Teaching the craft of camera operating is extremely difficult to do well, so I’m going to do it half-assed and give you some random tips that may help you along in your career.
My childhood dream was to be a camera operator. I wanted to be the person looking through the camera and framing a shot. While I would have enjoyed having a long career as an operator, I entered the business at a time when operators were a dying breed, and the only people guaranteed careers as operators were Steadicam operators. I wasn’t particularly interested in doing that, so I moved towards being a director of photography faster than I had expected. Most of the shoots I do don’t require, or won’t hire, an operator, so in a way I’m still a career operator. I just get to light the shots as well as operate them.
No one taught me how to be an operator. At a young age I found myself drawn to strong compositions in certain TV shows and movies, and I sought to emulate those compositions with my Regular 8mm film camera. Over time I learned, through trial and error and the occasional tip from those more experienced than I, how to move the camera predictably and repeatedly.
There’s a lot more to being an operator than skill in moving the camera. It’s a very political job as well. I’ll address some of both aspects in this article.
LEARN THE GEARED HEAD
I really enjoy working with geared heads, although I rarely get to use them anymore. Most of my projects can’t afford to rent one for me. Hopefully this will change with the advent of the Gearnex geared head, which I’ve now used on several shoots.
The geared head offers an incredible amount of control over camera moves, especially dolly moves. For some reason it’s very easy to match pan and tilt speeds to a dolly move by spinning wheels rather than moving a pan handle around. The wheels also offer a wide range of possibilities from very subtle adjustments to aggressive camera moves that stop on a dime.
There are a couple of ways to learn the wheels:
(1) Buy, rent or borrow a geared head and strap a laser pointer to it: learn to write your name in light on a wall.
Although this is the most commonly recommend way of learning the wheels, I’m skeptical of this method as it teaches you to write your name in light on a wall–which is something you’ll never do. In my career–approaching 23 years in the film industry–I’ve only once had to follow text with a geared head, while operating second camera on a feature called “No Way Back.” A gang member spray painted words onto the side of a tunnel, and I had to follow his writing in third gear, with no rehearsal, on an 85mm lens. I nailed it, and I’d never done anything like that before.
So, having said that, I’d recommend skipping this technique and moving on to the next two tricks, which I think will help you considerably more:
(2) Buy, rent or borrow a geared head and strap camera to it: follow people around.
Learning to read, and react to, body language is a huge part of operating a camera. You’ll get a lot farther faster if you learn to follow people around and interpret body movement and language through the wheels than you will simply learning the craft of moving the wheels, which is what the laser pointer technique teaches.
(3) In the absence of a geared head, train your brain to do the right thing.
Around the time that I wanted to learn the geared head I read an interesting scientific study. Two high school basketball teams were told to practice plays in different ways: one physically executed the plays for one hour every day for a week, and the other team thought about executing the plays for one hour every day for a week. In the end both teams improved, and they improved about the same amount. Apparently thinking about executing physical moves can have some practical benefit to actually learning those moves.
At the time I was sporadically practicing my geared head moves while working on a TV series. I was a camera assistant, and at lunch I followed the art department around as they redressed the set. I couldn’t do this consistently, though, and reading about this study gave me an idea.
Whenever I watched TV I moved my hands as if I was operating a geared head and executing the move I saw on TV. As the camera moved on the TV, I moved my hands to follow:
Right hand: clockwise (top of wheel rotates to the right) to tilt up, counterclockwise (top of wheel rotates to the left) to tilt down.
Left hand: counterclockwise (top of wheel rotates away) to pan right, clockwise (top of wheel rotates toward me) to pan left.
After a few weeks of TV practice I did a LOT better the next time I got my hands on a geared head.
WHEN IN DOUBT, KEEP MOVING
There are times when responsiveness is the key to getting a shot, usually in a situation where you’re shooting either very emotional or action-packed material. Keeping your hands moving a little bit on the wheels, in the case of a geared head, or keeping your hand in motion on the pan handle, in the case of a fluid head, can speed up your responsiveness. I learned this trick originally from a sound mixer, who always wiggled his hands on the mixer knobs during takes. I asked him why, and he told me that it is much easier to move your hands quickly in response to a loud noise if they are already moving. If your hands are standing still it can take longer to react. He never wiggled his hands on the knobs enough to affect sound levels, but if he had to turn them quickly his hands were already in motion.
Later I saw camera operators on features and sitcoms doing the same thing: keeping their hands moving on the wheels just a little bit, so their hands were already in motion if they needed to make an adjustment. I’ve discovered the same trick works with fluid heads: by moving my hand around a little bit on the pan handle without moving the camera, my response times increase dramatically.
HALF OF OPERATING IS KNOWING WHEN NOT TO MOVE THE CAMERA
Just because you can move the camera doesn’t mean you should. Sometimes the strongest frames are the ones that move the least and allow action to play within their borders.
A lot of this is about body language. I’ve noticed that most people tend to move around a central point: if they’re sitting at a desk, for example, they’ll sit in one position for a while, then lean in across the desk, then lean back, and return to the original position. If they do this fast enough, and you have a wide enough frame, you don’t really have to move the camera. You can let them “play the frame,” although you have to be limber and watch for the unexpected.
“Micro operating” is the habit some operators have of reacting to every small movement, even an eye twitch or slight head turn. This style is appropriate for certain things, and whether you employ this style or the “less is more” style has a lot to do with who you’re working for.
The bottom line, though, is that just because you’re an operator doesn’t mean that you need to move the camera to prove your worth. I once heard a producer complaining to a DP that the grip and electric departments stood around during takes, and he hated that he was paying them to stand around. The DP corrected him: “You’re not paying them to stand around; you’re paying them to do exactly the right thing at the right time.” The same is true of an operator: there’s no shame in not moving the camera as long as your moves are proper when you make them.
My personal style is to find static frames that play for long periods of time, and then when I do move the camera I simply move from one composition to another. This isn’t appropriate for everything and I have to adjust when necessary, but left to my own devices this is the kind of style that I prefer. I call it the “David Lean” approach: the compositions in his films are like paintings, and the camera rarely simply follows someone. When the camera moves it is typically making a transition from one “painting” to another.
BODY LANGUAGE IS OUR FRIEND
Human beings often physically telegraph what they are about to do, and over time one can get a feel for an actor’s movements and predict what they may do next, and where.
This works well with sudden movements. I’ve become very good at being able to tell how far an actor will jump, for example, by having an innate sense of how far they can move in one step for someone their height. If an actor is moving suddenly in one direction or another it can be easier to move the camera to where I feel their end point will be rather than try to follow them. For someone like myself, whose reflexes are okay but not great, I can make up for my lack of reflex speed with my excellent sense of timing. Instead of following fast action I often focus on properly timing the start of my move and then moving the camera a set distance at a set speed, based on rehearsals or gut feeling. This works very well, although it takes a certain amount of faith at times.
Most operators will tell you that the hardest shot to execute is someone standing up from a sitting position. This is absolutely true. Practice, practice, practice.
I find that I operate a fluid head better when one hand operates the head and the other is placed around the base of the head, where I can sense panning movement, or on the tripod or dolly. Having that point of reference, either in feeling the head rotate or having a solid surface against which I can judge movement, aids me considerably, particularly on dolly moves where one can become “lost in the move” and not quite know visually what affect your movements are having on the camera because everything is moving.
One key advantage of a geared head is that it divorces your mass from the camera’s movement. In the event of the dolly coming to a sudden stop, your body may want to continue down the track. As long as the gear head wheels don’t turn, though, the camera won’t follow your body. This can be more difficult with a fluid head, but it’s definitely possible if you can distribute and brace your weight through three points of contact with the dolly. If you’re sitting, plant your feet firmly, or find a comfortable sitting position, and then put your upper body weight onto your left hand, which should be placed somewhere near the camera (around the base of the fluid head, or the boom arm itself). The idea is that your weight is firmly planted between your legs and that hand resting on the dolly, leaving your panning hand free to operate the camera.
This works in a standing position as well, where your weight is spread out between your legs and your left arm. The right arm, controlling the camera, can do what it wants.
Over time you’ll learn to completely divorce your panning arm from the movements of your body. I’ve gotten to the point where I can operate a 180-degree or greater move on a fluid head while climbing over a dolly. My body does one thing while my panning arm does another.
COMPOSITIONS DON’T HAVE TO BE BALANCED
In a 1980’s movie entitled “The Hit,” two characters have a conversation at the base of a lighthouse. The camera is on the ground looking up and the bulk of the lighthouse dominates the dead center of the frame. One character is leaning against a car in the foreground on frame left, and the right side of the frame is empty.
Over the course of this shot the character in frame has a conversation with a character who is not in the frame. The off-balance framing creates a lot of tension until the very end of the scene, where the other character steps into the empty part of the frame and balances the composition.
This little scene showed me that compositions take place not just in space but in time as well. Keeping a frame unbalanced for a period of time can build dramatic tension, and later completing the composition can release it. I’m constantly looking for opportunities to do this.
There’s another style of composition that frames for an object, such as a building or architectural feature, that focuses attention by introducing something else that just doesn’t seem to belong. Imagine a distant shot of the Taj Mahal, symmetrically framed down the center of the reflecting pool, and then introduce a single person into the environment anywhere in the frame. No matter how small that person is, as long as they are visible we will be drawn to look at them because they are the one thing that’s out of place in an otherwise perfectly balanced composition.
ADJUST THE CAMERA, NOT THE ACTOR
Sometimes actors miss their marks consistently, and it’s almost always easier to move the camera to restore the composition than it is to try to move the actor’s mark. Let them miss their mark consistently rather than giving them a new mark to miss. At least they’ll end up in the same place every time, and you have more control over the camera that you do over them.
If you do need to move an actor in order to get a better shot, and there’s more than one actor in the shot, don’t move the star if you can help it. I learned that lesson the hard way once. Move the lesser actor.
WALK THE SET
Half of the operator’s job is to make sure the right things are composed properly in the frame at the right time. The other half of the operator’s job is to keep everything else out. With experience this becomes easier and easier: I can walk into a room and immediately notice the glass-covered pictures on the wall that are miniature mirrors that I have to keep myself out of; the shiny surfaces in which the boom and boom operator will be reflected; and several vertical objects such as floor lamp stands that will make certain angles detrimental for closeups unless the actor is supposed to have a light growing out of them.
Other things are sneakier, and it’s always a good idea to walk the set and look for things that you may not immediately pick up by looking through the camera, such as cables and C-stand legs. It can also be helpful to look at the set with your eyes, free of the viewfinder, and see what you may have missed detecting. I remember shooting a shot that started on a glass table, and the reflection in the table surface was so strong that I didn’t notice the furniture pad laying underneath it until someone else, using only their eyes, pointed it out to me.
There was an old TV series called “Beauty and the Beast” whose art department always tried to hide a small red toy lobster on the set.
LOOK AROUND THE VIEWFINDER
You have two eyes for a reason. You may think the reason is to judge distance, but that’s your assistant’s job. One eye is buried in the viewfinder, but the other eye should be scanning whatever you can see of the set. This is helpful in anticipating moves that happen when an actor enters frame; it’s also helpful in determining whether the dolly is starting or stopping a subtle move.
Film cameras required having an eye on the eyepiece at all times to prevent light from passing through the eyepiece and fogging the film. In HD that’s not a problem, so if you need to occasionally look up from the viewfinder to look around the set, feel free. Just make sure the camera doesn’t move while you’re doing so.
FOCUS IS YOUR PROBLEM TOO
A good assistant will have a sense when a shot is or isn’t in focus, but the operator is the one who is supposed to KNOW. (In the film world, if shots are consistently out of focus, it’s 50/50 whether the operator or the assistant is replaced.) This isn’t always possible, so a low-level running dialog with your assistant is often a good thing. In the past I’ve tried to grab the focus knob to dial in focus on a soft shot, but camera assistants don’t relinquish that knob easily and misunderstand what you’re trying to do. Instead a whispered “You’re on her ear!” is all that is needed for an assistant to fix a buzzed shot.
Don’t let assistants pull focus off the on-board monitor if at all possible. It’s impossible to accurately follow action in space when looking at a 2D surface. Monitors are good for checking focus on a stopped object, and compensating if necessary, and for figuring out where focus should be at any given time. Following focus has to be done the old-fashioned way: watching where the camera is in relation to the actors and turning the focus barrel to match.
If an assistant tries to follow action using the on-board monitor I’ll usually just grab the focus knob and do it myself. I started out in film but I’ve shot a lot of one-man video, and I’m usually better at that than they are.
LEARN WHEN THE RULES DON’T APPLY
A while back I did a shoot where the producer’s friend, an older cameraman who had gotten out of the business, came along to hang out, feel the vibe of the set, and see if he wanted to get back into the business.
He sat at the monitor by the director and spent the entire time critiquing my compositions. I’d have a gorgeous composition arranged, with a brooding sky overhead and an actor walking solemnly across the very bottom of the frame, and I’d see this cameraman lean over and whisper in the director’s ear. “Less headroom,” the director would yell, and I had to reframe so that there was a “normal” amount of headroom over the actor’s head.
This cameraman had a very traditional sense of composition, whereas I’ve been pushing the boundaries for a while now. My career goal is to shoot spots full time, and well-shot commercials are typically on the compositional forefront. I found myself hobbled by his sensibilities, although why the director was listening to the director’s buddy over his hired director of photography was another question entirely.
The rules are made to be broken. Learn them, and then start looking for ways to break them. And then find people to work with who trust your instincts.
Matching over-the-shoulder shots are a staple of this business, and it takes a while to learn how to do them well. I find that an easy and interesting way to frame such a shot is to include not only the side of the foreground actor’s head and neck but a piece of their shoulder as well. The other actor is then framed by the “V” formed by the foreground actor’s body, and eye lines tend to match perfectly.
If the camera is on a dolly, turn the wheels and leave them unlocked so that you can push it left or right if needed. If an actor lands in the wrong spot you can then nudge the dolly one way or the other to save the shot. Camera sliders are built for exactly this purpose.
USE THE CROSSHAIRS AND FRAME MARKERS FOR REFERENCE
I use frame markings all the time for one thing or another. They’re great to use as reference marks for shots of people and things entering the frame. During the rehearsal it’s simple to find the opening frame, see where the crosshair is, and remember that spot. I can then place the camera precisely without having to see the actor start in frame.
Sometimes when I’m following someone, and I have a strong end frame, at some point I’ll stop watching the actor’s movement and focus on putting the crosshair or the corner markers on a landmark that brings me to the end frame. If the actor lands on their mark then I’ve got my good solid end frame, although I have to be ready in case they go somewhere else.
FIND THE PAYOFF OF THE SHOT
I always set dolly tracks in reverse. I find my end frame first and then find a beginning frame that works well enough. In my mind the end of a shot is where the payoff is, and if I can finesse that final mark to perfection then I can almost always find a good opening frame easily.
DON’T PUT YOURSELF AT RISK
Camera operator is one of the most dangerous positions on any set. You’re the only one who can’t easily see spacial relationships, and while that car coming straight at you may look cool it may also hit you.
I heard a story about a famous Shotmaker crash in Arizona, where the driver used bad judgment in driving fast down a mountain road and couldn’t make a turn. Several people were killed when the Shotmaker rolled, including the camera operators, and the AD was paralyzed from the waist down. I spoke to the AD years after that happened, and he said that the last thing he remembered, before waking up in the hospital, was the Shotmaker turning onto its side–and the two camera operators, who had no idea what was going on, tilting their cameras to compensate for the roll, still following the picture car behind them.
The camera operator is the only person on the set who can’t judge distance. Make sure someone who can judge distance is ready to pull you to safety, and make sure you know which direction you’re doing to go if they do pull you so that you can help them out by leaning or kicking in the right direction.
Whenever you put yourself into a dangerous situation you must have confidence that those around you will be looking out for your safety and aren’t putting you at risk unnecessarily. This is especially true of stunt people: they have a very high tolerance for adrenaline, and have no problem putting themselves into dangerous situations. That’s fine for them because that’s their job and they love it, but that’s probably not what you signed up for, so if they tell you that you’re safe five feet away from a stunt, double that and make it ten feet. They’re paid to risk their lives; you’re not.
It usually falls to the grip crew to ensure that the operator is safe, and if you don’t feel that they are looking out for you then don’t put yourself in a dangerous position. A good grip crew will be overcautious, and you should be extraordinarily grateful for that. For example, it’s typical for a grip to hold onto your belt, or wrap you in a safety harness and hold onto it, when shooting car stunts so that they can pull you out of the way in case the driver loses control of the car. I’ve been pulled away from a camera several times because the grip thought that we were going to be run over, and although the car never came quite that close and the grip apologized profusely in both cases for ruining the shot, I thanked them profusely and told them to do exactly same thing the next time. Don’t worry about ruining the shot; worry about the shot ruining your life.
I’ve seen unmanned cameras hit by cars. In one case I saw an unmanned camera hit by a fence that was hit by a car. I’ve had mentors who have seen close friends and colleagues killed on sets. Be careful. Ask questions. Express concerns.
Explosions are another tricky thing. Car explosions are very dangerous, as the trunk lid has a tendency to sail into the air if it’s not tied down. I learned that one night while shooting a car explosion: the car blew up and then smoked for about ten seconds, and we were just about to cut when a dark object passed vertically through my frame and hit the ground with a crash. The twisted metal remnants of the trunk lid landed three feet in front of my camera. The DP’s only comment: “I’m glad that didn’t hit anyone.” Make sure you work with people who are a little more concerned with your safety.
If someone is shooting blanks in the direction of the camera, make sure you and your assistant are well protected. Sometimes covering yourself in duvetine is enough, other times you’ll want some clear plexiglass material, like Lexan, to hide behind. Blanks may not shoot bullets but they do shoot wadding, and that can hurt considerably. People have been killed by blanks fired at close range.
If someone shows up on set with a real gun loaded with real ammunition, leave. Life is too short.
When an actor is handed a gun by an armorer, feel free to ask to check it yourself. If there are no shots fired in the scene then it should be unloaded. If there are shots to be fired then the gun should be loaded just before the take and the actor should not be screwing around with it. Fake guns should be treated as loaded guns at all times. If you think that’s a dumb idea then you should read about what happened to Brandon Lee.
Your life is not worth a shot. If someone wants to put you in a position where you feel you’re in unnecessary danger, always be ready to walk away. It may feel like you’ll never work again, but you will–and you’ll definitely never work again if you’re seriously injured or killed.
A LITTLE BIT OF TRIVIA
Curved track is the most ordered and least used piece of grip equipment. It’s also a huge pain. I’ve managed to create some dazzling moves that look like they’re done on curved track but are done entirely with straight track. Unless you need the camera to revolve in a perfect circle… don’t use curved track. Just don’t.
CHECK YOUR SPACE BEFORE A MOVE
There are few things that are more awkward than executing a move only to discover your pan handle or a geared head wheel hits an obstacle and ruins the shot. Rehearse the move and make sure that your body, the camera, and the pan handle or wheels won’t run out of space or jam themselves into your body during the take. Sometimes I’ll remove the pan handle in tight quarters and execute a shot just by holding onto the back of the camera.
I left out a couple of very basic tips, but fortunately DP and regular reader Graham Futerfas mentioned them in comments. I’m adding this section to present my take on his suggestions.
LEARN TO BALANCE YOUR HEAD
No, I’m not talking about neck exercises. Fluid heads offer two types of control: pan and tilt tension and counterbalance. Pan and tilt tension defines how much effort it takes to move the camera, and different shots may require different settings. For example, a tight closeup might require a little less tension, especially if the actor is moving around a lot, while a shot from a car-mounted camera might require higher tension to make the camera harder to move in the event that the camera car hits a bump. In my experience, pan and tilt tension should be set to the same setting as different settings might result in a “stair step” move: instead of smooth diagonal move up and to the right, the camera instead moves a little bit right, a little bit up, a little bit right, a little bit up… try it and you’ll quickly see what I mean.
Counterbalance is a crucial adjustment and varies depending on the weight distribution of the camera. The idea is to adjust the counterbalance, in conjunction with the pan and tilt tension, so that you can frame a shot with nearly any amount of tilt, let go of the camera, and the camera won’t move. You don’t ever want to have to fight the camera to maintain a shot: your only energy expenditure should come when actually moving the camera. This isn’t always possible with extreme angles, but for nearly everything else this is a great rule to follow. The longer you have to strain to hold a shot the more likely you won’t be able to hold the camera still. Counterbalance makes such strain largely unnecessary.
MAKE YOURSELF COMFORTABLE AT THE END OF A TOUGH MOVE
It’s not unusual to find ourselves wrapped around a tripod or climbing around a dolly to execute a tough move. The trick is to find a body position that works for the end of the move and then wind yourself into the move for the opening shot. It’s much easier to hold an uncomfortable position at the beginning of a move than it is at the end. Make yourself into a pretzel at the beginning of the move and then unwind and relax into the final frame.
I occasionally find myself in some interesting situations where I have to start a move looking through the viewfinder sideways, or I put the viewfinder straight up so that I can hover over the camera and move it below my body for a 180-degree or greater move. As long as I position myself for the end of the shot things always work out well.
Occasionally I have to do a move that ends in an extreme tilt up or down for which it is impossible to balance the camera for the entire move. When that happens I adjust the camera balance to be neutral for the end of the move, so that I’m only fighting the camera at the beginning. Once again, it’s easier to struggle a bit at the beginning of a move than it is to struggle at the end. As long as you’re able to relax into a shot you’ll be much better off.