“Dolly on the move,” was a familiar phrase on Day 3 of Assassinaut. The camera spent all day either stuck on sticks or being pushed & pulled on dolly as we shot coverage of an important criss-crossing table conversation scene.
Filmmaking Tips and Advice
Assassinaut, the feature film I’m working on as 1st Assistant Camera, has wrapped on a good day 2 which included dissecting a frog, chicken beauty shots, and amazing hustle by crew, cast, and everyone involved. It was stew, not soup.
It’s day 1 on the feature film Assassinaut which I’m working on as 1st AC. And at the beginning of any shoot, there’s always anxiety, dread, and doubt, but it all gets washed away as soon as you blast off and start rolling on the first shot.
Finding out everything works is always a relief at the camera prep while you learn the gear, meet your team, and get ready for Day 1 – there’s no turning back now…
The AC’s battlefield is behind-the-lens. While I prep to step onto that front, I want you to join me for the adventure as I post a daily production diary of my experiences working on the feature film “Assassinaut” for the next six weeks. Day 1 is tomorrow, but camera prep – and Day 0 – is today.
Todd A writes a damning account of his time working at RED, the digital cinema camera company:
I have a post drafted in my blog titled “My birthday gift to myself this year: Retirement.” It’s dated February 26, 2012. At that time, I’d been working in the online marketing (web) department at RED Digital Cinema for about 5 months. I was sick of complaining about it to my friends and family. I didn’t want to be that guy who is always bitching about his job but never doing anything about it. Yet, I remained at RED for two more years. How is that possible?
Ouch – he already wanted to leave after only 5 months.
It’s surprising to hear such incendiary remarks considering the passion and devotion that usually surrounds RED’s users and fans. However, within the context of founder Jim Jannard’s forum posts and his recent exit into the shadows, it’s unsurprising to hear Todd speak out against, “the president making announcements on the community forum before the employees knew” and writing:
After the stressful product launches in December 2013, things quieted down enormously. Almost too enormously. It was quiet like “this is bad for business” quiet. But I knew NAB — the major broadcasting convention — loomed in April and I knew RED was bound to surprise all its employees with its plans for the show. “Keep the crises rolling” and all that.
Todd goes on to describe broken promises for bonuses and equity, long hours, and an unhealthy lack of organization. And in the comments, someone else named “Brian” added:
I was at RED from the start for 4 years . It is a good characterization of the place. Easy to understand why none of the first employees are no longer there anymore.
As RED matures from the disruptive force it was several years ago into a major player on the digital cinematography field, it’s going to have to address the problems and negative experiences of employees like Todd and Brian – even if they are in the minority.
(Todd wrote another post, too, about how companies can avoid the mistakes he encountered at RED.)
Midnight Rider, the production that camera assistant Sarah Jones was working on when she was killed, has been trying recently to resume production by moving the shoot across the country from Atlanta to Los Angeles. But today, the subject of the biopic, Gregg Allman, asked the film’s director to abandon the production via personal letter:
“When the idea of you producing the film first came about, I was genuinely excited about the possibility of sharing my story with fans around the world. Unfortunately, all of that changed for me on February 20 of this year,” he wrote. “While there may have been a possibility that the production might have resumed shortly after that, the reality of Sarah Jones’ tragic death, the loss suffered by the Jones family and injuries to the others involved has led me to realize that for you to continue production would be wrong.”
This is huge. And it comes after actor William Hurt withdrew from the film. Hurt was set to play Mr. Allman and was on set when the train that killed Sarah Jones and injured several others came barreling down the tracks. Additionally, many crew have proactively stated they won’t work on this shoot.
So to summarize where Midnight Rider stands: the main star dropped out, the subject of the movie wants to pull the plug, and crew across the country have started boycotting their involvement.
What’s the point of moving forward? How do the director and producers exhibit such blindness to the tragedy and lack of guilt for what happened to Sarah? Even if it does move forward, how will they get a crew? It’s common knowledge within industry circles that doing so would amount to career suicide.
Cheers to Gregg Allman for understanding the situation and treating it with reason and sensitivity. Let’s hope that same sensitivity results in the production shutting down and that same reason prevails in a thorough investigation of the incident.
Cinematographer Rob Ruscher, who I had the pleasure of meeting at NAB, interviewed me on his blog for his “Cool Production Peeps” series. Most of the questions cover topics I’ve discussed here on The Black and Blue, but I was happy to nail down an answer to this one I get asked a lot:
RR: What advice would you give someone that wants to be an AC [Camera Assistant]?
Learn the basics of cinematography – both digital and film – so that you understand the fundamentals of how cameras work and can have an educated conversation about it with the cinematographer. You don’t need to be a master of lens optics, but you should know things like how aperture affects depth-of-field or standards for frame rates and shutter speed.
Read Doug Hart’s The Camera Assistant: A Complete Professional Handbook and then read David Elkins’ The Camera Assistant’s Manual. They are similar in scope, but each cover various aspects of the job. In terms of education you can do away from set, those are the gold standard.
Finally, get on a set – ideally in the camera department as a trainee or PA, but really any position that puts you on set – and watch the AC’s work. Ask them questions when they aren’t busy like at lunch or at wrap when they’re breaking everything down. Offer to help them on future projects and hope they call.
There is, of course, much more to becoming a camera assistant, but cinematography basics, reading the AC manuals, and getting on set is the best general advice I can give. Further, as you delve into each of those things, you’ll find yourself branching off to learn more and build your skills.
One more thing: check out my free ebook Becoming the Reel Deal which focuses on starting your filmmaking career in the camera department. Thanks to Rob for the interview!
Digital Bolex’s Elle Schneider writes about the company’s plan to offer a couple of D16 camera packages for free to productions that are lensed by women cinematographers:
Just listen to the way men explain technology to women at a trade show and this dichotomy becomes readily clear. Women are expected not to be able to use technology, instead of trying it for themselves and playing, they must be hand held, guided, ‘splained. And that’s a huge turn off to wanting to participate. It’s not a surprise to me that 99 of 100 requests I get to borrow one of our cameras for a project come from men. Women are taught not to ask. And if we as a company choose to work with, say, 5% of people requesting cameras, the numbers aren’t looking too great for the ladyfolk.
But let’s say that’s not the case. Let’s say a woman has surpassed all these odds, and has a fancy camera and knows how to use it. Would the industry be willing to accept the potential of such a woman and hire her to shoot a film?
I think so.
Which is why I’m going to stop soapboxing on the internet (okay, maybe not) and put my money where my mouth is. I’m very pleased to announce the Digital Bolex Grant for Women Cinematographers.
Starting this summer, we will be offering a pair of Digital Bolex D16 kits, featuring $10,000 in gear and accessories from some wonderful soon-to-be-announced sponsors, on a rolling basis to any narrative short or feature film project to be shot by a female cinematographer.
An excellent idea, especially considering how the numbers of women in film add up.
We did a statistical analysis of films to test two claims: first, that films that pass the Bechdel test — featuring women in stronger roles — see a lower return on investment, and second, that they see lower gross profits. We found no evidence to support either claim.
On the first test, we ran a regression to find out if passing the Bechdel test corresponded to lower return on investment. Controlling for the movie’s budget, which has a negative and significant relationship to a film’s return on investment, passing the Bechdel test had no effect on the film’s return on investment. In other words, adding women to a film’s cast didn’t hurt its investors’ returns, contrary to what Hollywood investors seem to believe.
The total median gross return on investment for a film that passed the Bechdel test was $2.68 for each dollar spent. The total median gross return on investment for films that failed was only $2.45 for each dollar spent.
These two charts from their analysis really say it all:
So, movies that pass the Bechdel test have a better return-on-investment, but the filmmakers working on these films are given less money. What’s up with that? FiveThirtyEight asked the same question:
In the top 100 grossing films of 2012, women accounted for 4.1 percent of directors, 12.2 percent of writers and 20 percent of producers, according to a 2013 study by Stacy Smith, an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Of 4,475 speaking roles in those films, 28.4 percent were women. Smith says when more women were involved in the production of a film, it was more likely to have female cast members. In short, when one gender dominates the creative process for a picture, that comes out on the screen.
Bingo. Because women are underrepresented behind the camera, so goes in front of the camera.**
If more women behind the camera means more women on screen which, in turn, means more money made at the box office and pumped into the industry, well, that’s a win-win (not to mention the obvious moral imperative for more equality). Plus, as women fill roles above-the-line in greater numbers, I think you’ll see more below-the-line as well.
* As FiveThirtyEight acknowledges, the Bechdel test isn’t perfect. More on the limitations of the test here.
** The stats are even worse for cinematographers (only 3% were women out of the top 250 films of 2013).