If you haven’t already stumbled across Reddit – the self-proclaimed front page of the Internet – then you’re missing out on one of the best features of the website: the AMA. Meaning “Ask Me Anything,” an AMA is essentially an open-forum group interview session conducted with a person of interest. Everyone from Barack Obama to Pete Docter to Bill Nye the Science Guy has done one.
Though Reddit AMA’s are most often associated with celebrities, one of the filmmaking communities on Reddit has begun an AMA series with filmmaking professionals.
Their first candidate? A union 1st Assistant Camera (AC) – user robots11 – who has worked on some big budget features, various commercials, TV dailies, and a plethora of other credits. Though a name wasn’t given, the unidentified AC was obviously skilled and knowledgable about the craft.
You can read the entire AMA here (which you should), but I’ve also sorted the 10 best advices below.
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FreeCreativeName: How did you enter the business? Did you start as a Camera trainee or a Camera assistant? I’ve worked as a camera assistant coming out of college and then shot some stuff myself, but was advised to go the route of camera trainee by a DP I respect.
“My path was a little non-traditional. I kind of fell into assisting (working as a 2nd) right after I finished school and was lucky to work with some very talented people very early on.
I learned a lot of skills from them and hooked up with a young DP who started hiring me on small commercials and music videos as a 1st. From there I honed my skills and started to work with more and more talented people on small projects and learned a ton as I went. I ended up working with union operators, DPs and 2nds and doing 3 or 4 non-union features in a couple years.
At this point, even though I had originally intended on applying for the trainee program, I had reached a point where I decided to keep working in the non-union world and jump in as a 1st when I was ready. I built up a core group of union DPs and OPs who were hiring me on a regular basis and ended up recommending me for membership.”
bos123456789: I’m a student in Vancouver and I was hoping to join IATSE 669 next year, what could I do to better my chances of admittance? Here the Union will only open their trainee program every 2 years and if I miss joining it’ll be another 2 years of free craigslist work.
“Work on as much stuff as you can, especially projects where you’re working directly under/with union members. Be friendly and humble and don’t pretend you know everything. Remember at that point it’s more about your attitude and ability to acquire skills then memorizing the Alexa manual, etc. Recommendations from union members will go a LONG way in helping your chances.”
aboynamedsoo: If it’s not too personal to answer, but what do you make a year? What did you start making when you started?
“I would estimate 1st ACs yearly earnings would be anywhere from $70,000 to $250,000 depending on how much they’re working and what they’re working on and whether they can demand above scale or not.
I would guess the average salary is just around $100,000. The union minimum rate for feature film is approx. $45.00/hour for features and approx. $42.00/hour for television for the first 8hrs. A typical 12-hr day will net around $500 after taxes and fees.”
victim_of_technology: What is the most difficult focus pull and how do you handle it? I would imagine it is hard when you can’t predict exactly where your subject will be and you have very shallow depth of field but tell me your technique if there is one.
“The most difficult kind of shot to pull focus on would be a shot where the camera is moving, the subject is moving, and you’re on a long lens with with a wide stop. There is very little room for error here. There are lots of techniques I use to increase my odds of nailing a shot like that. In a worst-case-scenario where all you can do is wing it, you have to rely on your ability to estimate distances and react quickly. An experienced OP and DP will adjust their expectations accordingly. They know what is possible and what is not.
Often though, in a professional environment, if I don’t get the shot, it means the OP didn’t get it, the DP didn’t get it, the director didn’t get it, and so on. If the people above you are professionals they are going to do everything they can (of course without compromising the shot/aesthetics/time) to help you, good technicians/artists know we’re all on the same team and know when to fight for an extra 10seconds or a rehearsal. Sometimes you get thrown under the bus though!”
john-r: You guys use peaking just as a double check to make sure your marks are good?
“Yes, I find a small amount of peaking on the O/B and/or in the EVF helps myself and/or the OP see whether I got it or not. Too much peaking makes everything look sharp and those weird ‘focus assist’ modes on some on-board monitors I find to be distracting.”
aroundlsu: I am a Local 600 camera operator. What are some things camera operators do that really piss you off (or at least annoy you)?
“I think (especially in the TV world) the most annoying thing is when operators don’t communicate or aren’t proactive about finding out and telling me what’s up next so we can start working. I hate having to wait around because a B or C OP it too timid to find out what he’s supposed to be doing only to find out at the last minute we should be on the zoom and the DP told him 5 minutes ago and “WHY ISNT THE ZOOM ON YET WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING YOU MONKEYS??” and now we look like chumps because we’re scrambling to catch up.
Please pass on any info you have about the next setup so we can start preparing. Run the floor; our dept is relying on you for vital information! Also, communicate during the shot! Oh, you’re going to suddenly swing over and pull someone in and then swing back half way through? Cool, I can totally do that, but it helps so much if you give me some warning! Talk to me! :) I should say though I’ve been very lucky and haven’t had many bad experiences with OPs personally.”
dr_crime: What’s the easiest way you’ve learn to deal with difficult DPs or Cam Ops?
“Kill them with kindness” and take nothing personally. Being polite and accommodating (but not annoying) really seems to catch people off-guard in this business, a lot of people are expecting you to bite back when they act like an asshole, but I’ve noticed if you don’t take it seriously, it kind of disarms them. Let me add that you have to back that up with skills. Otherwise you’ll just come off as an idiot.
Half the time when people are acting like assholes they’re just venting and it’s their way of letting off steam. Also, some people are just insane, so you got to get on their good side and then pull out the popcorn and watch the drama unfold.”
dr_crime: I’m also curious to know what your tool kit looks like.
“I carry a very minimal amount of tools on me. On my belt is my hard tape measure with some pre-cut tabs of pink cloth tape stuck to it, my laser disto and a mag light. I keep a twin tip sharpie on the top button of my shirt.
All the other bits of gak are distributed between the mini (aka on-set) ditty and the cart ditty (aka big ditty).”
surprisinglyadequate: Do you have to clean the sensors on digital cinema cameras like the Alexa frequently?
Good question! NO! Cleaning the sensor is a delicate and invasive process that requires special tools and training. The sensor should not be cleaned in the field by an assistant; it should only be done by a qualified camera technician as the risk of permanent damage is so high.
People may disagree with this, but I would never do it unless it was absolutely necessary and I had the go-ahead from the rental house technician, the approved tools, and the tech on the phone as I did it. There is no reason why it should ever be necessary to “clean” the sensor though.
It is however perfectly safe and quite smart to use a blower (not canned air) to blow any loose dust off every morning.
Marashio: What do you enjoy seeing in a Camera P.A.?
“Oh man, PLEASE take this advice: I don’t give a shit if you’ve memorized the Alexa manual; you may think you know what you’re doing but you have absolutely no idea what’s up. You don’t even know what you don’t know yet… we do. Even if myself or my 2nd is wrong about something, we’re still right! You need to blindly trust that your team knows what they’re doing and go along with it.
This doesn’t mean “don’t use your head”, but it does mean you need to listen and follow orders. We will debrief on the truck after wrap. This may sound arrogant but it’s very frustrating to see trainees who have potential but are souring it with a shitty attitude.
Here’s the good news: you can be indispensable to the department! Listen, absorb, ask questions (when appropriate) be quiet and respectful. Anticipate, and use common sense! A good trainee is worth their weight in gold and I will repay you with hours of information and letting you touch things (camera things :p)”
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Still hungry for more? You can check out the rest of the AMA here. I’d also recommend you watch this interview with camera assistant Doug Hart, who worked for several years as Gordon Willis’ 1st AC.
Finally, I’d like to extend a big thanks to /r/filmmakers for hosting the AMA and robots11 for taking the time to drop some camera assisting knowledge.