Welcome to Round 2 of Raw Stock: a bi-weekly article series where I answer reader questions sent to me via email. This week brings us a wide variety of topics to discuss:
- Reliable rental gear
- Setting day rates according to budgets
- How to store lenses
- Shouldering blame
I encourage you to share your own opinion and thoughts on each of these questions in the comments. Nothing will make the filmmaking community stronger than if we all help to answer each other’s questions with the varying amount of perspective, skill, and experience each of us brings.
Now, let’s get rolling…
How Can You Ensure Gear is Reliable?
My question is: how do you know/check that the gear offered at a rental-house is reliable? Of course it becomes obvious when you go out and start shooting, but nonetheless Is there any quick check procedure? Any key things I could check right on the spot? Any help is much appreciated.
There are two main ways to ensure the gear you’re renting is reliable:
- Rent from a reputable source. Quality rental houses take care of gear and service it as soon as it comes back from a shoot. Not only that, but in case something unexpected happens, they make themselves available to you in an emergency. Ask for recommendations from other crew about what rental houses are best in your area.
- Do a proper camera checkout. Take the time to prep the camera before it leaves the rental house. This involves more than just opening the cases and making sure every item is there – it means you have to take it all out, build the camera, test it against expected use-cases, and make sure everything is working as you expect it to.
More on point number two…
Camera prep is best done in the confines of the rental house itself. Many rental houses will have areas for this with a high-hat to seat the camera and charts to test backfocus, lenses, and also a few other handy tools. The reason doing it at the rental house is important is because it allows you to address any problems immediately. That may mean the rental tech fixes a camera on the spot or it may mean you swap out whatever gear is not working for a suitable replacement.
If you can’t prep within the rental house, do it wherever you can before the shoot. That may be your hotel room on location, your house the night before, or at the production office near set. The key is testing the reliability of the camera before you go out and start shooting.
So, what do you look for? The same things you’d be looking for when you’re shooting. Start your prep by building the camera and plugging everything in. Literally, everything. If you have 5 BNC cables, you should test all 5. If you have a backup viewfinder, make sure it works. What good are those extras if they turn out to be duds?
After the camera is built, walk through common shooting scenarios you’d expect to run into. For example, if you plan on shooting Varispeed, make sure that mode works. Roll a few clips and watch to confirm the camera doesn’t mess up. If you’re shooting digital, play back the clips and consider downloading them to a computer (essentially recreating your data loading workflow).
There are many, many more items on a camera prep checklist (backfocus, cleaning lenses, etc.) that I’m leaving out for the sake of brevity. So I urge you to pick up Doug Hart’s The Camera Assistant or David Elkin’s The Camera Assistant’s Manual, both which have checklists for an ideal camera prep.
There is nothing that will absolutely guarantee 100% reliability from gear. The best you can do is rent from a trusted source and check it yourself before you ever step on set.
Is My Day Rate Too Expensive?
I wanted to ask you a little bit about day rates on certain production budgets. My brother Cory and I have been working together as DP/AC and although I’ve AC’d for several productions outside of what we’ve done together, he only has 2 credits for features as DP (with two more lined up within the next 6 months). We’ve been getting $350/day for him as DP and $250/day as 1st AC, as well as some equipment rental, but it seems like we should bump it up a bit and are considering $500 and $350 respectively.
My question is, with feature film production budgets around $200k (which is what we’ve been working on so far) are we making ourselves too expensive for those budgets? And then what about films in the $500k range? Would those rates be appropriate for them? I guess I’m just trying to get a better feel for what can be afforded.
It really depends on each production. I know that’s probably something you hate to hear, but it’s true. Some shoots prioritize paying certain crew members, while others want to put that money into better props or a bigger name in front of the camera. It’s also tough to nail down rates without knowing the specific market you’re in.
That said, if you’ve been getting consistent work at those rates, you probably can raise them. Have you had to negotiate heavily on those rates? Or did producers just OK you on your first quote? If you’ve been getting approval easily, then that’s a good indicator there’s room to grow.
Some of the best advice I’ve ever read about freelancing day rates is to always quote your full-rate, but offer a discount. That way you get to set expectations about what you’re worth and what you usually work for while also showing the production you’re helping them out by (reasonably) cutting your rate.
Don’t be afraid of negotiation. Producers and others involved in production are used to negotiating day rates and rental rates within their budget.
It can be one sentence as simple as “Well I usually quote $500 for a day, but I’m willing to work within your budget if needed.”
Of course you shouldn’t try to chase gigs away, but as long as you’re reasonable that shouldn’t be an issue. If you feel like you’re going to lose a gig because of your rate and it’s important to get it, tell them you’re willing to work on a price that’s fair since you’re interested in the project. If it’s a gig you don’t really want to do, but feel obligated to do so, why not get paid in full?
I know this isn’t the specific answer you were looking for, but setting day rates is tricky with several factors that come into play.
So, with my limited knowledge of your situation, your rates seem fair and I’d encourage you to experiment with raising them. After all, if the money and the demand is there, why not? You can always roll back to your prior rates for established clients or as the work begins to shift.
What is the Correct Way to Store Lenses?
Today while prepping for a gig our crew and the prep tech got into a discussion about the correct way to store lenses. We were under the impression to leave the aperture wide open and the lens focused to infinity however, the prep tech thought to close the aperture all the way down and focus to infinity. What do you think?
Your first impression is correct.
I was always taught to store lenses with the iris wide open and focus set to infinity. The reasoning is so that when you place the lens on the camera, if the operator is looking through the viewfinder, they will immediately be aware that a lens has been mounted because they’ll be able to see light coming through. As they begin to adjust the aperture, they will have an easier time figuring out where the camera is looking with the focus set to infinity.
I have heard alternative theories, however, that backup what your prep tech advised. The thinking is that by closing the iris down, you protect the internal optics of a lens should anything protrude through the front of the glass. This seems unlikely to me, however, and the advantage it provides is significantly lower than the advantage you get by leaving them wide open.
Perhaps a combined approach would be best: store the lenses with the iris closed during transport (to and from set, company moves, etc.) while leaving it open during the hours in which you’re shooting.
In the end, either approach is acceptable so long as the lenses are being stored with caps on each end in a protective, padded case with both latches closed.
Update: Reader Jozo shares some additional insight…
It’s best to store at infinity or near infinity because it “shrinks” many lenses. On lenses that grow as focus is brought closer, like a lot of the older series of primes from Panavision and even some Primo lenses, it is more safe to store and travel with them in smaller tighter packages at infinity. Causes less stress on the mechanics. Same thing for iris. The blades often move into small channels when set for wide open, so it’s easier on the mechanics in case of a sharp shock during travel or on set.
On the other hand, i usually hand the lenses over to the 1st AC with focus at minimum and the iris set to the shooting stop. Only because when using a Preston (which we always are) the calibration won’t take as long since the motors always start in the same direction. So near minimum saves you one rotation.
Who’s to Blame: the 2nd AC or the 1st AC?
I was recently a 2nd AC on a shoot, and the DP asked the 1st AC for an ND6, however then 1st AC relayed to me ND9. So I ran to get the ND9, and the 1st and I proceeded to put it in the mattebox. Then we went through rehearsals and the DP realized it was too dark. Pulled the ND and told the 1st he put the wrong one in. At which point the 1st said that was [me] who got the wrong one.
What do I do in this situation? Do I reply with “I was told ND9,” or just sit back and take one for the team to not make a scene, which is what I did. But then in the DP’s eyes, I’ve made a mistake and have lost some “AC points.”
This is a tough situation to be in. On one hand, making excuses can make you seem petty and unprofessional (especially to the DP), while on the other hand, shouldering the blame for something like that could harm your working relationship with the DP.
Before I get into what you should’ve done, I’d like to point out what the 1st AC did wasn’t proper. It’s possible they didn’t realize they gave you the wrong instructions, but even if that were the case, it wasn’t right for the 1st AC to throw you under the bus. If I were in their position, I would’ve said something to the DP like “You’re right, sorry about that” and then later on handled it privately with you, my 2nd AC.
I also want to point out the importance of relaying requests as a way to cover everyone’s ass. When the 1st AC calls for a lens or a filter, I like to respond back immediately with their request to ensure I heard them correctly. So, if they ask for a 50mm I’ll say (whether in person or on walkie), “50mm lens coming up, copy.” This gives both of us an opportunity to remedy any potential problems – maybe they said the wrong thing or maybe I heard them incorrectly. As a 1st AC, I say this to the DP also.
If both of you had done that, this never would’ve been an issue as the DP would’ve corrected the 1st AC who then would’ve relayed to you the right instructions.
Unfortunately, that did not happen and you were put into an uncomfortable spot.
A lot of how you should handle a situation like this is going to be predicated on your relationship with the 1st AC. Have you worked together before? Are you friends? Do you trust each other? Or are you working together for the first time? Has this happened before?
Context matters a lot here. If the 1st AC is somebody you know and have a continuing working relationship with, you should pull them aside privately and address it. Don’t make it confrontational, but do be serious: “Hey so on that ND mess-up, I didn’t appreciate being called out.” If that discussion rises to confrontation, just walk away from it. It’s not worth pursuing unless they’re a repeat offender.
If the 1st AC is somebody new to you, swallowing your pride and shouldering the blame is probably the right thing to do. Like I said above, they may not have even realized they called for the wrong filter and, since you’re new to them, they may be adverse if you correct them on it. Just suck it up and move along. The AC and the DP may forget about it as long as you kick ass the rest of the shoot.
However, if the 1st AC has been making a habit of blaming things on you, you may have to shake things up. The right way to handle that is, again, to talk to them privately. If they are resistant, you have the option of escalating it to the DP, but only you can make that call because (again, it depends on context) if the DP and the 1st AC are buddies, they will probably back each other up. You have much more to lose in that situation.
Which is why taking one for the team, at least the first time it happens, is the best way forward. Crew are often high-strung on a film set and you have to have thick-skin and be forgiving in certain cases. It sucks, I know, but it’s the name of the game. Sometimes you just have to bite your tongue, say “yes sir” and move along with it. Doing so will probably benefit you in the long wrong as the DP sees you working hard and not causing a disruption on set.
In the end, I think you did the right thing, even if it was tough.
In the future, be willing to talk about it with your crew and stay professional while doing so. And if that’s the route you choose, make sure not to go over the head of the AC to the DP until you’ve addressed it with them first. That’s guaranteed to lose you AC points.
Are You Feeling Curious?
If you’ve got a question about camera assisting or working on a film set, shoot me an email and I may answer it here on Raw Stock. If you’d prefer to remain anonymous, that’s cool too.
No question is off-limits, so don’t be shy!