Being a professional camera operator is a highly skilled job, which requires many qualities. It’s not just a case of just looking down the viewfinder and shooting. Sadly many people think that’s all there is to it, but in reality this is just the start.
The following guidelines are a result of my many years of shooting as a documentary cameraman and drama DoP. Professional operators practice this stuff “day-in, day-out” because high standards really do matter.
I’m going to cover my top guidelines in 3 parts, which I will release separately over the next couple of weeks:
- Part 1. The Camera Operator’s Mindset
- Part 2. Camera Operating Techniques
- Part 3. Care and Handling of Equipment
So if you’re really serious about getting to the top of your career… and I’m assuming you are…read on. For all you Producers, Directors and Camera Operators out there I hope this will be of great value to you all….enjoy!
The Camera Operator’s Mindset
Being diverse, responsible, flexible, enthusiastic and creative are just a few of the values you’ll need to succeed as a camera operator. In this part, I’ll be talking all about how what goes on up here *points to head* directly effects what’s happening around you. So… let’s go! Don’t switch off here because you think this might be boring, yes I’m not offering advice on operating itself, that will come later - this stuff is fundamental.
1. Know Your Craft:
Elevate yourself beyond mediocre. The world’s full of mediocre people…be outstanding! You’re a professional camera operator, make it part of your identity, be proud of it. Learn everything you can about your craft and master it…and I don’t mean dabble in it…I mean really master your craft. Become a recognized expert and you will always be in demand.
2. Offer Creative Input
There’s nothing worse than just standing behind the camera waiting to be told what to do, it’s just not good enough. Producers and Directors need your creative input; they need enthusiasm and endless suggestions on how something can be shot, improved and enhanced so that it massively exceeds their original concept. Its part of your job, so always provide masses of creative input whenever and however you can!
* This does depend on the type of production you are working on. In documentaries it’s quite common to go straight to the director with your ideas and suggestions, on drama that is not the correct etiquette where you would instead discuss ideas with the Director of Photography (DoP).
3. Go the Extra Mile
This is hot on the heels of rule No.2. Don’t just do what you have to or what you think you should do. Your job is to go above and beyond. Don’t be lazy, make a tremendous effort, even if you’ve been working nonstop for 16 hours, find something within yourself to make that extra effort, uphold your professional standards, do whatever it takes to produce the best possible results you can. Nothing should be too much trouble…it won’t go unnoticed by those higher up the ladder.
4. Be Professional
Don’t fool around, it can waste precious time, cost money and it looks totally unprofessional.
You might think I’m being a grumpy old git; (I’m not it’s important to have fun especially if you’re working long hours) but understand this, when that camera is rolling the focus is not just on what’s going on in the viewfinder, it’s also on you. You have a responsibility to deliver, don’t screw it up. Retakes are acceptable for a variety of reasons; fooling around is not one of them.
In this game you can work hard and play hard but keep those two distinctly separate.
5. Be Confident
I don’t mean be big-headed; I mean be quietly confident in your abilities. Producers, directors and others put a lot of trust in you and they need to know you are totally on top of your game. You don’t need to tell people how good you are, just demonstrate it by showing them you are in control and you can handle any situation that arises.
6. Be Punctual
Never be late; on location, for meetings, for recces – never ever be late for anything.
Always leave at least 20 minutes earlier than you really need to so you have a time margin for unexpected delays. If you are genuinely delayed, call and let people know why you’re late and how long you’ll be.
7. Be Pleasant
Don’t be grumpy; nobody wants to work with miserable people. Even if you don’t feel that great, don’t show it. It may be just another filming day to you but to the producer or director it’s their baby, they have probably planned and waited months for this day, so try not to ruin it by being miserable and depressing. Always be cheerful and optimistic.
8. Be Tolerant
Often we work with actors who have limited experience of being in front of camera, in documentaries this also applies to the general public. The camera can be incredibly intimidating for many, so always try to put people at ease and make them feel relaxed by being sympathetic and diplomatic. In documentaries give people ‘permission’ to get it wrong – telling them that we can always do another Take is very helpful. Knowing they can do it again if they get it wrong reduces the pressure on them considerably. In drama this is the Directors domain so stay well clear of communicating this to actors as you will be overstepping the line. The technique here is to create an atmosphere of calm for nervous actors without being directly involved in their performance.
8. Listen carefully
On drama, tactfully eavesdropping on conversations between the Director and the DoP can increase your understanding of the sequence to be shot; especially if the sequence is not exactly what was previously planned or scripted – this kind of information can help you do your job better. In documentary shooting, listening to what is being said during a filmed interview is the sign of a truly professional operator. Subtle camera moves made by the operator during a sensitive or emotional interview can convey even more sentiment and feeling to the viewing audience.
In documentaries it’s not uncommon that you’ll be working with a production team and crew for just one day. On drama you can also work with a variety of new people on a daily basis. For this reason creating instant rapport is a very important skill. The ability to connect with strangers is hard to define but my advice is to break down barriers by being relaxed, friendly and humorous. Making someone laugh can melt away then nervous tension and anxiety in a heartbeat. Finding common ground with someone such as sharing a personal interest can also be a winner. Failing that, give them a jam doughnut and ask them to eat it without liking their lips…(it’s impossible you should try it!) Seriously, just remember, when you put people at ease they will warm to you because they feel relaxed.
10. Be Flexible and Versatile
Things don’t always go according to plan. Bad weather, changes in the schedule, overruns, directors changing their minds and a multitude of other stuff can turn a well planned day into a nightmare!
This is where your flexibility and versatility kick in. Just because you’ve spent time and effort setting up to shoot a sequence doesn’t give you some kind of license to throw a tantrum if the plan changes and you have to move on to shoot something totally different. Your job is to calmly adjust to the situation and be professional. Kicking up a commotion simply shows people that you aren’t flexible and adaptable… not a good characteristic in the Film and TV industry.
Keep Calm and Carry On!
11. Always Communicate
Always return phone calls, reply to e-mails, and leave voice messages, (I know how annoying it can be when the voice mail message kicks in but trust me) We’re working in a communications industry… so we need to communicate!
While e-mails are great, what might take 10 emails can be said in one phone call and in about 5mins – So whenever possible just talk to someone on the phone and try to keep it brief and to the point: it will be appreciated (especially by me… Huzzah!!!).
12. Take Responsibility
If you arrive late back home or your hotel and you haven’t got the call sheet for tomorrow’s shoot, it’s your responsibility to get it. Don’t shrug your shoulders and pretend its productions problem. It will be your problem in the morning when production calls your mobile wondering where the hell you are! Haha! Be professional and do all you can to get it, even if it means calling the production manager at 1 am, they may not be pleased that you have woken them from their beauty sleep but they’ll thank you for it in the morning for being in the right place at the right time!
So there you have it – 12 tips I’ve picked up from working in the film & TV industry over the years. I’ve tried to keep them short and snappy, but believe me if you put these things into action, you’ll stand head and shoulders above most people out there. Look out for part 2 on “Camera Operating Techniques“.
I actually run a Camera Operators Course so click the link or get in touch, if you’re interested in coming and learning in person! (Shameless Plug…) If you enjoyed this you might like 30 Tips for Being an Outstanding Camera Assistant or even 10 Tips for Shooting Steady Handheld
Free Spirit Film & TV
Film, TV & Online Video Production.