Whether you like it or not, the future of filmmaking comes in bits and bytes.
Digital cameras already outpace film cameras on the production lines and the feverity with which they are released and adopted is astounding.
But you don’t really care about all that fanboyism. You just want to get a phone call from a producer, get the gig, show up on set and start pulling focus. It doesn’t matter what camera you do it on.
Well, I’m here to tell you that it sort of does.
If you want to survive in the digital cinematography future as a camera assistant, there are a few things you’re going to need change. These adaptations may be easy for you, others may not, but all of them will play a crucial role in your career path.
1. You Need to Understand Digital Acquisition & Formats
Some camera assistants are just starting their careers right now. That means, most likely, they will be trained and cultivated on digital cameras. To them, digital cinema will be their strong suit.
But if you’ve been in the game for awhile, that may not be the case.
Many digital cameras experienced a grass roots uprising. They were used primarily by low budget productions (with a few trailblazers throw in) until the format was quietly adopted by more and more and more mainstream Hollywood productions.
What that means is many veteran camera assistants actually have little experience with digital.
Theoretically, much of the job is the same: Laying marks doesn’t change, slating is still straightforward, and pulling focus isn’t any easier. You still cover the camera at lunch and fight the grips for the sour skittles at crafty.
But you will have to understand an entirely different set of technical information. Specifically, you need to learn the basics of how image sensors work, what pixels are, which cameras shoot which file formats, and more. Much more.
It’s no different than learning where to oil a film camera, how to load different magazines, or how film stocks react in certain scenarios.
While you probably won’t ever crack open a digital camera to fix it on set, understanding how it works on the inside is the best way to be prepared to troubleshoot any problems that arise on the outside.
A camera assistant needs to be the go-to technical person for all things camera related — don’t think because it’s digital and electronic you get a free pass.
2. You Should Invest in Digital Specific Gear
The number one question I get asked by readers is what they should have in their toolkit. My answer is always dependent on what kind of cameras they shoot on.
The tools you use for a film camera are different than the ones you use for a digital camera. There is overlap, of course, but there is also gear that is specifically useful for one format and not for the other.
As an example, FilmTools sells these orange wood sticks for cleaning hair out of the gate of a film camera. Yet, with digital, there is no gate to check. On the contrary, however, you could purchase this image sensor cleaning brush and it would be useless with film cameras.
Here is a list of items I have in my toolbag that I use only on digital productions:
- USB Lens Light
- HDMI Cables and Adapters
- Audio Cables and Adapters
- Memory Card Readers (SD and CF)
- Macbook Pro (for data wrangling)
None of those items are necessary for a film shoot, but for a digital shoot, they are great “just-in-case” things to have.
If you expect to continue working in this industry, you’ll have to start investing in those types of tools that are useful specifically for digital cameras. Luckily, it won’t mean an entirely new toolkit — a Leatherman will always serve its purpose no matter the format.
3. You Have to Work With Less Rehearsal Time
Before you lambast me for this one, know that I’m on your side. Rehearsals are important to crew and not just camera assistants. Practicing a shot helps to establish a flow, fix mistakes, and limit the amount of time spent actually shooting.
And let’s not forget Ed Colman’s words of wisdom: “When you are told to ‘shoot the rehearsal’ it’s not a rehearsal any more.”
But, the unfortunate truth is that rehearsals are becoming a valuable commodity.
Even if I tried for an hour, I couldn’t think of the last time I was given an actual rehearsal for a shot. About the only time I see one nowadays is when there is a one-take-only action happening like a gun being fired or a prop being shattered.
I’ve even had directors whisper in my ear, “No matter what anyone says you roll on rehearsal and don’t say anything.”
With digital cameras, many directors, assistant directors, and producers find no harm in rolling on rehearsals. And when they roll on rehearsals, they of course want to slate it. And once you’ve thrown in footage being shot, a slate being clapped, you’re pretty much diving straight into Take One no matter what you call it.
If you want to survive in this industry during the next great wave of digital filmmaking, you’re going to have to learn to suck it up and deal with the added pressure of no rehearsals.
Your ability to grab marks with ninja-like intensity will become more important. Quick personal rehearsals with a camera operator and dolly grip will have to be stolen when no one is paying attention. You’ll be pulling focus under the gun constantly.
Rehearsals will always be needed for certain shots — and occasionally you’ll be able to demand one — but expect the overall frequency of them to drop.
All is Not Lost — Treat It Like Film
Some of the best advice I ever received as a young camera department trainee was to treat digital “just like film.”
You change some of the technical stuff, you change some of the names, but when it comes down to it, the job is largely the same.
You should be just as careful with a fully loaded memory card as you would with an exposed magazine. You should take marks on a follow focus or lens in the same way you would on a film camera. You should still stay one step ahead of the DP.
But you shouldn’t let digital make you sloppy. Some things will be easier, true, but still strive for an excellence in your craft.
There’s always going to be a need for camera assistants — crew who know the technical side of cameras and can operate it with ease — but that need will shift and morph over time.
It’s up to you to adapt yourself into the changing industry.
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