Camera Department

1. Director of Photography

Directors of Photography (DoPs) are key Heads of Department on film productions, and theirs is one of the major creative roles. They are requested by the Director, and must be approved by the financiers, studio and/or completion bond company. DoPs work closely with the Director and Production Designer to give a film its visual signature. Lighting is one of the fundamental elements in filmmaking; the way in which light falls on an actor’s face, reveals an interior space, or illuminates a landscape, can create mood, drama and excitement for the audience. The ability of cinema to entertain and emotionally move an audience is the result of a highly collaborative process which encompasses performance, editing and music. The role of the Director of Photography or Cinematographer is to provide a film with its unique visual identity, or look. Most DoPs work on commercials and promos as well as on feature films. Although the hours are long, and some foreign travel may be required, involving long periods spent away from base, the work is highly creative and very rewarding.

What is the job?
DoPs must discover the photographic heart of a screenplay, using a variety of source material including stills photography, painting, other films, etc. They realise the desired look using lighting, framing, camera movement, etc. DoPs collaborate closely with the camera crew (Camera Operator, 1st and 2nd Assistant Camera, Camera Trainee and Grips). During filming, DoPs also work closely with the Gaffer (whose lighting team are key to helping create the required look of the film), the Production Designer, Costume Designer, and the Hair and Make Up Department.

After reading the screenplay, DoPs meet with the Director to discuss the visual style of the film. They conduct research and preparation including carrying out technical recces of locations. They prepare a list of all required camera equipment, including lights, film stock, camera, cranes and all accessories etc., for requisition by the production office. During preparation DoPs also test special lenses, filters or film stocks, checking that the results are in keeping with the Director’s vision for the film. On each day of principal photography, DoPs and their camera crews arrive early on set to prepare the equipment for the day’s work. During rehearsals, the Director and DoP block (decide the exact movements of both actors and camera) the shots as the actors walk through their actions, discussing any special camera moves or lighting requirements with the Camera Operator, Gaffer and Grip. Each shot is marked up for focus and framing by the 1st AC, and, while the actors finish make-up and costume, the DoP oversees the lighting of the set for the first take. On smaller films, DoPs often also operate the camera during the shoot. At the end of each shooting day, DoPs prepare for the following day’s work, and check that all special requirements (cranes, Steadicams, remote heads, long or wide lenses, etc.) have been ordered. They also usually view the rushes with the Director. During post production, DoPs are required to attend the digital grading of the film, which may involve up to three weeks of intensive work.

Essential knowledge and skills
The basic requirement for DoPs is a good technical knowledge of photo-chemical and digital processes and camera equipment. In-depth knowledge of lighting techniques, and how to achieve them, is essential. A combination of practical, technical and creative expertise is required, as well as considerable industry experience, in order to achieve the best results while also saving time and money. They must be flexible in order to adapt ideas instantly, and to be able to take decisions quickly. Knowledge of photography, painting and, particularly of the moving image, is essential. Some knowledge of film history may be useful, as it enables DoPs to be inventive, and to have a working knowledge of how technologies evolve.

Key Skills include:

  • artistic vision;
  • creativity and precise attention to detail;
  • good colour vision;
  • ability to give and to accept direction;
  • excellent communication skills;
  • diplomacy and tact when working with cast and crew;
  • knowledge of the requirements of the relevant Health and Safety legislation and procedures.

2. Camera Operator

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.

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.

3. 1st Assistant Camera

When characters in films run out of a burning building or simply walk across a room to open the door, they are usually moving closer or further away from the camera. This means that the focal length – the distance of the camera lens from the subject – is constantly changing. Adapting or “pulling” focus to accommodate these changes is the main responsibility of the 1st Assistant Camera (AC). 1st ACs are usually requested by the Director of Photography or the Camera Operator and work on a freelance basis. Hours are long and the work can be physically demanding.

What is the job?
The role of the 1st AC (until recently known as Focus Puller) is one of the most skilled jobs on a film crew. 1st ACs are responsible for focusing and refocusing the camera lens as actors move within the frame of each shot, but they do not look though the lens to do this; they pull focus according to a set of complex marks (which are placed on the set, on the floor, on props, etc., during the Director’s on-set rehearsal time with the cast), and by using their instincts and experience of judging focal lengths. As it is impossible to see whether the focus is sharp until the rushes are screened, 1st ACs rely on experience and instinct for each focal adjustment. Because re-shooting scenes is expensive, and actors may be unable to re-create their best take, 1st ACs must be extremely reliable and good at their work, and should be able to cope effectively in stressful situations.

1st ACs are also responsible for camera equipment such as lenses, filters and matt boxes, and for assembling the camera and its accessories for different shots. 1st ACs arrive on set or in the studio before the Director, Director of Photography and Camera Operator, and ensure that the camera and all required lenses are prepared for the day’s shoot. If the Director or DoP wants to try out a specific lens, the 1st AC assembles the camera so that they can look through the eyepiece to assess the shot. At the end of each shooting day, 1st ACs clean the equipment and pack it up in preparation for the next day. If there is a problem with the rushes (such as a scratch on the film), Focus Pullers liaise with the Film Lab to rectify any faults with the camera or stock.

Essential knowledge and skills
1st ACs must develop their ability to pull focus to such a degree that it becomes instinctive. This requires excellent knowledge of cameras, lenses and all related equipment. They must also keep up to date with new techniques and equipment. They need expert knowledge of photo-chemical and Digital film processing.

Key Skills include:

  • good eyesight and the ability to accurately judge distances;
  • agility and speed;
  • precise attention to detail;
  • ability to collaborate and to work as part of a team;
  • diplomacy and sensitivity when working with artists and crew;
  • physical stamina and strength;
  • knowledge of the requirements of the relevant Health and Safety legislation and procedures

4. 2nd Assistant Camera

2nd Assistant Cameras (ACs) are key members of the camera crew, and are responsible for the smooth running of the entire camera department. Audiences watching a finished film are not conscious of the camera – a complex piece of machinery, powered by batteries which must be charged and reloaded. Nor are they thinking of the difficult job of anticipating when a magazine (the sealed container that feeds the unexposed film into the camera) is about to run out, and what a pressurised job it is to reload quickly so that the flow of filming is not disrupted. These are some of the responsibilities of the 2nd Assistant Camera (until recently known as the Clapper Loader in the UK). Most 2nd AC’s are requested by a Camera Operator or 1st AC, and work on a freelance basis. They often work on a combination of commercials, promos and features.

What is the job?
2nd ACs assist the Camera Operator in positioning and moving the camera, and are responsible for loading and unloading film magazines, changing and charging camera batteries, changing lenses, operating the clapper board, filling out and filing all camera sheets, liaising with film labs, and ordering the correct amount and type of film stock. 2nd ACs work closely with 1st ACs (Focus Pullers), and supervise any Camera Trainees.

Depending on the size of the feature film, 2nd ACs start work two or three weeks before the first day of principal photography, assisting the Director of Photography (DoP) and Camera Operator with any tests required on film stock or/and with artists. During the shoot, 2nd ACs begin work early in the mornings, unloading, organising and preparing all the camera equipment for each day’s work. During rehearsals, they mark-up the actors’ positions, enabling the 1st AC to calculate any changes in focus. When the camera starts to roll, 2nd ACs mark each take with a clapperboard (which identifies the take and enables the Assistant Editor to synchronise the sound and picture in preparation for editing). 2nd ACs position themselves next to the camera, where they can anticipate all camera movements, and monitor how much film stock is being used. They must know when a new film magazine should be prepared. At the end of each shooting day, 2nd ACs pack away all the equipment, label up film cans, and dispatch them to the labs with detailed camera sheets.

Essential knowledge and skills
2nd ACs must have an exhaustive knowledge of all camera equipment, film stocks and processing techniques. They also need a thorough understanding of how to manage and maintain all camera department paperwork and administration.

Key Skills include:

  • excellent organisational skills;
  • agility and speed;
  • effective communication skills;
  • precise attention to detail;
  • ability to collaborate and to work as part of a team;
  • diplomacy and sensitivity when working with artists and crew;
  • physical stamina and strength;
  • knowledge of the requirements of the relevant Health and safety legislation and procedures;

5. Grip

Grips’ responsibility is to build and maintain all the equipment that supports cameras. This equipment, which includes tripods, dollies, tracks, jibs, cranes, and static rigs, is constructed of delicate yet heavy duty parts requiring a high level of experience to operate and move. Every scene in a feature film is shot using one or more cameras, each mounted on highly complex, extremely expensive, heavy-duty equipment. Grips assemble this equipment according to meticulous specifications and push, pull, mount or hang it from a variety of settings. The equipment can be as basic as a tripod standing on a studio floor, to hazardous operations such as mounting a camera on a 100 ft crane, or hanging it from a helicopter swooping above a mountain range.

Good Grips perform a crucial role in ensuring that the artifice of film is maintained, and that camera moves are as seamless as possible. Grips are usually requested by the DoP or the Camera Operator. Although the work is physically demanding and the hours are long, the work can be very rewarding. Many Grips work on both commercials and features.

What is the job?
Grips work closely with the Director, Director of Photography (DoP) and the Camera Operator to ensure that all positioning or movement of cameras is achievable. Grips are usually responsible for pushing the Dolly (the wheeled platform which carries the camera and the Camera Operator) and must create smooth movements that do not distract from the onscreen action. On large projects with multiple cameras, the Key Grip is responsible for the main camera (camera A), with other Grips providing additional camera support.

Grips begin work in the later stages of preproduction, when they join all other Heads of Department to carry out a technical recce. If particular challenges are identified, Grips work with specialist companies to devise tailor-made pieces of equipment to facilitate difficult camera manoeuvres which are sometimes performed on location in extreme terrain and/or severe weather. During shooting days, Grips and their team (which may include other Grips, a Remote Head technician, a Crane Operator, tracking car drivers, and all construction standbys) arrive on set early, unload all the equipment, and ensure that everything is prepared for the day’s filming. After the Director has rehearsed the actors, all the shots are choreographed, using stand-ins (the line-up), and Grips subsequently set-up any required equipment. Whenever a crane is used, a minimum of two Grips are always employed, collaborating closely with the Crane Operator about mounting and moving the camera. Grips should be ready as soon as the camera starts to roll, and they must anticipate all the camera moves, whilst also keeping in mind the preparations required for the next camera set-up. At the end of each day’s shooting, Grips oversee the packing up of all camera-support equipment.

Essential knowledge and skills
Grips must have excellent up-to-date knowledge of all camera-support equipment. They should be enthusiastic about mechanics and assembling equipment, and have a passion for finding creative solutions to technical problems.
Key Skills include:

  • good leadership skills;
  • initiative and the ability to respond quickly to different situations;
  • ability to help realise a Director/DoP’s artistic vision in practical terms;
  • ability to collaborate and to work as part of a team;
  • diplomacy and sensitivity when working with artists and other crew;
  • a high level of physical stamina and strength;
  • since a Camera Grip has to lift and pull heavy equipment, they need a thorough knowledge of the requirements of the relevant Health and Safety legislation and procedures.