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Using a Camera Operator


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#1 Tyler Leisher

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 12:49 AM

So for specific things like a jib shot or steady cam shot I can understand using a specialised operator...

But when you are doing steady shots and whatnot, why use a camera operator instead of just letting the dp camera op? If we get a camera operator, what is the job of the dp, just to get the lights looking good and then letting the cam op take the reigns when it rolls?

Up until now, the cinematographer that I've worked with (and love working with) has operated the camera. But those have all been shorts, and I have a feature coming up soon.

Should I get a camera operator, or should I let the dp continue to operate? What are the pros/cons of either? What's most common?
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 01:00 AM

It's common on low-budget single-camera non-union features for the DP to operate as well, but that is partly just for financial reasons, to not pay two people.

The reasons for using a good, experienced operator are many, including:

#1 He is probably a better operator than the DP
#2 The DP can concentrate on lighting the shot up to the moment of shooting rather than start working on the camera set-up and rehearsal of the move, tied to the camera right before it rolls
#3 The DP can sit next to the director at the monitor and talk to him about the shot, about future coverage, etc. and be part of that discussion
#4 If more than one camera is being used, the DP can see what both cameras are shooting on the monitor and make sure they are composing in the same style and shooting the pieces that are needed for editing
#5 The DP can start thinking about the next set-up, even giving some instructions to the gaffer and key grip, as the camera operator is doing take after take.

But this assumes that the operator is actually better than the DP at operating, not worse...

In a very,very small production where you want as few people on set as possible, with a single camera, and the director plans on standing next to the camera, not at a video village monitor, then it may be a more intimate environment to have a DP/operator combo, just to reduce the number of people involved in the process. But most sets have a video tap and a monitor in the next room where the director sits next to the script supervisor, and I find it hard to be as collaborative with the director if he's in there and I'm operating the camera on set rather than sitting next to him. And if we are doing take after take after take, I start to find that I'd rather be thinking and working on the next set-up behind the scenes rather than being stuck at the camera.

There are DP's who love to operate and find it inseparable from the DP process; they light while looking thru the lens and think about upcoming set-ups while watching the take through the lens, etc. Plus they feel that if there is a lot of handheld work, then they have to do it because there are too many split-second decisions to make. While I respect DP's who feel that it is necessary to operate... I'm not one of them. I'm an average operator at best for one reason.
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#3 Steve McBride

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 01:01 AM

It's really all preference. If the DP wants to camera op, he/ she will, if they don't, they won't.

When a film has both a DP and a camera op, the DP is in complete control as to what is being shot as they are the ones telling the camera op what to shoot and how to frame it, the camera op simply does what the DP says and may put it their own words along the shoot.

Also, keep in mind that most likely for a lot of shorts and indie films the DP and the camera op are the same person, you'll really only see two different people doing the jobs when you're more of a studio feature with multiple cameras and the DP is coordinating what is being shot with all of the cameras.
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#4 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 01:18 AM

Just to tack onto these thoughts, the Director of the movie isn't usually acting, designing, delivering props or anything else. The Director is overseeing the specialists so that he is better able to see the big picture and "direct" everyone toward the same goal.

In the same way, the Director of Photography can't and shouldn't be expected to be hands-on with everything involved with the photography. Just as one wouldn't expect the DP of a narrative film to be going to the taco cart to get C-stands, bags, flags... to be up in the perms setting lights, changing lamps....laying dolly track, pushing the dolly, pulling focus....

You get the idea. There are so many things that happen during a typical setup and practicing a camera move and/or concentrating on the best way to achieve a shot can distract a DP from everything else that he should also be thinking about.

Not that it isn't possible to multitask, but in an ideal world, the DP can "direct" his crew of Grips, Electrics, and those in the Camera Department while also consulting with the Director, the On Set Decorator, On Set Dresser, Prop Master, Standby Painter, Stunt Coordinator, First AD, and whoever else needs to be involved in a setup. If he's also working out how to operate a difficult camera shot, how is he supposed to also put fair attention into the rest of the setup? Something will be compromised at some point.

So given that, why is the DP expected to also operate a camera when the Director of the movie isn't expected to do other jobs in the same way?
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#5 Jamie Metzger

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 01:38 AM

Just to tack onto these thoughts, the Director of the movie isn't usually acting, designing, delivering props or anything else. The Director is overseeing the specialists so that he is better able to see the big picture and "direct" everyone toward the same goal.

In the same way, the Director of Photography can't and shouldn't be expected to be hands-on with everything involved with the photography. Just as one wouldn't expect the DP of a narrative film to be going to the taco cart to get C-stands, bags, flags... to be up in the perms setting lights, changing lamps....laying dolly track, pushing the dolly, pulling focus....

You get the idea. There are so many things that happen during a typical setup and practicing a camera move and/or concentrating on the best way to achieve a shot can distract a DP from everything else that he should also be thinking about.

Not that it isn't possible to multitask, but in an ideal world, the DP can "direct" his crew of Grips, Electrics, and those in the Camera Department while also consulting with the Director, the On Set Decorator, On Set Dresser, Prop Master, Standby Painter, Stunt Coordinator, First AD, and whoever else needs to be involved in a setup. If he's also working out how to operate a difficult camera shot, how is he supposed to also put fair attention into the rest of the setup? Something will be compromised at some point.

So given that, why is the DP expected to also operate a camera when the Director of the movie isn't expected to do other jobs in the same way?


Film is nothing but compromise and decision making. I think your last statement isn't fair in association terms. The director is usually working his/her butt off to cast, prepare, discuss with all the departments...etc Hopefully they did enough of that, so they can focus on directing when the shoot comes around.

When a DP has an operator that they trust, I think it's a good situation. A lot of good benefits have been mentioned all ready. I personally like to let my 1st get small pickup/insert shots after the scene has completed shooting; this way I can move on with the director and gaffer to get the next scene started.

If you had an operator that you trusted, and they were informed about all the details you needed them to know, they you could utilize this person very efficiently.
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#6 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 10:17 AM

Film is nothing but compromise and decision making. I think your last statement isn't fair in association terms. The director is usually working his/her butt off to cast, prepare, discuss with all the departments...etc Hopefully they did enough of that, so they can focus on directing when the shoot comes around.

When a DP has an operator that they trust, I think it's a good situation. A lot of good benefits have been mentioned all ready. I personally like to let my 1st get small pickup/insert shots after the scene has completed shooting; this way I can move on with the director and gaffer to get the next scene started.

If you had an operator that you trusted, and they were informed about all the details you needed them to know, they you could utilize this person very efficiently.


I think that we're saying the same thing! :)

Of course it's about compromise, but it's the level of compromise that a production has to contend with that is in question. Certainly a day of production can be done with a DP who also operates the camera. But his attention will be split even more as he has to think more about the mechanics of operating instead of concentrating on the rest of the elements going on in the shot. As the "DIRECTOR" of Photography, it's always going to be best if he/she can step back from the shot in progress just like the Director, so that the entirety of the shot (or multiple shots from multiple cameras) can be accessed. If the DP has his eye buried in an eyepiece, he won't be able to pay full attention to everything that is going on and will have to lean more heavily on his Gaffer and other crew to watch the things that he should be paying attention to.
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#7 Robert Starling SOC

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 10:32 AM

As a camera operator, whether it's straight forward camera, Steadicam or other specialty work I very much appreciate when the DP has experience on-set as an operator; it helps in our communication and workflow.

I get a lot of projects as Steadicam / B camera which is a perfect world for me, and frequently the DP is also the A camera op. From my eyes it looks like a lot of stress for the DP to do that but I certainly respect that their preference or the budget requires it.
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#8 Tyler Leisher

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 10:45 AM

So ultimately, I should just ask my dp if he wants to cam op or not and let him choose? Is there ever a point when I should force a cam op on him?
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#9 David Rakoczy

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 11:05 AM

So ultimately, I should just ask my dp if he wants to cam op or not and let him choose? Is there ever a point when I should force a cam op on him?



Yes.. if he/ she is a lousy Operator.

As a (control freak) Dp.. I love to operate myself. However, having worked for an entire season as Operator on Silk Stalkings (USA Network), I really honed my Gear Head Skills and since the Show never carried a Monitor.. I was fully in charge of continuity.. and had the last say even above the Continuity Person... and that was a great treat and Skill Building Exercise.. five days a week for seven straight months... Being a Camera Op (only), I believe, is the best job one can have on Set! I LOVED it! Second to DP/ Operator of course ;)

btw.. Brian is right on... I believe Jamie is saying the same thing (differently)..

Edited by David Rakoczy, 01 September 2008 - 11:08 AM.

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#10 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 11:31 AM

So ultimately, I should just ask my dp if he wants to cam op or not and let him choose? Is there ever a point when I should force a cam op on him?



Force? That sounds harsh.

If it was me and my project (and it's not), if I knew that I (as the Director or Producer) would be shooting primarily with two or more cameras for a majority of the setups, then I would suggest to the DP that an A and B Operator be hired for the whole of the production.

That discussion could begin with something like, "I know you like to Operate, but with so much going on, I'd really like it more if you could stand back with me during most of these shots to help me so we don't miss anything important." Something like that.

Now, you may have a control-freak or someone who feels he has something to prove ("I can do it all!") or is a former Operator who just can't let go. In that case, the odds are that nothing you say will get him off the dolly. But a reasonable Director of Photography who recognizes that his role has changed (to managing multiple departments as well as collaborating with the Director) will likely suggest to you that dedicated Operators be hired if the shooting style calls for it and the budget allows it.
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#11 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 11:44 AM

If operating was part of the DP's artistic approach, then I'd respect that and let them operate -- it is sort of their decision as to the best way to work.
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#12 Saul Rodgar

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 12:00 PM

I love to operate, I don't know if I would enjoy being a DP who doesn't operate at least partially on a show. To me it is the only way to make sure the shot is what I want, plus is tons of FUN. I am not a bad op, if the people I work with are to be believed. But there are times when it is best to delegate responsibilities and deal with more DP-like (artistic, crew, equipment management) issues. So the happy medium is what I would strive for.

I must say though, being an operator only is p'bly the best job on set: one gets plenty of sleep, the AC's deal with all the technical hassles, the DP deals with the politics and the rest of the technical hassles, one hopefully learns from the DP and has a blast operating, etc.

Edited by Saul Rodgar, 01 September 2008 - 12:04 PM.

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#13 Paul Maibaum ASC

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 12:05 PM

Here is an excerpt from an article to be published in the next issue of the SOC Magazine in response to a question posed to me regarding my use of camera operators:
?Ultimately, I want to see shots as if I operated them myself. But ninety nine percent of the time, I need an operator to get that done. The job of a director of photography and that of an Operator are two distinct positions. An operator is somebody that can concentrate on executing the shot. And there are a lot of elements to contend with. There is the dolly, working with the dolly grip, the focus puller, equipment in the frame? It is a full time job that demands constant attention. Before the shot, during the shot and analyzing the shot after they hear cut. Is it good enough? Did you get what you needed or do you have to do it again?
?The director of photography does not have time to do all that and the rest of the things that a DP needs to do. A DP needs to manage the entire camera, grip and electric crews; work with the director about the necessary coverage, working with the ADs to make sure we are on schedule, thinking about the next set we are moving to later that day, evaluating the equipment that will be needed, not only in the next scene, but for next week?s episode.
?No matter how big the show, the DP is constantly looking ahead. It is like a game of chess. You need to be a few moves ahead. There are too many people to coordinate with to make things happen. You cannot do all that and be in the moment to operate the camera well. If an operator starts to look at the lighting TOO MUCH IN THE WAY A DP WOULD, then the shot COULD POTENTIALLY BE blown because ONE?S reaction time is COMPROMISED DUE TO THE FACT THAT ONE IS NO LONGER CONCENTRATING ON MAKING THE SHOT.
?There are apparently some Directors of Photography out there who can and choose to juggle the two jobs? I am just not one of them.?
(The caps are not mine but were put in by the writer of the article for emphasis, I suppose)
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#14 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 01:33 PM

Most cinematographers start out doing their own operating so it's natural that they are comfortable with that until they learn first-hand the benefits of working with a skilled operator.
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#15 Robert Tagliaferri

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 10:16 PM

Alot of interesting answers here. I am (at best) an average operator, so ideally I like to have someone who can execute smooth movements under the direction of myself and the director. Then again, if I were a great operator, I would probably want to always operate myself. Handheld is a different story, I think I would always want to operate any handheld stuff, unless there was a reason I could not. Bear in mind though, alot of great DPs insist on operating... Roger Deakins for example always ops the Acam apparently- and Robert Elswit works as an operator too (Shine a Light).

As a 1st AC though I always enjoy when the DP operates... I always feel like operators get antsy during down time and feel they need to start messing about with the camera which ends up interfering with my job! DPs walk away from the camera after a take, plus you can learn alot by chatting with the DP during downtime about the lighting setups.

Here's an interesting follow-up:
What do you guys think of the director operating?
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#16 Bruce Greene

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Posted 01 September 2008 - 11:08 PM

Tyler,

You've gotten a lot of great responses so far but I'd just like to add one more thought.

If you're shooting on digital, the operator might not have the best view of the shot. Focus might be hard to see and it may be hard to judge the lighting in a poor quality viewfinder. On a film camera the operator gets a pretty good look at the shot, but on digital the DP might get a much better view looking at quality monitor.

As an example, I remember once watching the monitor on a difficult to focus shot. The operator couldn't tell if it was in focus, but I could see that it wasn't. So, I operated a take myself...I couldn't see the focus either and my operator did a better job.

Best of luck with your feature!
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#17 Brad Grimmett

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Posted 02 September 2008 - 12:38 AM

I find (as an operator) that a lot of newer DP's often assume that they are the only person in the world who can do a shot the way they want it. I think the truth is though, that a lot of them just don't know how to verbalize what they want, which makes it very hard for an operator to know what they're looking for. Most of the time it seems that once a DP works with a good operator, they want to continue to work that way because they see how much time it saves and how much easier it makes their life.
There are some DP's who shoot very big movies who operate all of their own stuff, and some of the time it seems to work, but other times the operating seems lacking, not because they're not good operators, but because they have a lot of other things to deal with besides operating every shot. I think some of those folks, and those movies, would be much better served by having a full time operator.
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#18 Saul Rodgar

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Posted 02 September 2008 - 02:04 AM

Yeah, it really boils down to communication between the operator and the DP. I make most of my money operating, so I must be doing something right. However, it seems like every time I want to convey what I want to an operator as a DP, they are more waiting for their chance to shine (or something) than to do what I say.

This at my lower budget production level, maybe things change as one moves up, but I doubt it -based on what I have seen on multi million dollar sets I work now and again. Even some big name operators, I can't help but thinking what a shoddy work they did when I see the movie in the 40-foot-screen theater.

So in the meantime, I do my own operating and if I mess it up, at least I know how to correct it, and so I try it again until I like it.

I believe Roger Deakins operated mostly for No Country, and it was awesome. That is my goal.

Edited by Saul Rodgar, 02 September 2008 - 02:06 AM.

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#19 Brad Grimmett

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Posted 02 September 2008 - 01:15 PM

However, it seems like every time I want to convey what I want to an operator as a DP, they are more waiting for their chance to shine (or something) than to do what I say.

I'm sure that's true in a few situations, but I think it's more of an exception than the rule. The vast majority of operators just want to do the best job for the DP, Director and project that they can. Maybe you've just been unlucky with the operators you've worked with.
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#20 John Sprung

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Posted 02 September 2008 - 01:42 PM

The reasons for using a good, experienced operator are many, including:

#6. At the end of a long day, both the DP and operator are in better shape physically. The operator gets time to stretch and relax during the day. The DP isn't burdened with the exhaustion of having to work in awkward positions alternating with all the time you spend on your feet.




-- J.S.
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