10 Golden Rules: How to be a good cameraman.

Ten golden rules

By Sean Carswell.
In our transition from Freelance cameramen to owners of a Kit and Crewing company the learning curve has been steep. Based on our experience of hiring and my experience of shooting these are some of the qualities we believe will help bring you good results.

Having started in 1988 I have spent over half my life on the road shooting, often hating but more often than not loving my job. I have covered war, terrorism, comedy, drama, documentaries, commercials, been threatened, shot at, had diva tantrums, witnessed diva tantrums, been cooked half to death, been frozen half to death, travelled to places I’d never heard of; wished I’d never seen. Met lunatics, criminals, superstars, geniuses, world leaders, been inspired by the mundane and bored by the inspirational. Despite all that I only now feel after 24 years that I truly have a handle on what it takes to be a good cameraman.

There are many people out there who have encountered me at my worst and a few who’ve seen my best, ( perhaps too few ), and they will doubtlessly have their comments to add but nonetheless I’ll be as honest as I can. If my lessons can help anyone I’ll be pleased.

1: Get Involved
First of all, if I don’t like a project I won’t do it. That’s not being fussy but if I can’t engage with the subject then I don’t stand a snowballs chance in hell of being able to communicate to the viewer. It is a very poor cameraman who doesn’t understand the point of the story they’re covering. Ask questions; try to understand the subtleties of the subject. A story is best told in its subjectivities, spoon-feeding viewers is quite frankly lazy. You need to engage people’s imaginations. I learnt this from one of Channel Ten’s leading newsreaders many years ago; there is always a story behind the story. If the Prime Minister is sitting with the leading businessman in the country what is the one shot that tells the story? Them laughing together, sat together, ignoring each other, chatting quietly? It was a lesson I learnt covering news but it’s carried across all forms of TV into features and drama. The best story telling is done with subjectivity.

Being involved doesn’t just mean understanding the story though, it also means getting involved with production. More than ever, we as cameramen have a huge arsenal of creative tools available to us. Get involved with production early, understand what they are trying to achieve and make suggestions that allow them to do the best possible job they can do. Be sympathetic to their budgets and keep your ego out of it, few companies can afford to make a reality show on 35mm. If you try and shoot your showreel on every job you’ll not make many friends, you are working for the production company that has contracted you – remember that. Ultimately the schedule needs to get completed and sacrifice will always, almost always have to be made somewhere.

2: Present Solutions
Ok, we’ve all got this wrong at some point. When you’re exhausted at the end of a long 16-hour day and all that lies before you is an early morning call and to top it all off the current scene isn’t working, whose responsibility is it? Griping and moaning on set doesn’t get anything done. Get it wrapped first then talk to production. The DoP, or cameraman is a lynchpin on any production; your moaning can completely alter the mood on set. Cameramen are reputed to be prima donnas and that didn’t happen by accident. Yes, sometimes you do need feeding and rest; sometimes you may even need water! My own bugbear is being constantly fed sandwiches, and I have bored so many crew with that tale but I’ve learnt to get to the runners early and explain why I need what I need, and ( *tongue in cheek ), frankly a skinny flat-white really isn’t that difficult to sort out in the 21st Century. ( Oh and don’t ask me what it is, ask the Barista although according to Pret a Manger it’s, ‘less milk more flavour’ ).

I digress however. The point is that sometimes you have to step outside your hunger and fatigue and help the team out. Step back and evaluate what and why something isn’t working and present a solution – and you know what? Sometimes it’ll get ignored but don’t get upset, put your big fat cameraman’s ego to the side and work for the team. The whole crew is likely to be as hungry as you are, except the Director of course. As everyone knows they never eat on shoots. They can exist for months on end on nothing but cigarettes and bad coffee, #justinkelly you know who you are!

3: Accept you are wrong
Here’s an admission, I have often been wrong, you will be too; accept it. You don’t know everything; you can’t so get over it. A common failure amongst cameramen is to have the absolute arrogance to assume they know best. Often a client is paying for your knowledge but TV at its best is truly a collaborative experience.

One of the best lessons I ever learnt, ( after conceding a style argument with a director and shooting it his way ); was to see something radical and dynamic come out from the edit suite. Had we shot it my way it would have been a nicely shot piece but ( key phrase coming ), putting my faith in the Director’s vision witnessed a punchy sports documentary and forever changed my vision on how to shoot things.

You are engaged for your services but TV is a collaborative industry, we hear that all the time but how often do you honestly sit and listen to a director? Conversely how often does production engage their DoP early enough for the best result? Get inside their head, try and see what it is they’re asking for. Granted, there have been occasions when it appears there isn’t anything in there but different people have different strengths, some are editorial others visual. I have had the frustration of having lit entire drama sets only to hear a Director say, ‘I don’t like it, I don’t know why, I just want something – different’. At that point you need to eye the 1st AD and pray they like you, but having a relationship with the director in the first place helps. A good director will also be wanting you to bring your ability and style to the shoot so don’t be afraid to bounce off each other, just don’t try and put your ideas ahead of theirs unless you believe you are editorially better positioned with your argument. KEY WORD, ‘editorially’, not creatively!

4: Listen
This could also be point 3b. A very good director and personal friend dragged me over the coals a few years ago. We’d just done a road trip that went from Ulan Bator to LA and he was struggling to edit my stuff. It was all good but the sequences were ‘awkward’. The thing about being a cameraman is that you can’t hide behind anything at this point. Fortunately he did take the time to ‘talk’ me through things, it was uncomfortable to hear but I had nowhere to go, I had screwed up. If it hadn’t been for the fact we’d worked together before and he knew for whatever reason I was off my game, it could have been detrimental to my career. I am fortunate he did eviscerate me as I’ve since done similar jobs and not had any issues back from the edit suites.

As we’ve grown at Base Films we’ve had to hire other operators which has given me an even greater insight into them, with my hand on my heart I can say most Cameramen ARE divas and the great ones are truly a rare find. I have had the discomfort of having to ‘release’ people I know from shoots for badly and unexpectedly messing them up. Remembering what I’d been through, I had to grow a pair and drag them over the coals. With my hand on my heart I know those guys are talented technicians and hope my advice spurs them to great heights.

Of course all that is post screw-up, but listening also means hearing what’s coming out of the pre-production meetings and what all those coffees with directors are for. The devil is in the detail in TV and Film, being short of a single screw or clamp can kill you on a shoot but being in the wrong location at the wrong time because you weren’t paying attention in the production meetings will kill the whole unit. If you don’t believe me just try and convince your Lighting team you can shoot day for night on a beach in the middle of the day because you agreed to it in the meeting! Yes it has happened! Trust me once you’ve lost the support of your Gaffer and Sparks you are in a world of pain. At this moment refer to point three above.

5: Push
Demand more from everyone but particularly demand more from yourself. I don’t mean get pushy and tell everyone what they should do, I mean respect the shoot. Respect the subject matter and make sure you are doing the best you can to bring it to life onscreen. My biggest hate is to go to a stunning location and not do it the justice it deserves. There is nothing worse than being in the right place at the wrong time either so push to be there at the right time. You don’t have to be a pain in the arse, if you love your job and you are truly trying to do the right thing for the right reasons people will listen. No director worth working with will ignore you for trying to make their programme better. Think of the story too, editorially are you shooting the right thing? Filming is a highly involved process and absorbs energy physically and mentally. Make it easy on yourself and don’t waste time or media shooting stuff that isn’t worth it. Don’t waste the editor’s time viewing it; don’t waste the director’s time or the productions money.
When you are tired, ask yourself honestly, can I do this better? Move the light, put the camera on the tripod, make that last shot that little bit better. It’s like life, if you habitually say, ‘that’ll do’, then fair enough. However, if you say, ‘that could be better’, then you’re automatically demanding more of yourself and indirectly, those around you.

6: Communicate
Admittedly this could come under all the previous points however it’s worth raising again as its own point because there are types of communication for different parts of the crew. Sometimes, simply shooting the story is the easiest part of the job as a DoP. There is often a layer of politics and fire-fighting going on as the Head of Department that crew isn’t privy to. You need to be very clear about what you want and when and how you want it. You cannot hope or rely on your team knowing by some miracle what you truly meant. When they wheel up with a set of 48k’s when you needed some par cans and a dedo light whose fault is that? You cannot know exactly how every scene will light, we all have to deal with un-recce’d locations but have a backup, talk to your gaffer, get his input, read the script, talk to the director.
One of my personal failings back in the day was to be shy of the Line Producers. Don’t be! Get a relationship going; get to know them. You don’t have to schmooze but like anything in life if it comes to needing help, it’s always easier to offer it to people you like.

Don’t get upset with people, you have the right to tell the, what you expect from them as fellow professionals but bear in mind they have the same right in return. As long as you are not being unreasonable, many people appreciate it; it eliminates confusion. I will happily tell my crew what winds me up and what doesn’t. Better that than they think I’m some kind of moody dictator.

7: Look after your kit
LOOK AFTER YOUR KIT – THAT DOES NOT NEED EXPLAINING. And if you are a self-shooter, seriously, you guys are responsible for literally millions of pounds of kit going missing each year, ( month ). You are unforgivably bad. I had a Production Manager once ask me why they were being charged so much for a replacement radio microphone that had been lost. My reply was, ‘When you hire a car, what happens when you take it back without a door?’ It beggars believe that people will lose thousands of pounds worth of kit and think its ok. Its not, it really isn’t, for any reason, environmentally, morally or financially. Start taking that lost kit out of your wage and we’ll see how quickly that situation improves.

Some environments are hostile for camera equipment. We had a shoot come back from the Saharan desert recently where 6 of 7 lenses needed to go back to the manufacturer. I personally packed the kit and was there for the first half of the shoot. When I left everything had been cleaned daily and was functioning fine, two weeks later when the kit was returned to the UK, the cleaning kit was un-opened and the lenses have ( so far ), cost production an additional £5.5k to service and have off the road. £5500, for the sake of 5 minutes work each night. Quite frankly it was a miracle the kit made it through to the end of the shoot let alone talking about the possibility of kit failure in that environment during the shoot!

8: Be Honest
We ARE going to be late. I did shoot it the wrong colour temperature. I forgot to bring that piece of kit. I wasn’t listening. Whatever it is, get it said and get a solution underway ASAP. Better still if you can do it before you are on location. We’ve all had to buy team members time dealing with ‘technical issues’ while their forgotten piece of kit turns up. Its fine, sort of but remember you’ll need the return favour one day.
And you know what, ‘I don’t get the point of this interview/location/scene’, doesn’t always hurt either. Asked in the appropriate manner it can enhance your understanding of the story and ultimate objective of the film. If you’re thinking it chances are some other crew member is too. Remember, you are collaborating, so don’t be afraid to admit you are clueless!

9: Don’t Moan
I know. You are, hungry/thirsty/you need the toilet, the day was only supposed to be 10 hrs/12 hrs/18 hrs long. The camera is heavy/new/slow/inappropriate for the shoot, the kit is, old/unfamiliar/not yours/broken/bullshit. Production should have listened to you when you told them the weather was bad/the location was wrong/the unit move was too much.

FFS, get over it.

Do you want me to go into it many further?

10: 90% of the thinking happens before you are ever on set.

This is the absolute secret to the televisual universe. It occurred to me while I was viewing a raft of programmes in the edit. I don’t spend much time thinking technically while I’m filming. Its surprising just how much can be shot in such a short time without any real effort made. TV is always about moments, strings of moments. Each sequence is punctuated by openings, middles and endings. It’s remarkably easy most of the time, but its only easy when you have done the thinking and planning beforehand. Prepping a scene mentally or with the director beforehand means you are covered. Locked off camera positions can be considered, and nailed down. Jibs, tracks and dolly’s and lighting can be prepped ahead of time and de-rigged quickly keeping a fluid momentum going. If you’ve done your job, and have your team’s doing theirs accordingly you work each scene through its ‘moments’. You should categorically know what is coming up next and how to deal with it – if you don’t; you are not doing your job. The magic comes whenever you get the ingredients right. You don’t start baking a cake halfway through the process. You get all the ingredients and a good timer and you put it all together. The Cameraman/DoP is the chef, get it all ready, get it prepped and start baking.

I have written this from my experience across drama, documentaries, entertainment and news. Some of the scenarios may be unfamiliar to some of you but I’ve tried to keep the language and examples as simple as possible. It is the nature of man to superimpose his own experience onto a story, and draw their own conclusions. It’s inevitable and not always helpful but I hope I’ve kept it clear enough so that you each get the idea.

Best, and remember

…Be Nice!

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