Camera Operators perform a vital role within the camera department on feature films. They support the Director of Photography (DoP or DP), and the Director, by accurately carrying out their instructions regarding shot composition and development. The seamless ease with which the camera moves is key to the narrative flow of feature films, and is the Camera Operators' responsibility. They are usually the first people to use the camera's eye piece to assess how all the elements of performance, art direction, lighting, composition and camera movement come together to create the cinematic experience.
The DoP or Director often requests a specific Camera Operator, who in turn makes recommendations about the rest of the Camera and Grip Departments. The work is physically demanding, and requires high levels of strength and stamina. Hours are long (12-14 hours a day), and some foreign travel may be required, involving long periods spent away from base.
What is the job?
Camera Operators usually begin work at the end of pre-production and, if the budget allows, attend the technical recces with other Heads of Department. They work closely with the Director of Photography (DoP), Director and Grip, and are responsible for the 1st Assistant Camera (AC), 2nd Assistant Camera (AC) and the Camera Trainee.
After the Director and DoP have rehearsed and blocked the shots, the Camera Operator and DoP decide where to position the camera, and what lenses and supporting equipment to use. Camera Operators liaise with the Grip and other Heads of Department, and keep them informed about how the position and movement of the camera might impact on their work load. They oversee the preparation and checking of camera equipment. During shooting, Operators are responsible for all aspects of camera operation, enabling the DoP to concentrate intensively on lighting and overall visual style.
Camera Operators ensure that the camera and associated equipment are prepared for the required set-ups, always keeping alert for any last-minute changes. They must be able to multi-task, and to watch, listen and think on their feet while carrying out complex technical tasks. They liaise closely with the Director, fine-tuning the exact details of each shot, which often involves suggesting creative improvements or alternatives. They supervise the logistics of moving the camera, and oversee the Camera maintenance work carried out by the Focus Puller and the 2nd AC.
Camera Operators work closely with performers, guiding them on what can and cannot be seen by the camera. As it is now common for DoPs to also operate the camera on smaller films, many Camera Operators specialise in the operation of other precision equipment, such as Remote Heads or Steadicam, and most also work on commercials, promos and television drama. On bigger budget films, the role of the Camera Operator remains a crucial link between the creative ambitions of the Director, the DoP, and other major departments, including Art, Hair and Make-Up and Costume.
Typical career routes
Most Camera Operators begin their careers as Camera Trainees or Runners, progressing to 2nd AC and, as they gain more experience, to 1st AC. Throughout this progression, they must build upon their experience, and achieve a high level of competence when operating a variety of cameras. Once this level of expertise and experience has been achieved, they may become a DoP or a Camera Operator.
Essential knowledge and skills
Camera Operators need advanced technical abilities, combined with creative skills, and must know how to operate the camera to achieve the desired result. They need a good working knowledge of all camera systems, lenses and camera support equipment; of available accessories such as remote focus systems, video senders and receivers, and of any other regularly used equipment. Creative input and artistic ability are vital. As the decision-making process may take some time, patience is also essential.
Key Skills include:
- a good sense of visual composition, perspective and movement
- physical co-ordination and strength
- ability to combine creativity with technical skills
- precise attention to detail
- effective communication skills
- ability to collaborate, and to work as part of a team
- diplomacy and sensitivity when working with artists and crew
- knowledge of the requirements of the relevant Health and Safety legislation and procedures.
Training and qualifications
No specific qualifications are required to work in this role, although film schools and training courses offer a good basic grounding in the skills and knowledge required and in practice many Camera Operators have studied for higher level qualifications. The most useful courses offer practical experience and may also include work experience placements. Relevant courses include City & Guilds courses, BTEC HNC/HNDs, Foundation degrees, first degrees and postgraduate qualifications in media, film and TV production or cinematography. Basic stills photography, which develops visual and composition skills, also provides a useful starting point in training for this role.
Camera Operators usually learn most of their practical skills through hands-on experience on the job. However, continual professional development is vital, especially as technology changes rapidly. The National Film and Television School offers industry recognised short courses for all grades. New shooting techniques, lighting set-ups and other practices are learnt by testing out new equipment, studying trade journals, attending exhibitions and joining industry forums.
There are some industry led new entrant training schemes, which offer a training allowance and combine industry placements with short course training opportunities. These include schemes offered by Cyfle and Scottish Screen, and FT2 - Film and Television Training - camera assistant. Competition for places is fierce.
Skillet's network of Screen Academies are institutions that it has identified as offering the highest quality of film skills training. Details are available on the Creative Skillset website: http://www.creativeskillset.org/
Where to go for more information
Creative Skillset is the Sector Skills Council for Creative Media. The first sources of information for all jobs in the industry are the National Occupational Standards. Browse Creative Skillset's website for links to our network of training partners, information about training and access to the comprehensive Creative Skillset/BFI course database. Finally, Creative Skillset Careers is the UK's only specialist media careers advice service; for detailed media careers information and advice, visit www.skillset.org/careers.
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