As camera assistants, we work with some of the most high-touch equipment on set and there’s plenty of departmental interactions from reloading the camera to changing lenses. The work is the same, and our skills still relevant, but it requires rethinking how to make things safer during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How to Get Better at Pulling Focus, Slating, and Being a Badass AC
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After a solid three months of no work, I was given a few opportunities in the past few weeks to dip my toes back into production. It goes without saying: filmmaking in the age of coronavirus isn’t what you’re used to. So put on your mask, sanitize those hands, and buckle up for our brave new world.
Actress Jennifer Garner talks about the “dance” that takes place between her, the camera operator, the focus puller, and the boom operator – and how it’s one of the things she misses most right now.
In the age of COVID-19, as work slowly trickles back into the industry, remote monitoring of a camera’s feed is becoming increasingly important. There are several options to achieve this, but if you have the right Teradek model lying around, you can take advantage of their built-in capability to be seen as a webcam on a computer:
Here are the compatible Teradek models:
- 2nd generation Bolt 300
- 2nd generation Bolt 600 / 2000
- 3rd generation Bolt 500
- 3rd generation Bolt 1000 / 3000
Or, more simply, any of the models that have a USB 3.0 output on their receivers.
To set it up, you simply plug your Bolt receiver into a computer via the USB 3.0 port and it should show up as a webcam option in popular software like Zoom or VLC.
I recently did this on a shoot last week to allow the director in Los Angeles and the agency at their homes on the East Coast to all monitor our on-set feed and collaborate via Zoom.
One note: I ran into issues getting my Mac to recognize the Teradek when using a USB 3.0 to USB-C converter, so if you can go directly into a regular old square USB 3.0 port or get the proper USB-C cable, you can avoid those problems.
Update: Thank you Meghan for having me on as your guest! You can watch the full interview below:
It’s been a minute, huh? What better way to find myself back onto your screens (and in your hearts) than an interview with fellow camera assistant Meghan Commons on her new podcast / Instagram live show, “Keeping it Sharp” – a show about camera assisting, hosted by a focus puller.
Tune in here at her Instagram profile on Saturday June 6th (that’s today!) at 2 PM central time.
If you aren’t able to catch it live, it will be reposted on Meghan’s profile (@meghphoenix) afterward and also on the @keeping_it_sharp Instagram page after the live cast ends. You can also head there to check out previous interviews with other AC’s including Brian Aichlmayr, Matthew Debonis, and Dany Racine.
Hope to see you there!
We braved ticks, spiders, tall-grass, rain, and mud on day 5 of Assassinaut. The camera spent most of the day rigged for handheld shots which has its pros and cons for me, the camera assistant.
“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.
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.
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!
From David Elkins’ The Camera Assistant’s Manual:
One of the most well known of the early cinematographers was Billy Bitzer, who shot most of the films of Director D. W. Griffith. As a Cameraman he did all of the jobs himself: carrying the equipment, setting it up, loading film, and so on. In 1914 D. W. Griffith hired an assistant to work with the Cameraman. This assistant was called a Camera Boy, and his job was only to carry the equipment for the Cameraman. Each morning, the Camera Boy would move all of the equipment from the camera room to wherever the scenes were being shot for the day. There was a lot of equipment, and many trips back and forth were required to get everything in place. In addition, the Camera Boy was required to take notes of what was being shot. There were no Script Supervisors at that time.
Around 1916, Cameraman Edwin S. Porter asked for an assistant after returning from a long location shoot. This Camera Assistant had some additional duties that the Camera Boy did not have. Because all of the early cameras were hand cranked, the Camera Assistant had to count the humber of turns of the crank and keep a log of the number of frames shot. Other duties included slating the scene, keeping track of footage, loading and unloading film, carrying and setting up the equipment, and anything else that the Camera Assistant may have been asked to do. Many of these tasks are still some of the responsibilities of today’s Assistant Cameramen (AC).
This track-record of how the AC has changed, and yet survived, comforts me when outside forces appear threatening to the job. Another 100 years from now, the duties and responsibilities of an AC may be dramatically different, but there’s always going to be a need for someone technical in the camera department to complement the cinematographer’s focus on the creative.