camera to a jib and watched it swing into the air. All sorts of thoughts raced through my head: were the bolts tight enough? Were they the right bolts? What if the safety line fails? How much does the camera cost if it plummets to the ground?
In that first moment, as the jib operator gleefully swung the camera to the jib’s maximum height over the side of the roof we were standing on, I thought of everything that could go wrong.
But I took solace in the fact that I had double-checked everything. I left nothing to chance.
I made no assumptions. The bolts were tight and the line was secure. Assumptions are how mistakes happen. Some compromise safety, while others compromise your efficiency.
When rigging a camera to a jib, a crane, or even a Steadicam, you don’t want to leave anything to chance by making false assumptions. So, to stay safe and keep your job, avoid making these 7 stupid assumptions that could lead to your demise, the camera’s demise, or put the crew in danger.
1. Everything is Locked Down
There are many moving parts to any camera rig: head, base plate, sticks, dovetail, follow focus, matte box, and more. Unless you’re doing ENG (Electronic News Gathering) work or shooting run ‘n’ gun style, it’s likely you’re going to be building a camera from a combination of parts.
One of the worst assumptions you can make, especially when placing the camera in a precarious position, is to think everything is locked down.
Imagine you’re doing a shot where the camera has to boom down vertically towards an actress laying face-up on the ground (so she’s looking directly into the lens). If that actress asks you, “Everything is secure, right? It won’t come crashing into my face?” you must be able to assure her everything is safe without lying. Because if you are lying, you stand to lose an actress, a camera, a lens, and the trust of an entire crew for the rest of your career.
Nobody in their right mind consciously lies about something like that, however, they may assure the actress everything will be safe while assuming it is. And assuming is about as bad because it has the same end result when something goes wrong.
“But most of the time things go right” you might say.
True. But it only takes one of those times for things to go wrong to have a significant impact (no pun intended), not only on your career, but the safety of your fellow filmmakers.
So before you put the camera into a position in which it or a person is vulenerable, check that everything that needs to be locked down is locked down. That includes:
- Pan lock
- Tilt lock
- Head screwed into the sticks
- Sticks are locked at their stages
- Matte box is clipped on to rails or the lens
- The jib/crane is secured by weight or on a track
- The dolly has been OK’ed by the grips
- The lens is firmly mounted onto the camera
- And more..
On several occasions, I have seen these locks cause damage when assumed to be secure. I once watched a clip-on matte box slip off a lens and cut a production assistant on the forehead. I’ve seen a china ball lighting fixture fall from the ceiling and explode on a table between two actors. And I myself have even made the mistake of mounting a lens incorrectly before catching it as it fell.
It may take a bit of extra time to double-check locks, but it’s worth as much time as it takes if you end up preventing costly equipment damage or a significant injury.
2. You Have Enough Battery Power
What’s one thing we always need access to the camera to do? Swap batteries.
In my experience, once a camera is placed on a flying rig, it’s hard to get physical access to it. Even when mounting to Steadicam, your access is at the whim and willingness of the Steadicam operator. Most of your changes will be done remotely and you will have set almost all of your settings when you were building the camera. You’ll probably be using a wireless follow focus and possibly an app to change settings so you don’t have to touch the camera.
This makes it difficult to swap batteries.
Beside the lack of access, directors, producers, DP’s, jib operators, and even talent get used to the quick pace of a reset for certain camera moves. All it takes is a quick “Back to one!” and the jib operator will swing the camera straight up into the sky out of your reach.
The solution? Have enough battery power in the camera before all of this, lest you be the ruiner of that “magic moment” for a battery change. It’s a lot easier to swap in a fresh battery — no matter how much power you have at the time — when you start rehearsing, than in between takes. Basically, give the camera enough power to fly high in the sky with minimal interruptions.
Of course, if your camera rests at ground level and provides constant access, weight the priority of this advice against your own battery situation.
Power is the lifeblood of the camera. As digital cinema grows, new cameras hunger for more of it even as their bodies and batteries get smaller. So expect the costs of this assumption to grow also.
3. The Camera Isn’t Too Heavy
Everything you mount a camera to will have a weight limit or weight rating — don’t ignore this!
Cameras are heavy. Or, at least, they can be. Depending on the type of accessories and lenses you’re slapping on a camera, those puppies can reach close to 50 lbs. in weight. Even smaller cameras can balloon from a base weight of 5 lbs. into 20 lbs. after adding a full kit onto them.
Sure, a rig with a 15 lb. limit won’t be crushed by a 15.2 lb. camera, but it may buckle under 20 lbs.
So it is vital you know the weight limit of whatever rig you’re putting the camera on. Don’t assume that since it looks hefty, it can handle the weight appropriately. If you’re like me, you probably have a tendency to underestimate how heavy something actually is — a 40 lb. camera, for instance, might feel like it’s only 30 lbs.
If you are unsure whether the camera is within the acceptable weight range, look in the camera’s manual (or The Black and Blue pocket guides!) for the weight of the camera and its accessories. I also urge you to err on the side of caution: make the camera as “skinny” as possible before you fly it on a jib or a crane or a Steadicam, even if you feel it’s safely under the weight limit. Not only does that ensure the limit isn’t breeched, but it will offer more mobility (to a point) for the camera on the rigs.
If you still aren’t sure, ask the grips who built the rig. They should know what can and can’t be handled and will have had experience in matters of weight.
Bottom line: know what weight the rig can handle, how heavy your camera is in relation to that, and don’t assume those two numbers without checking.
4. The Safety Line is Tied Right
99% of the time when rigging a camera, you will be depending on grips to help you secure it properly. Besides being in charge of, well, rigging, they are also in charge of safety.
Depending on the type of rig you’re attaching the camera to, there’s a good chance it will involve rope. If not being used as the main anchor, rope is often used for safety line backups (should the camera fall off a mount, for instance).
One thing grips are exceptionally good at is tying knots. Like sailors, they know all sorts of knots, what they’re best used for, and have experience utilizing the right knots in the right situation.
But just because you defer to the Grips’ expertise doesn’t mean you should defer your responsibility.
After a grip has rigged the camera, test the knots. Don’t just sit back and watch them tie up some rope and assume everything is good to go. Pull at the rope and check the tension. You could even learn about knots and ask the grip what kind of knot they tied to confirm it’s a good for the situation. It may technically be their fault if the camera falls, but it’ll be your ass on the line, too.
Just one caveat: don’t test the knots until the grips have said it’s OK. Alternatively, you may simply choose to ask to watch the grips test the line themselves.
5. You Don’t Need a Safety Backup
One point of attachment on a camera rig is not enough. You need to have a backup method to mount the camera for the safety of the crew and for the safety of the equipment.
If you’re putting a camera on a crane, make sure to tie a safety line in case it falls off the baseplate. If you are mounting a camera to a car, attach a safety line to the inside of the vehicle. If the camera is going high on sticks, use sandbags to weight the legs.
Assuming everything will be fine and you don’t need a backup method to catch or secure the camera is incredibly short-sighted and massively stupid. Accidents can and do happen all the time and, without proper backups, can result in very real injuries and equipment damage.
Maybe you won’t be the cause of the accident, but that doesn’t account for circumstances out of your control. You could have the camera mounted to a car as securely as possible, but all it takes is a PA running at full speed to trip and bump into it to compromise the integrity of the rig. Or a gust of wind to topple a camera at full-stick. Or a stripped screw to wiggle loose.
Freak accidents are the worst enemy of the AC who relies on only one rigging method.
Most of the time a backup comes into play, the incident isn’t anybody’s fault. Sometimes things break for no reason. Other times they’ve been compromised before you even rented them out. Who knows what the cause of the next accident will be, but you need to be prepared for it.
With all the different tiny parts of a camera rig that could get bumped, broken, damaged, or messed with, assuming nothing can go wrong as long as you mount it correctly the main way is naive.
6. It Won’t Take Very Long
Time is valuable to a movie set, but so are realistic expectations.
Unfortunately, humans often suffer from something called the planning fallacy. It’s a psychological effect where we wish things to go faster so we say they’ll go faster. We convince ourselves that we can work faster than we are capable of. Do your best not to succumb to the planning fallacy or believe those who have!
Whether you’re working above-the-line or below-the-line, don’t assume a camera can go up on a complex rig as quickly as you can slap it on sticks.
You may notice we’ve talked a lot about safety and diligence so far: properly rigging something and being confident it is good to go. Those are important factors.
But safety and due diligence rarely play well with time — rigging a camera in any sort of position that is potentially dangerous (whether to crew or the equipment) requires more time than usual. Even if the rig is only slightly hazardous, you should expect a decent increase in the amount of time for camera assistants, grips, and other crew to get the camera built, mounted, rigged, and declared ready for people to work around it.
Sure you can be fast about getting a camera on a rig, but it is still going to be slower than most conventional mounts like sticks, dolly, or hi-hats.
As a camera assistant, you want to be aware of this time gap and set the expectations of the first AD accordingly. When he/she asks you how much time you need, give a conservative estimate. You do not want to cut yourself off at the ankles by giving yourself a compressed time frame to work.
Similarly, if you’re above-the-line and waiting on crew to build a camera rig, expect them to need more time than they tell you (remember that planning fallacy), at least until you trust their estimates.
I’m not saying you need half a day to build every rig, but it’s likely you need more time than you think.
Finally, don’t assume it’s going to be a breeze. You never know when you’ll unpack some gear and find a piece is missing. Or the camera will be too heavy. Or a bolt is stripped. There’s so many potential issues that can arise and each one causes time to tick-tock away.
The last thing you want is to be left with a setting sun and an AD breathing down your neck.
7. You’re Supposed to Be Using the Rig in the First Place
Nothing is worse than wasted time. Time’s so precious and so fleeting that any moments we spend doing something unnecessary can be frustrating. That feeling is ten-fold on a film set.
Don’t assume you’re supposed to be setting up a rig without explicit instructions to do so. If you turn out to be wrong, you’ll waste significant time setting it up and breaking it back down.
I’ve been there. Once I was listening to the DP talk with the director and heard them mention going on a dolly. Thinking I was getting ahead of the curve, I popped the camera up on the dolly only to find out that shot was scrapped at the very end of their conversation. I had jumped the gun and, as a result, I had wasted time moving the camera from the sticks to the dolly and back to the sticks.
Wait until you are given explicit instructions to rig the camera or, if you are unsure, ask someone with authority (i.e. the DP) if you can begin doing so.
This assumption — that you’re supposed to be using the rig — also has a 2nd meaning. Perhaps there is someone more qualified to be rigging the camera that isn’t you. Is there a Technocrane operator or Jib operator whose job is to help you mount the camera?
On a union shoot, there’s a good chance you won’t be touching the rig at all, even if you are at the top of the camera department. There may be safety precautions you aren’t aware of, techniques you aren’t practiced in, and equipment you aren’t familiar with. You may not have the right tools.
Don’t assume you’re the one who is supposed to be manning the rig when there is already someone extremely qualified waiting on the set.
The Three Factors of Rigging a Camera
When rigging a camera, there are three major factors at play: safety, time, and diligence. By making assumptions, you may save time, but you’ll also sacrifice one of the other factors.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to ensure proper safety and diligence takes place. You do not want to be at the wrong end of a scenario that injures another crew member or damages the equipment. Plus, assumptions, in some cases like setting up a rig too early or failing to realize you need more battery power, may actually waste time.
What’s the theme here? Take a few extra moments to confirm your expectations.
Assumptions are an exercise in skipping over details to get to the end of a big picture. Yet, as a camera assistant, it is your job to catch those details. It’s your job to rig the camera right. To take the precautions. To guarantee the camera should be on the rig. To keep it powered. And to keep everyone safe as long as it’s up there.
Avoid making the 7 assumptions above and you’ll take big steps towards rigging a camera with the proper balance of safety, time, and diligence.