Camera assistants are the backbone of the camera department on set. These technicians aid camera operators in setting up gear, keep the sensitive equipment in tip-top shape, and trudge over hill and over dale to lug the DP’s Panavision on location.
The first assistant cameraperson, also known as the focus puller, is primarily responsible for ensuring a sharp picture. He or she works closely with the camera operator (under the direction of the director of photography) to measure the distance between the lens and the subject, and to maintain proper focal distance during camera movements. Tracking shots and crane movements will require the first AC to collaborate with both camera operator and the dolly grip or crane operator to ensure consistent focus. This requires an individual who has a keen eye and a good judgment of distance, and is quick on his feet. Any future focus puller would do well to study Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film, Rope. The feature is comprised entirely of long, uncut segments, including some of the most impressive tracking shots seen in a movie at the time. When not participating in photography, the first AC is also tasked with cleaning and maintaining lenses, and threading the camera with film. The full digital conversion has not yet overtaken Hollywood—35mm is still the standard.
Tasked with loading the film magazine and performing the scene slate with the clapperboard is the second assistant cameraperson (second AC). Sometimes dubbed the clapper loader, this person also controls the film inventory, completes camera reports, and will spike an actor’s mark when necessary. He or she is typically the only person permitted to have contact with the raw film and undeveloped negative. The second AC takes great care to maintain proper storage conditions of all film (both before and after photography) to ensure the expensive inventory and hours of shooting are not lost.
Skills & Education
Camera assistants must be trained in the proper setup and maintenance of camera equipment, handling of film, and techniques of photography. A college degree in film and television production is not required, but highly recommended. The International Associate of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) also provides apprenticeship programs on a selective basis. Camera assistants must understand concepts of light, color, and exposure; classes or equivalent experience in still photography are helpful. Training in the use of digital and high definition cameras is also valuable.
What to Expect
Work in the camera department starts as an IATSE trainee, or as a camera department intern. Advancement to the assistant roles and eventually gigs as a camera operator is based on experience and your proven ability through on-the-job training. Camera assistants must be obsessively meticulous in the care and maintenance of the equipment; you may be faced with shooting in sand, cold, rain, and mud, but the environment cannot be allowed to affect the proper operation of the gear. Without a clean, running camera production grinds to a halt. You are expected to be attentive to the needs of the operator and DP, as well as to anticipate problems and quickly act to resolve them before snags impede photography. If you have a strong work ethic, are reliable, and carry yourself with a high degree of professionalism, you will be an asset to any crew.
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