Maybe not my technical aptitude with certain cameras or the intricacies of set etiquette, but some of the more elusive, intangible aspects: the ability to deal with pressure, the speed of learning a new skill, and troubleshooting major technological problems.
So while show choir may seem to be about “smiling eyes” — as one choral teacher told me — it really paved the way for me to freelance as an camera assistant (AC).
“Wait, You Were in Shoir Choir?!”
Before we continue, I feel like I have to address something. Right now, you’re probably thinking one of three things:
- There’s no way Evan was in show choir
- Why was Evan in show choir?
- Or you’re just giggling at the thought of me dancing and singing a show tune
Well, if you’re thinking number 1, the handsome fellow with long shaggy hair in the top left of the picture above is me — I definitely was in show choir. If you’re thinking number 2, allow me to explain why I ended up in a Glee-like atmosphere.
At the risk of disappointing those who thought of number 3, I should clarify that I never actually sang nor danced in show choir. I never donned a sparkly jacket or top hat on stage. And I never had a solo in front of an audience.
That’s because I was the Lead Audio Coordinator or, in layman’s terms, the sound guy.
During my 4 years in high school, I helped design audio systems, set them up, and would then mix the shows live for all choral performances.
It sounds easy enough, but our choir department was quite robust. Our premiere show, Jazz and Pizzazz, required two Mackie sound mixers handling up to 48 microphones split between the stage, the band, and the singers. Every year, the show was a grueling 3 hour performance with a 20 minute intermission — and even then I was busy swapping batteries and fixing problems.
During the performance, I had to mix instruments, soloists, and the choir together to create something that sounded good, pleasing, and at a level of quality the audience expected. As I used to explain to my peers in the choir, “If someone notices I’m doing my job, then I’m not doing a very good one.”
It was a highly technical position with loads of pressure that demanded you to work in a fast-paced environment for long hours. If that doesn’t encapsulate filmmaking, then I don’t know how else to describe what you feel when you’re on set.
So when I say everything I do as an AC can be traced back to show choir, I mean it. And I’m going to talk about five specific areas where those 4 years as a sound mixer helped prep me to becoming a stellar camera assistant.
1. It Taught Me How to Be Accountable
There’s a certain combination of dread and excitement that used to wash over me as the lights would dim in the high school auditorium and the shows would start. I’d slowly place my fingers on the first microphones to cue and take a deep breath; then I’d say this prayer: “Please God, don’t let me f*** this up.”
Every night there was a show, there was a tremendous amount of pressure on my shoulders, especially since I was the only sound mixer. I had to hit every cue on time, mix the audio in a pleasing way, and do it all without the audience ever realizing some guy in a black booth above them was doing it.
The downside to doing an “invisible” job is you’re highly noticable when you mess up.
When a microphone spikes with huge amounts of high-pitched feedback, the audience notices. Or when a singer is moving their lips and you can’t hear them, it’s pretty obvious whose fault it is.
But when I messed up, I couldn’t stand around and pretend it wasn’t my fault — I had to take action. And the first step to taking action is to hold yourself accountable, to claim the mistake, and start focusing on a solution.
And a funny thing happens when you’re thrown into situations where you mess up: you feel bad. It’s not really a fun feeling when an entire soloist’s family of eight is disappointed because they couldn’t hear their daughter singing (true story — I felt awful).
So you prepare harder than ever before because you realize there are consequences.
That’s something I have carried with me very strongly to camera assisting. If you miss a focus pull, you can’t pretend it didn’t happen. You have to admit your mistake (hold yourself accountable), ask for another take (take action to fix it), and probably annoy a few people (deal with the consequences).
The only problem with accountability is pressure — and there is more than enough pressure on an AC. Pressure to pull focus perfectly, pressure to always have the camera ready to go, pressure to fix equipment when it breaks, and pressure to not get in the way of the director or cinematographer.
Is it fair? Probably not. But neither was it fair for an audience to expect every performance I mixed to sound like a Beethoven symphony.
And that’s really what pressure is about: diving into a situation head first knowing full-well that you may fail at it miserably.
Becoming comfortable with that is a huge step towards becoming a really great camera assistant.
2. It Opened My Eyes to “Behind the Scenes”
One of the scariest prospects to anyone stepping out in the film industry is the realization that almost nobody at the age of 18 – 20 gets handed a bundle of cash to direct a movie. In that moment, you suddenly panic and wonder if your dreams of being a filmmaker are realistic.
Luckily for me, I realized this in the throes of high school and wasn’t concerned when I graduated.
This is because I spent my whole high school career working behind-the-scenes with little recognition. Those who knew what I did were appreciative, but audiences didn’t realize who I was since I wasn’t on stage in front of their faces.
But that was OK.
I enjoyed the work I was doing and it showed me that creative endeavors — like theater, show choir, filmmaking — still have practical jobs.
And that little glimpse into reality helped me take my job even more seriously. I began to understand the importance of even the small tasks like properly running cables or organizing our sound booth. Just like as a camera assistant you have to hook up video village and label your equipment.
A lot of the jobs I did as a sound mixer translated nicely to camera assisting, so I already knew the value in doing things the right way.
Most importantly, however, it showed me that you can take pride in a technical job. This was crucial to my success as a camera assistant. Without passion for the job, I would never be successful in it.
Even though you might want to direct or camera operate or be a producer, you should feel good about the work you’re doing.
And that’s what being a sound mixer did: it taught me how to feel happy at the small victories. There are dozens of these everyday on set:
- When you adjust a mark on the fly and nail it
- How you pick the right lens before the DP asks
- That shot in perfect focus everyone huddles around the monitor and drools over
If you can’t learn to appreciate those moments, then you will end up hating being a camera assistant.
I was lucky that being a sound mixer gave me a slew of equally innocuous, but awesomely cool times where I felt like I was doing a job worth doing. So when I learned about camera assisting, I was excited to re-discover that feeling of quiet victory.
3. I Learned the Value of Rehearsals
There’s something about stage performances that everyone knows, but few give any thought to: For every hour you sit in your seat watching a show, the performers have probably spent 20+ hours working to perfect it.
How do I know this? Because throughout my 4 years as a sound mixer, I sat through about 100 renditions of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” for our annual Holiday Spectacular.
In a way that only another showbiz artform could show me, I learned the value of preparation and rehearsal through the stage.
I quickly picked up techniques to maximize the effectiveness of these rehearsals — which notes to take and cues to memorize, how to find weaknesses in the show and fix them, and refining my visual memory to anticipate almost anything.
As a camera assistant, this skill easily transitioned over for me. Suddenly, I had no questions about which marks to jot down, what to do if I mess up during a rehearsal, or difficulty comprehending and remembering complex camera moves.
Nowadays in film, rehearsals are increasingly rare which means it’s even more crucial for you to squeeze every ounce of help out of them possible.
Basically, you need to make your use of rehearsal time more effective.
Start to really pay attention during them. If there’s a blocking rehearsal — a simple run through without camera — you should watch, not run to craft services. Take notes, both physical and mental, and learn to use those well.
Similarly, learn what doesn’t work for you during rehearsals. If you take lots of notes on the measurements of the room — but don’t ever use them — then stop taking them.
At the end of a solid rehearsal, you should feel prepared, like a performer about to step on the stage, because preparation is essential to execution. The more prepared you feel, the more relaxed you’ll be, and the more you’ll be inclined to succeed.
I learned this as a sound mixer and always took advantage of rehearsals. When it came to showtime I wasn’t panicked or stressed out.
You, too, should strive to maximize what little rehearsal or prep-time you’re given and leverage it to your advantage.
4. Troubleshooting Complex Problems Became a Breeze
Both the audience and I felt the same way that, in every performance of every show, the sound should be flawless and the equipment work without issue.
But as you’d expect with humans and technology, they rarely did all of the time.
When you’re dealing with a 48 channel sound board with as many knobs, buttons, and sliders as possible, you’re in for a doozy when things go wrong. A system as complex as that is akin to working with the deepest intricacies of a RED camera.
One day, an hour before the show was about to start, I was doing a sound check and none of the mics were working. I called in the choral director who, to his credit, knew more about the sound board than I did. Without a plan, we just started trying everything. He would swap some cables, I would swap some mics. He would push one button, I’d turn another knob.
In the end, you know what the problem was? One single button…
“Ha! I think I found what’s wrong,” I said to him over the speaker system in the auditorium.
As he looked over to me, I released my finger from a button labeled “Master Mute.”
Not only did sound mixing show me how to troubleshoot, but not to rule out any solutions that seemed too simple or implausible. And when I had an incident as an AC where I thought a clip was deleted when really I just hadn’t stopped recording, it was eerily similar to the “Master Mute” incident.
What sound mixing taught me was how to approach troubleshooting complex systems in a methodical way:
- Diagnose the problem
- Isolate the issue by eliminating all working systems
- Fix the part/piece/issue in question
- Test the fix isolated
- Test in a full environment
Of course, depending on what you’re working with, there can be a million different steps involved, but those five steps are a straightforward method for finding and fixing problems.
And like all of life’s best and most simple lessons, I learned it the hard way.
5. My Resourcefullness Was Put to the Test
Not every problem I encountered had a “Master Mute” solution. In many cases, something was genuinely wrong with a piece of equipment and we didn’t always have a backup.
This meant I had to get creative and learn to be resourceful — a skill that I continually credit with helping me advance my career as a camera assistant.
You will inevitably — in almost every single profession, but especially as an AC — run into problems where there isn’t an easy solution.
You’ll be expected and depended on in these cases to provide a solution anyway:
- There isn’t a spare BNC cable to swap in, so you have to juggle some around
- Your matte box breaks so you make a cardboard matte box alternative
- A camera won’t fit through the window, so you lower the camera into the car via sunroof
But here’s the real “gotcha” of the situation: in most of these cases where you end up being resourceful, they’re so specific that your solution will rarely be used again. It’s usually a one-time “I can’t believe that worked!” moment.
Yet if you start having enough of those moments, you start to get really good at having them repeatedly.
And even though a cardboard mattebox may never come in handy again, knowing that cardboard can be used for certain purposes helps you start to build a repertoire of ways to approach a problem. Before you know it, you have fixes for things in an instant.
From One “Invisible” Job to Another
Over a span of four years, I learned a lot as a sound mixer. The major intangibles I listed above were the most important, but I picked up a few other things as well:
- how to properly wrap cable
- how to organize equipment
- how to read boring technical manuals
- how to diagram tech setups
- and how to sing and dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller at the same time
You may not realize it, but there are probably elements of camera assisting you’ve carried over from your own background. The job of an AC is so broad that it combines many skills you forget you had or don’t remember how you acquired them.
That’s how it was with me and sound mixing.
It wasn’t until the end of my first job that I realized how integral my years spent pushing knobs and buttons on a mixer was to, well, pushing knobs and buttons on a camera. It seems obvious now, but it wasn’t obvious then.
So ask yourself what is it in your background that has informed your job?
Once you pinpoint it, you’ll be able to glean more knowledge as you start making parallels because you’ll approach camera assisting in a fresh, new way — and there’s always more to learn as an AC.
P.S. So, maybe I lied a bit above. I did actually perform once with the choir by singing a senior song weeks before my graduation — I’m just glad this isn’t a video: