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).
Think about how much filmmaking has changed since 1916. Almost 100 years later, camera assistants are still on set having evolved their duties as the tech behind filmmaking transformed.
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.