About six years ago I was working as an audio coordinator at a high school doing live mixes of all the choral department’s shows. My job was to design, set up and implement a system to make sure the choir could be heard. During shows and rehearsals, my job was to mix the choir into a pleasant, warm and clear sound. I had friends and family who would see the shows and they’d often lend their support by complimenting me on a job well done.
My response was always, “if you could tell I was doing a job at all, then I didn’t do it right.”
And I meant it.
The sound mix wasn’t something to be noticed – in fact – the perfect sound mix should go completely unnoticed and melt into the noise of the auditorium, soaking itself in the audience’s ears undeterred by the technology.
When I started to work as a camera assistant, I began to realize the same philosophy applied. Just as my previous work was highly technical, so is that of the camera assistant.
When I reveal I’m a camera assistant I am often quick to follow up with a job description to people. The confused look on their faces says it all. Nobody knows what an AC does and the word “assistant” distracts from the real responsibilities.
But even on sets I believe that good camera assistants are often unnoticed. The camera assistant’s job, simply put, is to run the camera department smoothly and efficiently so as to allow production to go as fast as it wants all while keeping film stocked, shots in focus, and footage processed. If any of those duties has a hiccup or something goes wrong, it can severely damage production costs and time. And so, like it was with sound mixing, a camera assistant’s best job is a job left unnoticed.
Shots should be in focus. Camera’s should function. Slates should clap. The camera assistants are get the most attention when something goes wrong or something holds up production. Camera reloads or camera boots (in digital) are the biggest example of this.
So, is the camera assistant best when he/she is invisible? I would say yes (though there are obvious exceptions). Many people on film sets realize the importance and responsibility of an AC, but as I posited above, a good AC should attempt to fly under the radar with impeccable perfection.
I’ve worked with a few first time directors who I suspected didn’t really know what an AC did at first. I always wondered if they had figured it out by the end. I never ask directors for marks – I try to do them silently or ask the DP if need be – but most of the time I am ready to go when the director is. Did he know what I did? Does he know that I pull the focus? Does it matter?
I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining because I’m not. I love my job just as I loved my sound job before. I am merely curious to what the perception of certain people is on how a camera assistant handles their job. Naturally I think most of this does not apply to the more noticeable functions of a camera assistant such as lens changes, moving the camera, and slating. These are all tasks that everyone knows about – most of what I mean when I say unnoticed is that these tasks are taken for granted to go smoothly.
In my opinion, a camera assistant should churn out shots like auto-focus and if they do their job right, it’ll be tough to notice they did a job at all.