The bare minimum — that’s what a lot of 2nd Camera Assistants (2nd AC’s) get away with. They clap the sticks, fill out their reports, and fetch lenses from the staging area, but there’s something missing from their work.
It’s not usually their fault — they don’t know any better — but it has the effect of reflecting poorly on their performance and their chance of landing a job with the same camera crew again.
As a 1st assistant camera (AC), I’ve trained many 2nd AC’s who were fine at their job, but I’ve worked with very few who were great at their job. And which ones do you think are the ones I call up when I am staffing a camera department?
That’s right — the 2nd AC’s who went beyond the bare minimum, often exerting more energy than most of the crew for the benefit of everyone.
When that happens, the result is impressive. And by impressing their 1st AC, the 2nd AC can guarantee themselves a long and thriving work relationship for years to come.
So here’s five ways you, as a 2nd AC, can prove to your 1st AC that you’re an essential part of their camera department.
1. Help Get Focus Marks
The most prominent role the 1st AC plays in the filmmaking process is that of focus puller — the person responsible for precise movements of the lens to keep a subject in focus throughout a shot.
This is a tough job and one of the best weapons AC’s have against a tough focus pull are marks — measurements to subjects or landmarks to help them determine the right distance to set the lens at.
Even though the 2nd AC plays very little into the act of pulling focus (almost none unless they are asked to pull focus on a “B” camera), they can provide a lot of help to the 1st AC in grabbing marks.
The most obvious portrayal of this is when a 2nd AC uses camera tape to mark an actor in a scene, but that is as much for the camera operator and the director themselves as it is for the AC. Where you can truly help the 1st AC as a 2nd is by doing three things:
- Slate from an actor’s mark. When possible, slate the scene from the first mark an actor will hit. Since 1st AC’s have to pull focus for the slate anyway, this provides them one last quick-check of their measurements. Plus, if they weren’t given a rehearsal, it may be the only mark they have to go off.
- Pull soft tape to your slate. Though focus pullers have a variety of measurement tools at their disposal, one of the most accurate is the soft tape measure. The downside is not many 1st AC’s like to step away from the camera to use this, so help them out by being the one who grabs it, stands at the mark and holds it to your eyes (or whever the AC wants to focus).
- Be on top of actors’ marks. Nothing makes me happier than when a 2nd AC is on top of their tape marks. By laying down a mark, it makes the actors more consistent, the movements predictable, getting focus marks a breeze, and thus, focus pulling much easier.
I guarantee that, even if they won’t admit it, the number one thing on most 1st AC’s minds is pulling focus. They’re constantly working to get marks, read the scene, understand the blocking, and make sure that producers don’t have to watch dailies later that night that are blurry and soft.
If you help them in the pressure-cooker of pulling focus, you’ll definitely end up on their good side.
2. Listen to the DP as Much (or More) than the 1st AC
One of the “secrets” to being a great camera assistant is to stay one step ahead of your boss — in your case as 2nd AC, your boss is the 1st AC.
But even better is to stay one step ahead of your boss’ boss, the director of photography (DP).
Why? Because any task the 1st AC delegates to you is likely to come from the DP. If you intercept this chain of command, you’ll look like a mind-reader to the 1st AC while also being more efficient.
To do this, make sure you listen closely to any conversations the DP is having with the 1st AC — whether on the radio, next to the camera, or in the line for craft services. The minute you hear the DP request something that is normally delegated to you, get on it:
- Does the DP mention switching to a 25mm lens? Have it ready.
- When the DP complains about a squeaky tripod, lube it up and clean it.
- As soon as you hear the DP ask for an ND6 filter, head to the camera cart.
You’ll be surprised how grateful your 1st AC will be when, as they’re asking you to grab the filter, you present it to them ready to go.
It makes them look good and makes you look great.
3. Relieve the 1st AC (Or Basically Bring Them Snacks)
I love being a 1st AC. Some crumble under the pressure, others hate the technicality of it, but I crave everything the job demands of you.
…Except one thing: you’re glued to the camera.
In many ways, being stuck to the camera is a unique opportunity to see cinematographers work their magic, directors pull performances from actors, and watch the filmmaking process unfold.
But it can be a real drag when it comes to the simple things: food, bathrooms, and 5-minute breaks.
It’s nice then for the 2nd AC to relieve the 1st AC of their camera watch duties or at least offer to do things the 1st AC wants to do, but can’t, such as grab snacks from crafty. If you can tell your 1st AC is tired, thirsty, or hungry, it doesn’t hurt to ask them, “Hey you want anything from crafty?” Or offer to keep a hand on the camera while they stretch their muscles and sit down for a few minutes.
After all, the little things matter.
4. Double Check Their Double Checks
Any 1st AC worth their salt is going to constantly double check levels, gauges, and their own work. That includes:
- Battery levels
- Digital media/film left
- Pan/tilt locks
- Focus marks
- Lens exposure
- And many, many more
And the fact that they have so many things to be acutely aware of means that sometimes something doesn’t get the attention that it deserves.
If you need proof of this in action, just hang out on film sets long enough until you hear, in the middle of a scene, a defeated voice from the side of the camera say, “Roll out!”
The best 2nd AC’s act as another filter to catch the mistakes that can slip through the divided attention of the 1st AC. They’ll keep a keen eye on batteries, magazines, digital downloads, and the filters a DP wants for the next shot.
When you do that, you’ll act as a safety net for the 1st AC’s natural human fallabilities and they will love you for it. They’ll start to trust you more and remain confident that the camera will run in top shape between the two of you.
Further, it helps them to focus on their “big” responsibilities like pulling focus and assigning tasks from the requests of the DP.
5. Do Your Job as a 2nd AC Better Than They Could
After you transition from 2nd AC to 1st AC for a period of time, you begin to lose some of the hustle you earned as a 2nd AC. Suddenly, you trade the skills of juggling multiple tasks in the staging area to pulling focus under pressure.
While you don’t lose the skills of a 2nd AC completely, per se, you do suffer a bit of entropy from not exercising those muscles.
So the absolute best thing you can do to make your 1st AC fall in love with you is to be a better 2nd AC than they could be. The last thing they want to feel on set is that they should be doing your job because you’re not doing good enough.
But even good enough is not good enough, you want to impress them to the point where you’re irreplacable in their minds.
The best 2nd AC I’ve worked with made me feel this way — I felt that, if we had traded positions, I would not have been as good a 2nd AC as he was.
That’s the perfect kind of person to have work for you.
The Best 2nd AC’s Make Themselves Indispensable
As the intermediary between the rest of the film set and the 1st AC, 2nd AC’s are crucially important to the ebb and flow of the camera department. A slow 2nd will bring everyone down with them and, similarly, a fast 2nd AC will improve the speed at which the camera is ready.
The demands placed on a 2nd AC are tremendous because they are expected to accomplish tasks the 1st AC would do themselves were they not metaphorically strapped to the camera. The more you, as a 2nd AC, can meet those demands without the intervention of the 1st AC, the happier you keep your department.
And the happier the department, the more likely you are to get hired on another gig.
Because who would you want to work with: someone who did the job “good enough” or someone who did it “better than expected”?
“Good enough” is good enough in the short run, but long term film careers are built on the foundation of “better than expected.”