If the director is the leader of the orchestra, the cameraman is the first violinist. The director may be able to inspire his shooting crew to produce an Academy Award-winner, but he can’t make “music” alone. He must rely on the cameraman, with his camera violin.
I’ll be so bold as to state it outright: No matter what the project, the camera man is the most important link in the chain connecting the video concept with the finished product. From the producer & director to the lowliest production assistant, everyone works to ensure that the cameraman can shoot the best possible video.
In the end only the cameraman’s eye looks through the viewfinder. Only his touch can finesse the focus ring and zoom contfol.
There’s no simple description of a cameraman’s duties-they change with each assignment. He may be first violinist, but he may also play trumpet, beat the drums, sell tickets, feed the elephants, and sweep the floor when the show’s over. That’s show biz.
Basically, there are three ways a cameraman will approach a job:
- with a script and a well-defined plan;
- with a general idea of what’s going to happen during a predictable event;
- and with no idea of what is going to happen and no way to plan from one shot to the next.
A cameraman shooting an industrial training video, a commercial, or a school play will follow a script and shoot from pre-planned camera positions.
A cameraman shooting a television show before a live audience may be one of a number of cameramen being told through a headset what shot to get, how to frame it, and when and how fast to zoom
in and out.
A wedding videographer knows from experience and planning what will happen and when, but he has to make sure tape rolls at the right moments. The difference between the average wedding video and the outstanding one is a cameraman who can anticipate and react to the unexpected.
A news cameraman, who seldom knows what will happen from one minute to the next, often must react instinctively and with lightning speed. In this field, if it moves, shoot it.
Don’t attempt to shoot a school play with the same ad-lib approach you would a news event; you’ll come out with total chaos.
As cameraman, your primary responsibility is to work with the other members of the crew and record the video the way the director desires. A shooting crew must work together as a team.
The director will know every shot and camera angle he or she wants. Likewise, the cameraman must know the script forward and backward. Before the shoot begins you’ll be expected to go over it with the director. During this conference, discuss any difficulties you foresee with his expectations. If the shoot requires aerial shots, let the director know if you have a problem with hanging out the door of a helicopter.
Ask enough questions to clear up anything you don’t understand. You may even be asked to help scout locations and make suggestions.
If everyone knows their job the production will run like a well-oiled machine. You’ll be able to concentrate on one thing: the shot.
But the chances of winding up with the ideal crew is somewhere between slim and none. Each crew member’s ability generally depends on the money available, as will the number of people on the crew. You’ve heard of “low budget” productions…?
It’s not unusual for the cameraman to be assistant cameraman (and maybe even director); the sound technician to do the lighting; and everyone else to be stagehands (including the talent!) anything to get the job done. When the shoot’s over you might have to put in long hours in the editing suite to put it all together.
A Job Well Done
The cameraman’s job is both mechanical and aesthetic. The mechanical portion can be learned by anyone in a fairly short time. The aesthetic aspect, some people never learn.
On any assignment, be sure you’re prepared with peripheral equipment. Make a list of cables and connectors, special tripods or dollies, wide-angle or telephoto lenses, lighting equipment, microphones, and monitors you’ll need.
Know your camera. You won’t have a problem if you have a choice of equipment, but you may have to take potluck. The quality of the camera will hinge on what the budget will allow.
Set the white balance, focus the lens, adjust the iris, control the zoom, frame the shot, roll the tape. You’ll zoom and change the exposure and the focus as the framing changes.
You may have to practice a particular move a few times, and it may take several takes to get exactly what the director wants. Camera angles or the subjects’ movements may need to be changed once recorded, if “the look” on tape falls short of expectations.
The viewfinder is your canvas. Light is your paint. The lens is your brush. As you work with the director you’ll decide whether to make the strokes of the brush bold and brash or light and delicate.
You’ll determine whether the actors and scenery or the camera itself will create the movement and mood.
Through trial and error you learn the little things that make a big difference. For example, it’s difficult to eliminate shadows if your subject is only a foot or two from a wall. And if your subject is dark and the wall is white, it’s difficult to set the correct exposure.
Using a wide-angle lens in bright light creates great depth of field, while a telephoto lens in dim light makes for a depth of field that’s very short.
Your subject and everything in the background will be in focus if you shoot it wide and with a lot of light.
Only your subject will be in focus with full telephoto and minimum light, often permitting you to eliminate problem backgrounds and save time by not having to move to a different location.
Video is a two dimensional medium, involving width and height, but your lens creates the illusion of depth. A wide-angle lens up close will make someone’s nose look a mile long (youknowwhatimean?) but the same shot using a telephoto lens can compress a facial feature and make a long nose look normal. Moving a light from one side to the other and up a foot or two can take 20 pounds off your subject, and make him or her mighty happy (especially if he or she is the talent, and a little self-conscious).
Worth Your While
Is learning the cameraman’s craft worth the effort? You bet it is. Nothing will thrill you more than looking through the viewfinder and watching a scene develop the way you dreamed it would.
As your production unfolds on the screen, you’ll delight in watching the audience’s reaction and you’ll get a chill when you see your name in the closing credits (even when it zips by so fast only you and your mother can read it).
I guess it’s called satisfaction. In the long run it won’t be money or recognition that gives you that. It will be a feeling deep down inside that tells you that you’ve accomplished something-that you’re a cameraman.
John Fuller is a news cameramanfor WXYZTV, Detroit, and a “hobbyist videomaking” columnist for the Detroit Free Press. He’s the author of Prescription for Better Home Video Movies (HPBooks).