Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Behind the Scenes 7: the Camera Department

If the Director is God on a film set, then his right hand henchman slash Archangel Gabriel is the Cinematographer or Director of Photography (abbreviated to DP or DoP, depending on which country you're in).

The DP heads up the Camera Department. While the men and women working below him might purely be technicians, who know stuff like focal lengths, lenses and filters, and more recently bits & bytes, the DP has to be an artist too. He designs the lighting, the angles and the overall look of the pictures we see. Ever admired a stunning sunset in a film, a sweeping shot that quite literally moved you to tears, or the gritty realism of a shot that made you completely forget you're watching a movie? That's the work of a great DP.

On larger shoots the DP might not actually operate the camera, but rather supervise the bigger picture. In which case, he'll also have a Camera Operator for each camera. This is a senior technician, who is in charge of an entire camera unit.

DOP and Focus Puller at work on a shoot in Mozambique
Beneath the DP / operator is the Focus Puller, often called by the far less interesting name of 1st AC (1st Assistant Camera). Apart from being the chief assistant to the DP, changing lenses, and occasionally even operating the camera while the DP or operator stands back to get the bigger picture, the Focus Puller's main job is to ensure that the relevant part of each shot is in focus when it needs to be. That's not as simple as it seems.

I remember a shoot once where the focus puller was crouched in the back of an open-topped convertible with the camera, and the focus had to shift from the approaching traffic light, to the redhead standing on the kerb, to the driver inside the car. And all this while the vehicle was in motion. No mean feat!

I'm dating myself here when I say I still love the look of real film. Film has an incredible texture that somehow feels natural to the human eye. If a subject in the foreground is in focus, the background tends not to be, and vice versa. And this kind of mimics the way we see in everyday life, because even with 20/20 vision, our brain seldom focusses on absolutely everything at the same time. Talk about brain overload!

Modern digital cameras tend to have a 'flatter' look, meaning absolutely everything is in sharp focus, and personally I find that lacking in character. Luckily, as technology improves, digital cameras are starting to mimic film.

But I digress!

Below the Focus Puller (or Pullers if it's a multiple camera shoot, since each camera needs its own
focus puller) are the Clapper Loaders. And no, before you ask, (s)he doesn't clap any loads.

Unless there are trainees on set, the Loader is the junior of the team, and gets to do all the fetching and carrying of the heavy lens boxes, filling out of camera reports (eg. which lens or filter was used on which shot), and the making of tea and coffee for his superiors.


In the good old days of film, he (or she) loaded the film negative into the magazines that were attached to the top of the camera, and he operated the clapperboard. These days, with memory cards replacing film magazines, he doesn't do much loading anymore, but the name has stuck. And I think it sounds way more interesting than '2nd AC'.

What's the purpose for the clapperboard? Check back here when I cover the Sound Department.

The camera team also includes a VTO. (Aren't all these abbreviations cool? We film industry insiders can have whole conversations that no-one but us will understand!) VTO stands for Video Take-off Operator, and it's a fancy way of saying 'the guy with the monitors' (or gal). When we first started using VTOs on set, it was a trainee with a monitor and a VHS machine who hit record, stop and play. These days (I say that a lot, don't I?) the VTO has sophisticated computer equipment that not only plays back each take after it's shot so the powers-that-be can scrutinise what has just been filmed, but he can practically edit the entire show on set, adding in special effects and everything.

Another 'must have' member of the team is the DIT (Data Imaging Technician) or Data Wrangler. I won't go into the detail of the differences between the two job titles (though I could!) but suffice to say this person is a cross between a computer programmer and a camera technician. This individual ensures that the data coming off the memory card has not been corrupted, monitors image quality, keeps detailed logs of every shot, and hopefully is able to fix any technical glitches that occur on these new fandangled digital cameras.

There's a host of other camera team staff who are hired in on an 'only when needed' basis, like steadicam operators, aerial cameramen, underwater cameramen ... but this blog post is already thesis length, so I'm going to leave it at that!

Next week I'll be looking at the Lighting Department and answering Anonymous' question of 'What is a gaffer?'

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