The camera operator works under the supervision of the director of photography (cinematographer) and is tasked with ensuring that the camera gets each shot just as the DP and director have instructed. Depending on the size and budget of a production, there may be several camera operators working in tandem.
In preparation for a scene, the camera operator blocks the set with the director of photography—the cameras are positioned, grips lay dolly track and set up jibs, and electricians place the lights. At this point, the director and DP confer on how to capture the shot. All cameras perform a run-through to plan movements and angles. The operators are aided by camera assistants to pull focus, load the film stock, change filters, and maintain all accessories. As the only pair of eyes that sees what the camera is capturing, the operator is responsible for adjusting aperture and making certain that the vision of the DP and director is translated to the film or video. It is this person’s responsibility to call for another take if the first was not up to par technically.
During the take, the camera operator looks through the viewfinder and relies on a team of technicians to keep her or him on track: grips push the dolly, operate the crane, and tow the cables. The operator may be asked to repeat takes several times if the director is not pleased with any aspect of the performance. When she or he is satisfied with the takes that have been collected, the camera department wraps on that scene and starts the process all over again. Camera operators may work on the first (or primary) unit, with the director and lead cast, or on one of the second units, who are typically responsible for picking up extra coverage, close-ups of objects for insertion in editing, establishing landscape shots, or international locations. In additional to principal photography, these technicians may be called upon to perform camera tests in preproduction and/or reshoots in post.
Skills & Education
Extensive training and experience in the operation of film and video cameras and accessories is required; a college degree in film and television production is the most comprehensive source for this education. Camera operators must understand the functions of both digital and film cameras, as well as lighting, color theory, and the development process. Framing a shot using light and color is an art that requires a creative and trained eye. Classes in still photography and fine art are helpful.
What to Expect
Practice is crucial; you must be as confident on a handheld as you are with a tripod. Steadicam operators are specialists, and the role is considered a separate position. Training in aerial photography, underwater filming, and other specialties will make you a valuable commodity, able to demand a higher salary. You must be prepared for any and all environments; today the set may be in an air-conditioned soundstage, but tomorrow you might be traipsing through the mud and fighting off insects the size of your fist. To get the gig you will have to put in time as a camera assistant. Accomplished camera operators can move up to larger productions, and may find an opportunity to graduate to the role of the director of photography. These technicians can become members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which does offer a limited-access trainee program.
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