I believe strongly in the vital, indispensable role of the camera operator. Here are a few reasons why.
Camera operating is a full-time, full-attention job.
Maintaining composition, enforcing eyelines, executing smooth moves, watching focus, noting errant shadows and objects, flagging anomalies in hair, makeup, costume and set dressing – all of these things are performed in real time as the camera is running. Then there’s the operator’s constant liaising with production and the other departments, determining equipment needs, refining blocking and assisting the cinematographer in any of a hundred ways. Plainly, these responsibilities require the complete and undivided attention of a single person. Much of camera operating is intuitive, similar in a sense to making music. If any distraction is indulged – even for an instant – the shot will already have been blown. Some cinematographers like to operate their own camera. I feel that when you do both jobs at the same time, one or the other is inevitably short-changed.
Camera operating is a unique talent. It is not part of every cinematographer’s skill set.
Ever see someone new to the geared head attempt to use it? It’s like watching a camel try to climb a ladder. Even the simpler fluid head demands a tremendous sensitivity in order to handle it effectively.
Although there are aspects of camera operating that can be learned and improved upon, the essence of it is a God-given ability. What elevates some operators are the same intangibles that elevate some cinematographers – superior taste and artistry. The best operators always move their eye during the shot and make hundreds of minute, organic adjustments on the fly. Their ability to think on their feet – to rescue what might surely end up as a busted take – makes them invaluable to a production. Then there are the physical concerns. Hand-to-eye coordination is a given. So are a good set of legs and a strong back. Operators often find themselves working from some unusually contorted positions. Then imagine shooting a ninety-day schedule – completely hand-held. If lighting that much of a film isn’t enough to kill you, I promise the additional wear-and-tear of operating at the same time will do the trick.
The camera operator saves time and money by freeing up the cinematographer.
Some production people believe that camera operators work only while the shot is happening. Untrue. Their contribution is equally significant while we’re lighting; this’s the point where their penchant for finding faster, more efficient ways of doing things really shines. Plus, their extra set of eyes help avoid mistakes that lead to costly delays. Still not convinced? If the camera operator helps save only five minutes per set-up over the course of a twenty five set-up day…well, you do the math.
Every once in awhile someone wants to do away with the mandatory staffing of the camera operator. In an industry that’s not unfamiliar with doing dumb things, this would be one of the dumbest. It has always been my intention to employ one in the past, and I assure you it will continue to be in the future!