One of the first lessons you learn on any set is that you will never walk away from a production without having gained some knowledge — there’s always something new you learn and add to your repertoire. Maybe it’s an innocuous skill like tabbing camera tape, maybe it’s skills outside of your department, or maybe it’s an intangible confidence in your ability to do your job better.
As the camera assistant (AC) on the “Roddick is Coming” shoot, I ended up with a few stories that reinforced lessons I had already learned as an AC. Today I’d like to share them and help you learn about some of the finer details of camera assisting.
1. Protect the Camera However You Can, But Be Safe
Doug then goes on to describe how, on an AC’s watch, no harm shall be done to the camera.
But rarely do I put myself in danger before the camera.
I’ve worked in shooting ranges, with explosive squibs, with men on fire, and even on a runway filming a Corvette and a private jet race, but I’ve never put myself in a position where I felt my life was threatened to get the shot.
In the grand scheme of things, it just isn’t worth it — not for any movie.
On this shoot, however, I toed that line of danger a little bit. To grab the shots of the actor hitting baseballs with his tennis racquet, we had to take the camera into the heart of the batting cages near the machines.
Even though we were about 20 – 25 feet away from the plate where he was batting, we took a few precautions. Specifically, I grabbed a production assistant and a couple of apple box pancakes, which, if you aren’t aware, are basically flat skinny slabs of wood — and in this case, our baseball bats.
For about 30 minutes, we filmed various angles of the actor hitting baseballs with his tennis racquet. At first, I thought it was silly to stand guard with a pancake, but once the actor connected with a ball and hit a line drive, I quickly realized the camera did need the protection.
At one point, a ball flew only 2 feet past my shoulder and I was ready to take the hit for the camera.
Though it sounds dangerous, the baseballs were only traveling at mild speeds. It would’ve hurt to have been hit by one, but I probably wouldn’t have even gotten bruised. The camera, meanwhile, would’ve suffered massive amounts of damage had a ball managed to connect with it, especially if it hit the lens.
In the end, I weighed my options and decided a potential sting in my chest or back was worth saving a production $25,000 worth of broken equipment. So I was resourceful and found a way to protect the camera.
But the lesson here isn’t to protect the camera at all costs (because that’s a misleading lesson), but to be smart about it and protect it in a practical, resourceful way. Even though I was in front of the baseballs being hit back, I had the pancake to protect me just as much as the camera. If at anytime during those shots I felt worried for my person, I would’ve spoken up.
So do what you can reasonably do to protect the camera, but keep in mind your own safety.
2. Stay Hydrated to Stay Active
It was a hot, muggy day in Richmond, Virginia when we showed up at the batting cage location and unloaded the camera gear.
The heat made for an uncomfortable night, but comfort wasn’t the only concern I started to have — dehydration was a serious issue. When you stand on your feet for 10, 12, or even 15 hours on a night as sticky as that, you have to make sure you keep drinking liquids. If you don’t, you put yourself at risk for any number of health concerns ranging from mild to serious.
This was evidenced by the fatigue that began to coalesce towards the middle of the shoot. During a long moment of downtime, both the Director of Photography (DP) and I started to feel strange — our heads were a bit light, our stomachs churning, and our level of exhaustion had skyrocketed.
Luckily, I had some medicine in my toolkit, we took a seat on a bench, and began to drink lots of water. The proof is in the pudding, they say, and we managed to get back up 10 minutes later and finish the shoot without further problems.
I know this isn’t a health blog and I’m not a doctor, by any means, but I have experienced and seen first-hand the pummeling crew give to their bodies when they’re working hard.
It’s easy to avoid taking the time to drink water when you’re in the midst of chaos on set, but it’s worth it to make sure you stay active the entire time.
3. Whenever Possible, Never Settle for “Good Enough”
There’s a shot in the commercial at the 10 second mark in which the “batter” enters the cage and shuts the door. While it seems uneventful on its own, it actually holds some significance in the context of the shoot.
By the time we reached it on the shot list, time was running out. As a result, rehearsals were kept at a minimum and any sort of pulling out the tape measure was avoided unless completely necessary. Still, I didn’t mind and wasn’t worried in the least about pulling focus.
But overconfidence is often a hubris.
So, of course, I managed to buzz the focus on the first take we did.
It wasn’t terrible, though — the sign was in focus and I had racked focus to the actor, but I was a bit slow on bringing the focus back to the sign once the door closed.
“Did you get it?” I could hear a producer ask when the camera cut.
The director hesitated, “Um, yeah. Yeah, we did. That’ll be fine.”
Those words, “that’ll be fine,” crushed me. I knew exactly what they meant, so I spoke up:
“Sorry about that everyone. I missed the focus pull a bit. I thought we were going to do another take. I promise I can do it better if you give me another one real fast.”
And so the director obliged me, thankfully. With the pressure on, I nailed it.
“Andd cut! Evan says he can do it better… and then he does. Let’s move on.”
Even though it was such a quick shot and a tiny moment in the completed piece, it made me proud that I had given the director what he wanted and didn’t settle for something “good enough” or just “fine.” I had challenged myself with certain expectations and risen to meet them.
Don’t settle for what’s good enough when you know you can do better. You owe it not only to yourself to deliver the best, but also to the dozens of other people on the set — no matter their role — who are contributing to the final film.
Bragging Rights for All Involved
It can be easy to forget about projects you were involved with and move on from them easily.
But I am proud of this commercial and the small role I played in it, so if you’ll excuse me I need to spread some love for the talents who made the commercial what it is…
The directing team of Chris Williams and Matt West (known as Whiskey Tongue), who were spontaneous and demanding, but also prepared and gracious; the wonderful motion graphics created by the talented Charles Bevan whose abilities I have always admired; the beautiful cinematography by my good friend Kunitaro Ohi who knows how to shoot big while working small; and a bunch of other crew members who toiled away in the night to deliver a great commercial.
If you get a chance to work with any of these people in the future, you’ll be lucky. It is a large part of why I agreed to do the job in the first place. Though I was paid for it, I hopped on board the project without discussion of rate and happily would’ve walked away having done it for free.
Why? Not just because I enjoyed working with the people, but also because I believed in their creative abilities and that they would deliver a commercial worth watching.
Plus, the job helped me learn or reinforce some new skills along the way — and that’s something I’ll have with me for the rest of my career.