I was late once to a pre-production meeting because half the roads in Washington, D.C. always seem to be under construction. After winding my way through the myriad of one-ways and cross streets, I finally arrived at the meeting about 30 minutes late.
By then, everyone was wrapping up, but the producers – who had heard about me from the director of photography (DP) – were still around and excited to talk to me.
We chatted for awhile before, eventually, one of them took me towards the room at the location we’d be shooting in. As he showed me around the room, he started briefing me on what kind of shots we’d be doing, where the sets would be built, and what the “look” of the film would be. This is all great information to get as a camera assistant as it helps me get into the DP’s mind and, subsequently, try and stay a step or two ahead of their needs.
But then he started saying things like, “If that’s what you want…,” or getting into specifics like, “Do you think we can use a 35mm lens?” or “Would it be better to shoot this handheld?”
While the DP, Karl, wasn’t around, I wasn’t about to step on his toes. I told them those were “Karl questions.” It occurred to me then that the producer may not have a firm grasp on what a camera assistant does. He came from a broadcast background, so I wasn’t completely surprised, but seeing as he was also the director, I feared I had a long week of filming ahead of me.
This feeling of working for someone who doesn’t really understand the title of “Camera Assistant (AC)” returns every so often. Producers, directors, and other crew have occasionally misunderstood the role. These are typically people who drift into the film industry from other forms of media and may not be experienced in the strict hierarchy of the film set or camera department. After all, in many video-based industries the cameraman is one person – not three or four people all working with the camera.
Usually it’s innocent ignorance and I brush it aside. As long as the DP understands my role, I trust them to shield me from whatever misgivings production might have about my responsibilities. The DP, if needed, will step in and explain why I’m there should the issue manifest itself.
While it’s likely the person you’re working for is knowledgable about your job, it’s more common than you might think that they don’t know what your specific tasks/duties are. And can you blame them? There’s a lot of people on a film set. For someone with little experience under their belt (or a different type of media experience), it can take awhile to adjust to the moviemaking machine.
So I wanted to take some time to address some of the common misconceptions about what it is camera assistants do that I’ve encountered while working as one.
(Note: There are different types of projects out there and, in some cases, you may be wearing multiple hats in a swing position or working on a project that uniquely changes a camera assistant’s role. For this article, I’m going to focus on film-style camera assisting.)
Camera Assistants Don’t Wear Headphones
The biggest misconception about camera assistants is that we are in charge of in-camera audio.
On one shoot, a producer tried to get me to wear headphones that monitored audio coming out of a RED camera during a shoot. I appeased him during the rehearsal, but found the voices in my ears too distracting for pulling focus (not to mention it wasn’t my job). So I started leaving the headphones on the ground whenever he plugged them into the camera.
While videographers may traditionally work beyond the visuals and setup mics, monitor levels, and record audio, that’s not how it works on a film set. In the film industry, camera and sound are two separate departments with separate crews dedicated to the visual and audio portions of a movie.
It’s true today’s digital cinema cameras can record audio directly into the camera, but many of us grow in the industry training in a film style workflow that separates the video from the audio. When working with film, that’s a necessity. When shooting digital, it’s a choice.
So this is an easy mistake: the camera records audio, therefore the camera assistant monitors it.
But it’s actually the sound mixer’s job to do that.
Here’s how I explain it: the camera assistant is responsible for helping the sound mixer deliver and record audio into the camera (if they chose to do so). The AC helps configure menu settings for sound input, receive or send test signals when needed, turn on Phantom power, jam timecode, and have a general understanding of how the camera handles audio.
The sound mixer, meanwhile, is responsible for testing the sound, sending a clean signal, confirming the camera is recording the audio correctly, and checking periodically that the sound continues to work when sent into the camera. Plus, most sound mixers dual-record to a memory card and into a camera rather than bet the farm on one recording method (in case one fails).
Camera assistants do help setup audio to record into the camera, but beyond that, we tend to let sound do the sound while we do the camera.
Camera Assistants Don’t Run Power for the Set
Electricity is the lifeblood of the film set. Whether it’s run from batteries, generators, or the outlets, it’s hard to make a movie without power. Step on any set and you’ll see stingers (extension cords) run between lights, monitors, and ballasts like the veins of your body pumping blood from the heart.
Many departments need power to function properly. The camera department needs it for video village and battery charging, art department needs it for practicals and power tools, hair & make-up needs it for blow dryers and curling irons – and I could go on…
But it’s not the camera assistant’s job to run power – it’s the electricians, or “juicers.”
Juicers are the crew who run stingers and evaluate the power needs of the entire set; taking care to provide electricity in a safe, efficient, and logical way. They have to know how many amps are available at each location and be able to distribute those amps appropriately. Their priority resides with lighting, but they’re who you go to when you want to know if it’s OK to charge your phone in the wall.
On one film I was camera assisting, I was constantly asked by other departments whether it was “safe” for them to plug in different electronics or their own light in their staging area. I could see their frustration as, time and again, I would tell them that I didn’t know and to ask one of the electricians.
It’s easy, especially on smaller films, to muddle the roles of crew. This is compounded when you end up helping out other departments that need an extra hand from time to time. It’s possible that people saw me running a stinger for a battery charger or for video village and assumed that I was an electrician or qualified to run the power. But the thing is, anytime I’m running a stinger, I’ve already asked a juicer or the Best Boy electric if that’s OK.
The reason this is so vital is because the Best Boy has to know every single amp that’s being pulled on set or else they risk blowing a circuit which, aside from being embarrassing and annoying, risks damage to lights and bulbs.
That’s why camera assistants don’t run power – we aren’t making those calculations. And it’s also why it’s important to check with a Best Boy before you run power to anything close to set. Something as simple as, “Hey I need power for the monitor,” is all that needs to be said. Sometimes they’ll offer you a stinger and tell you where to plug in. Other times they’ll put one of their crew on the task.
But power is the domain of the electrician – whether they do it or give you blessing to do it yourself.
So when you ask me for a stinger to power your make-up light, I’m not refusing to do it because I’m an asshole, I’m refusing to do it because I simply don’t know where it’s safe to draw the power from. Plus, I’ve got to find a place to charge my batteries!
Camera Assistants Don’t Make Key Creative Decisions
The best way to explain the DP/AC relationship is to divide the duties of the camera department into two areas: creative and technical. The DP takes care of the creative aspects of the camera – lens choice, composition, blocking, f-stop, lighting, film stock – while the AC takes care of the technical aspects – troubleshooting, checking the gate, cleaning lenses, moving the camera, mounting filters, changing menu settings, reloading mags, pulling focus.
It can happen where a director or producer mixes this up, like the story I told above where I was asked about creative decisions. AC’s don’t typically make creative decisions. To do so, in our eyes, is mutiny against the cinematographer.
Just as a cinematographer should never tell a director how an actor should deliver a line, a camera assistant should never tell the cinematographer how to move the camera (unless, in both cases, an opinion is asked for). It would be incredibly presumptuous for an AC to suddenly make creative decisions and start placing lamps, or choosing a lens, or framing a shot.
Sometimes we’re asked to prep a shot by a cinematographer who has to step away from the set, but it’s always understood they have final say and, in the end, you’re trying to predict what they want.
I’ve been in awkward situations before where directors have asked me “What lens do you think we should use?” or “Would it be better to shoot this handheld?” I always tell them that I don’t know and they should ask the DP. It’s not that I don’t actually know or don’t have an opinion, it’s that it doesn’t matter because it’s not my choice.
Now, if the DP were to ask me the same questions, I would advise him appropriately.
The downside of this is the frustration you can see in that person’s face when you don’t make those decisions for them. Sometimes the DP is busy directing G&E on how they want lights, so the 1st A.D. approaches the camera assistant wondering where the camera’s going next because they want to move on. Fair enough, I understand, but I cannot make those calls for you.
For those A.D’s out there, it’d be like you directing a lead actor – yeah maybe you can do it, but you shouldn’t without permission from the person who is supposed to do it.
So, for those of you in production who may not know what us AC’s do, don’t put me in a bad spot by asking me to make creative choices. In the end, you’ll be frustrated that I don’t give you an answer and I’ll feel awkward that you don’t really understand what I do. And, as a bonus consequence, the DP may be upset you tried to undercut their authority even if it was an honest mistake.
To sum it up: for creative questions/decisions in the camera department, go to the DP. For technical questions/decisions in the camera department, the AC is your go-to crew member.
What Camera Assistants Actually Do
Among other things, camera assistants pull focus, slate, lay marks, manage filtration, build the camera, move the camera, clean the camera, keep tabs on all camera equipment, load film, dump data, and manage most aspects of the camera department. AC’s are the right hand man for the DP or camera operator and if something goes wrong with the camera, it’s up to us to fix it.
Being a camera assistant takes a lot of responsibility, resourcefulness, and focus (heh), but I wouldn’t trade it for any other job on set. So while this entire article is based around what camera assistants don’t do, it’s for two good reasons:
- There are highly (more) qualified crew already doing these tasks
- Camera assistants have their own important responsibilities
I don’t want this article to come across as complaining about being asked to do things and being seen as someone who is not a “team player” because I’m unwilling to do them. I am willing to do all of the tasks listed above, but I don’t think it makes sense for me to. I’m not trained as an AC to monitor sound, run power, or make the cinematography choices of a film. That’s why productions hire sound mixers, juicers, and a DP.
Secondly, I am beholden to the tasks and responsibilities I am trained to do. To pull me away from those tasks in lieu of ones covered by other departments is a poor allocation of resources.
(Now if there are no crew to do those tasks and everyone’s lending an extra hand by “swinging” jobs, I’m more than happy to be a part of that.)
The takeaway from this is not that camera assistants are prima donna’s who only want to stand next to the camera watching everyone else work (though I am aware some of us garner a reputation for that). The takeaway is you should understand what crew are trained to do on set and allow them to do the excellent work they were hired to do.
While low budget indie productions may blur the line between departments, as the size of a crew grows so does the specialization within and between departments. The key is to understand when you’ve reached that tipping point where it’s more efficient to have crew do their specialized job and not just what’s needed to be done.
As for me, I’ll continue to lend a hand where it needs to be lent while offering humble suggestions of which crew member is more appropriate for the task. It’s important to me (as it should be to you) not to step on any toes and to prioritize my own work first.
And if that bothers you – that I don’t want to wear headphones because it might make the sound suck, or that I don’t want to run a stinger in case I blow out a lamp, or that I don’t want to overrule my department head and choose a lens for a shot – well, then we’re better off working on different sets.
Have you ever run into a situation where you’re asked by someone to do something that’s not typically part of your job? How did you handle it? Please share your stories in the comments!