NPR, as part of its series on Hollywood jobs, wrote a couple brief articles on camera assisting – one on pulling focus and the other on slating. While those two tasks don’t cover nearly everything camera assistants (ACs) do, they are easily the most visible and accessible duties for an AC.
The article about pulling focus highlights first AC Larry Nielsen as he readies a crane shot:
“She’s starting at about 16 feet,” he explains. “She’s gonna walk towards the camera, and we’re gonna catch her at about 9 feet, and the camera’s gonna swoop around and get as close as about 5 1/2 feet. It’s my job to make sure she’s in focus, frame for frame, 24 frames a second.”
It’s like a slow-motion mental exercise before the real thing begins.
Once the director calls “action,” there are only two people walking as the scene is being shot — Banks and focus puller Nielsen, coordinating the changing camera distances with his remote. Walk of Shame director Steven Brill says he’s depends 100 percent on his first assistant cameraman to keep the scenes in focus.
“If they are not sharp and in focus,” he says, “the film isn’t usable, and we cannot go forward.”
Even Director of Photography Jonathan Brown is in awe.
“It’s a mystical art,” he says.
And the second article about slating also features Nielsen introducing the idea of a slate:
“Miki’s hitting the sticks on this one,” says assistant cameraman Larry Nielsen, pointing to his assistant.
Take after take, day after day, some Miki or other on a movie set “hits the sticks” — to synchronize the sound with the pictures. In the silent-film days, it wasn’t an issue. But once movies started talking, they needed to figure out how to make the lips and the spoken words move at the same time – because the sound is recorded separately.
So someone thought to take two rectangular pieces of wood, hinge them together and then snap them shut in front of the camera before the action began. Later, the sight of the clapper and its distinctive sound on the audio recording could be lined up perfectly.
Both short pieces, but still nice to see camera assistants like Larry and Miki have a chance to talk about their craft and be featured in NPR.