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Advice to a Camera Trainee

What I’d tell someone who starts a job as a camera PA–tomorrow!

A film student, who I’ve been mentoring, landed a job on a low-budget RED project as camera PA. He sent me an email saying he’s starting the job tomorrow, and what should he know? Here’s the email I sent him to prep him for his first real camera department job:

SET ETIQUETTE

First of all, you’re going to start the process of learning set etiquette zen. That’s when you work on sets a lot and you know what’s going to happen, when, and what you should be doing about it. You’re going to become very good at hearing your name whispered across a noisy set. You’ll discover the old-timers trick of always facing into the set when you’re chatting with someone, so you’ll always see whether you’re immediately needed or not.

You didn’t say if there’s a second camera assistant or not, but I’ll tell you about some of their duties so you can fill in when needed. You’ll need to gage when you’re helping and when you’re stepping on someone else’s job. Don’t worry about making mistakes because the low budget jobs are the ones where you can make all your mistakes. Hopefully, when you do well, the people you work with will take you on to other things.

The first thing that should happen on every set is blocking. The director and actors walk through the scene, without tweaking performances, just to show the crew and all the department heads what’s going to happen. During this time the second camera assistant puts T-marks on the floor (tabbed, for quick and easy removal!) wherever the actors stop. That helps the DP figure out what areas to light. After the blocking the actors go away and all the departments jump into action: the camera crew lines up the shot using extras (if there are any–not too common on low-budget features) and the grip and electric crews work to light the set to the DP’s specs. This is the time where the second camera assistant typically has time to go to the truck and reload film mags, although I’m not sure what they’re going to do in the case of working with a RED–unless part of their duties is to download the footage and check it.

After the lighting is completed the actors come back and rehearse with the camera, and then the scene is shot. Once the director has the takes that he/she wants, the crew should immediately drop into blocking mode to block the next shot. The sequence should always be:

(1) Block

(2) Light

(3) Rehearse

(4) Shoot

(5) Repeat until wrap

Find out which actor marks are in the shot and pull them before the camera rolls, or replace them with tiny pieces of black tape so the camera won’t see them as marks.

TOOLS

Until the camera is set it’s almost impossible to know exactly what will be in the shot, and that effects not only the lighting/grip departments but also the art and props departments. It’s very important that the camera be placed, with the right lens, as early after the blocking as possible. That’s why you’ll notice that a good camera assistant always keeps the lens case very close to the camera. Even if the equipment carts are some distance away the lens case is often quite close to the camera to make lens changes faster.

Every camera assistant will have their preferred parts and tools nearby, along with the DP’s favorite filters. Learn what parts those are and notice which need to be kept near the camera, based on the first camera assistant’s style of working.

SLATING

If you end up slating, the rule is: imagine a string running from the lens to the actor’s eyes, and place the open part of the slate along that string. Distance from the lens should be one foot for every 10mm of focal length, plus a little. That gets the slate close to full frame, which makes the editor happy. It’s important to keep the editor happy or they complain a lot. Always think about what happens to the footage after it’s shot: for example, if you’re shooting in a dark room, aim a flash light at the slate when you hit it so the editor can read it and sync it.

If the slate is close to the actor’s face then hit it lightly. Don’t scare them.

Use two hands for the slate: one on the clapper and one on the slate. The bottom part of the slate should always be still, because the editor is going to look for the frame where the clapper is no longer blurred compared to the rest of the slate and use that for sync. If both parts are moving then the editor will have a harder time syncing dailies, and you’ll hear about it.

Tail slates–slates at the end of the take instead of the beginning–require the slate to be held upside down to indicate that it’s a slate at the end of the take.

Always plan your escape route. Don’t run away after hitting the slate, but do move quickly. Hold the slate still for a half second after hitting and then get out of the shot. And update the take number quietly during the take so the slate is ready to go immediately.

The slate should ALWAYS stay with the camera. Don’t walk away with it; someone will come looking for you and the actors and director won’t be happy waiting.

Typically the sound person slates the shot so you don’t have to do anything but say “marker!” before you hit the slate. That varies from set to set, though.

The sequence is: the AD will say “Roll sound!” or “We’re rolling!” Then the camera will roll, and the camera assistant will say “Camera speed!” That’s when you slate. If you want to really impress them, hold the slate edge on to the camera until the camera has speed, and then drop it at slate it. That allows the operator/DP to see the frame past the slate right up until you hit it.

Don’t drop the slate in until the AD gets things rolling. The slate shouldn’t come in until sound rolls.

Every once in a while you’ll “bump” a slate. That means that there’s no sync sound and you just need a slate at the head of the take. In film this means that you’d hold the slate out before the shot happens and “bump” the camera’s on switch, rolling a few frames. (The editor only needs one clear one, but give them a few to choose from. But not a lot!) Then when the AD calls “rolling” the camera can roll without pausing for a slate.

This will probably be different with the RED as you can’t “bump” a slate the same way as each time you roll the camera you create a new clip. Instead you’ll probably just hold the slate in front of the camera for a second after the camera has speed and then yank it out. In this case, if the camera is running off-speed or without sync sound, hold the clapper open so the editor knows not to bother syncing it up.

There’s a different procedure for multiple cameras but we’ll cover that another time.

LENSES

If you’re handing off a lens, always take the lens caps off and leave them at the lens case. DO NOT hold them such that your hand wraps around the back of the lens; it’s too easy to put a palm print on the rear element. If you are handing a lens off, hold it around the barrel and place the front end face down into the first assistant’s hand. He will do the same thing to you, holding it around the barrel and handing it face down to you. Don’t release it until he/she acknowledges that they have it, typically by saying “Thank you.” When you have the lens he/she is handing you, say “Thank you.”

You get extra credit for making sure the T-stop is set to wide open and the focus is set to infinity, both before handing off the lens and before putting it in the case. That allows the DP/operator to see through it well enough to line up a shot as soon as it goes on the camera. Sometimes this kind of speed is very important.

The lens case usually has two latches. All the other cases can be closed with one latch, usually the right one, if you’re actively working out of it. The lens always has to be closed with two latches, just in case.

Make sure you put the lenses back with the right caps (if they are numbered) and in the proper hole in the case. That kind of consistency really speeds you up, and speed is always important.

MISCELLANEOUS

Always tab your tape, whether you’re pulling strips off the roll or laying marks or making labels. ALWAYS. It makes you faster, and in the camera department that’s important.

Don’t run on the set. You can run once you’re off the set, if you need to, but don’t run on the set. It makes the camera department look unprepared, and the camera department should always look cool, calm and collected. There’s an old saying: “The axe always falls nearest the camera.” Any sign of weakness in the camera crew and an insecure producer will start to worry. Worried producers make hasty decisions.

Work quickly, but don’t rush. The idea is to be so well organized that you know what’s important to have nearby when so that you can work quickly without looking like you’re working at all. A good crew doesn’t rush, but things happen quickly because the crew is always anticipating and has the right things nearby at the right times. You won’t get it immediately but it will come in time.

Watch the first and second assistants and learn. There’s a LOT to their jobs, and you’ll do well to learn their jobs both so you can do them but also so you know what they’re going through when they are working for you. It’s good to know what to expect from a good assistant, and to know when you’re working with one that’s not so strong.

A good first assistant constantly checks all kinds of things. As soon as the camera lands in a position the assistant levels it. He/she is always checking the stop, making sure the camera is set to run at the right speed, etc. There are so many ways for a camera to screw you that a good assistant obsessively checks things on it, especially before a take. The old saying for a quick check before rolling was:

FAST= Focus, Aperture, Shutter, Tachometer

Which means: check your focus marks, set the T-stop correctly, make sure the shutter is at the correct angle and the camera is running at the right speed.

A good camera assistant never gets in the way while getting focus marks. He/she will get them during/after blocking, by measuring out to the talent or their marks; and occasionally after a rehearsal, but only on a tough shot. A camera assistant will only be really obtrusive about getting marks before a take if the shot is a really tough one, and the assistant doesn’t make a habit out of stopping the set to get marks. You want to save that for when you really need it. You won’t have to do this yourself, but you should watch how it’s done.

In 35mm, lenses 50mm or longer are where focus starts getting tricky, or on any lens when the stop is wider than about T2.8. I got good enough to where I could keep anything in focus at T4, but T2 and T1.3 are really tough.

Second assistant tools: marker (for slate), pen (for camera reports), scissors (for cutting film when a mag comes off the camera; not necessary on a RED shoot), screw driver with swappable heads (for screwing and unscrewing various things over the course of the day); white/black camera cloth tape (for marks and tags); small flashlight (most useful when leveling the camera in the dark and lighting up the slate). Don’t worry about picking all this stuff up tonight, you’ll get it on the set tomorrow if you need it.

There was a legendary camera assistant by the name of Dick Barth who established the four rules of camera assisting:

(1) Show up early.

(2) Punch in on time.

(3) Do your job.

(4) Keep your mouth shut.

Number (4) doesn’t apply to asking questions of your superiors on the camera crew at appropriate times. It does mean that the wrong comment or “suggestion” at the wrong time can land you in a world of political trouble if an actor, director or producer hears it. You’re there to do a job, but not to contribute artistically. That’ll come later.

MOST IMPORTANTLY OF ALL: Always look out for your safety, and don’t put yourself in a situation where you can be hurt–or where someone you trust can’t pull you out of the way in time. Car stunts are notoriously dangerous, for example, and it’s more important that you walk away from the job alive than take a chance on getting hurt.

Dick Barth was run over and killed as the result of a poorly designed car stunt while working on a TV series.

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If the first assistant and second assistant have worked together before, follow their leads. You’ll ultimately be working for the second assistant, if there is one. If there isn’t one, then you’re it. Good luck!

I haven’t covered everything–there’s a science to recording takes on a camera report form, but I don’t know how they’ll do that with RED footage; and there’s tips and tricks with inventory that won’t apply to a digital shoot–but you’ll get the hang of it.

And have fun! As camera PA you’re not expected to know everything, or even anything. The only thing you need to do is show a willingness to learn and the ability to think ahead and put yourself in the game.

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This post is dedicated to the two people who taught me the most about camera assisting: Pat Swovelin and Jack Anderson.


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Art Adams is a cinema lens specialist at ARRI, Inc. Before that, he was a freelance cinematographer for 26 years. You can see his work at http://www.artadamsdp.com. Art has been published in HD Video Pro,…
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