Q&A: Camera Operators
Camera operators might not always get the glory, but they certainly do get the job done. Working hand in hand with DPs and directors, these artists make sure the camera is in the right place for the right shot, and so much more. As one of the ops we spoke to says, “The camera operator is the “protector of the frame.”
We reached out to three different camera operators, all of whom are members of the Society of Camera Operators (SOC), to find out more about their craft and how their job differs from some of the others on set.
What is the role of the camera operator? What is the camera operator accountable for on set?
The role of the camera operator varies quite a bit depending on the format. I work primarily in scripted television on “single camera” comedies. Don’t let the name “single camera” fool you. It’s meant to differentiate the shooting format from multicam, but these days most single camera shows shoot with two or three cameras. The show I work on, American Housewife, uses three cameras. I am the C camera operator.
In the most basic sense, the camera operator is responsible for the movement of the camera and the inclusion or exclusion of what is in frame. It takes a team of craftspeople to accomplish this. My immediate team includes a 1st and 2nd camera assistant and a dolly grip. Together we get the camera where it needs to be to get the shots and to tell the story as efficiently as possible.
How do you typically work with the DP?
The DP is the head of the camera department. Each DP has nuances in the way they work with their operators. Some DPs tell you exactly where to put your camera and what focal length your lenses should be. Others give you an approximate position and an indication of the size (wide, medium, close-up) and let you work it out with the actors or stand-ins.
What does a director of photography do?
They read the screenplay and work closely with the director to discuss the look and feel of a film. They then research how to create the look through lighting, framing and camera movement and what they will need in terms of kit and crew to achieve this.
On each day of filming, DoPs and their camera crews arrive early to set up and rehearse. Working with the director, the DoPs do blocking (decide the exact movements of both actors and camera). They discuss 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 focus puller and then the DoP oversees the lighting of the set for the first take.
It’s the job of DoPs to make sure every shot is usable and flag them when they’re not. They view the rushes (raw footage) with the director and work closely with the colourist in post-production. On smaller productions they shoot as well.
What’s a director of photography good at?
Photography: have an eye for composition, know how to tell a story through a shot, understand camera and lighting techniques, know how to use them to affect emotions
Technical knowledge of cameras: have an in-depth understanding of all motion picture equipment, cameras, lens, monitors and lights
Editing knowledge: understand the post-production work flow, have a good eye for colour in the editing process
The Difference Between a Camera Operator and a Director of Photography
The director of photography (commonly called the cinematographer or “DP”) serves as the director’s eyes. They work with the director to set up the shots according to the director’s vision. The difference between a director of photography and a camera operator is that the DP rarely operates the camera when it comes to filming because they supervise a team of camera operators who do all the filming.
The immediate duties of the director of photography include coordinating with the director on whether to shoot in film or digitally, how to compose the shot, how to light the scene, which lenses to use to manipulate images and camera placement. Sometimes the DP will operate the camera, but most do not. This is where the camera operator comes into play.
The director of photography relies on the camera operator to film the shots the DP and director set up. Camera operators should be more than familiar with the camera equipment used during production to best meet the vision of the DP and director. The camera operator takes instructions from both the director and DP and relays them to the camera crew, creating a plan of execution that uses technical skill and style to get the shot needed.
Qualifications and Skills
Aspiring DPs usually attend film school or major in a field related to film. From there they might find work as an apprentice with a camera crew where they learn the duties of an assistant camera operator and work with the lighting department. The skills of a cinematographer are honed by shooting films and improving technical expertise, from focal lengths to lighting setups
Camera operators also usually attend film school or receive a degree related to film. They also have technical expertise of film or digital cameras and computer programs for editing. Camera operators typically start out as production assistants for the camera department of a studio where they receive on-the-job training needed to become camera assistants and eventually camera operators
Director of Photography/Director Camera/Lighting Camera
Behind the camera need skills include:
Competent cinema camera operator, including long lens filming, currently work with both REDs & Blackmagic cameras ?
4k DSLR/mirrorless video camera trapping having spent the last year educating myself on the best techniques to set up successful camera traps ?
Long lens filming experienced in hide work and have a strong understanding of field craft, most recently having spent time filming elusive Pine Martens & Otters on the West coast of Scotland ?
PfCO commercial qualified for Drone flying with the CAA with 100+ hobbyist flying hours ?
6k timelapse/motionlapse/hyperlapse techniques including seasonal timelapses using GPS locations, drone hyperlapses and macro timelapses inside a studio environment ?
Underwater filming experience with advanced level diving qualification and own 4k underwater filming kit ?
Competent Ronin operator having spent 2 years intensively using the Ronin-S
Cinematography services, underwater and time lapse footage and equipment for above and underwater productions.
We specialise in 4k acquisition with high production values. We do a lot of underwater filming in 3D.
Inspired by the creativity and style of documentaries presented by popular wildlife filmmakers, he has developed a passion for creating presenter led wildlife documentaries telling the stories of some of his favorite species with the hope of inspiring others to love and protect them
What helps with the daily stresses of the job? For some, the antidote is yoga.
“We’d pull over, and looters would see us filming, and they would throw whatever they were stealing at us,” says Lee. “We got chased by guys stealing tennis shoes. We ran from angry mobs several times. And the scariest thing about it was, we did not see one policeman.”
Much like being a police officer or firefighter, operating a camera in the middle of a catastrophe can be an extremely risky enterprise. Camera operators who cover breaking news are often on the front lines. They’re expected to arrive while the action’s fresh and stay long enough to shoot plenty of footage. This can translate into long, exhausting hours on the road to get to a site; once there, it may mean waiting around for days heaving a 20-pound camera on and off your shoulder.
Even when working under optimal conditions — inside an air-conditioned studio or as part of a film crew — the endless hours of standing, squatting, and hefting heavy cameras under white-hot lights can take its toll on a camera operator’s body.
A yoga group for camera operators?
In recent years, some camera operators have turned to alternative treatments as well as mainstream medicine for relief from work-related injuries. After years of holding a camera on his shoulders
Later that year, after a morphine prescription failed to relieve his excruciating symptoms, his doctor recommended surgery. Although the operation alleviated some of his pain, he was still far from 100 percent comfortable