How To Become a Camera Operator
What Exactly Does a Camera Operator Do?
The Camera Operator helps the Director of Photography and Director shot design each take while operating the camera. They also act as an additional set of eyes for the Director of Photography regarding lighting and focus. Typically, their work only takes place during principal photography.
“Their day usually begins by getting a shot list or schedule from the 1st Assistant Directorbut sometimes the Director will communicate directly with the Camera Operator on how the shot should work. If the take is more complicated and involves a Steadicam rig there will be a rehearsal period. Practice can last up to a full day with extensive diagramming if the shot is complicated. The day ends with the Camera Operator helping the camera team break down and organize equipment,” says Orlando Duguay, an LA-based Steadicam Operator and Camera Operator.
Most Camera Operators begin by jumping straight into being an Operator. It’s possible to be a 1st Assistant Camera first but they’re seen as two different jobs. The best way is to start working on smaller projects and then move up as a reputation is built. Usually, it’s working for free on student films, then small shorts, and indie features. This helps establish contact for doing larger productions that pay more. Most recommendations happen by word of mouth. “If the Camera Operator works Steadicam they need to own their gear and use that leverage to get better jobs,” advises Duguay.
Education & Training
Duguay says, “There isn’t specific training for becoming a Camera Operator but understanding how a camera works wouldn’t hurt.” Most of the time, the 1st Assistant Camera preps it for them and it’s just up to the Operator to run the gear while filming. Working as a Steadicam Operator is a bit more complicated due to the specialized gear. It’s best to take a workshop with professionals to learn. There are (usually) four-day intensive workshops where aspiring Steadicam Operators can work with real gear and professionals like Andrew Rowlands or Chris Haarhoff.
What skills do you need to be a Camera Operator?
It helps to work as a 1st Assistant Camera for a few years before operating but this isn’t a requirement. Many people jump straight into working a camera, however, having a deep knowledge of the camera systems will let the Camera Operator anticipate problems and proactively fix them. Relying on a 1st Assistant Camera is putting the Camera Operator’s career and performance in someone else’s hands. “Another way to gain an intimate knowledge of the gear is to work as an Intern at a camera rental house for a couple of years. Doing camera prep teaches how to operate each of the different camera systems,” adds Duguay.
“The best Camera Operators have a keen sense of detail and thick skin,” says Duguay. There are always a million different things that could be problematic for each shot including various pieces of equipment left in the background, the Boom Operator’s microphone, and the Actor’s hair and makeup issues. The Camera Operator is the first line of defense in noticing any of these problems and it’s their job to notify the other departments in a discreet way. There’s no need to make an Actor self-conscious over a blemish. Additionally, set can be a highly intense place due to the amount of money spent. Some people respond to the pressure by screaming and acting angry. As a Camera Operator, it’s important to get the job done without any flair or drama.
Sometimes Steadicam Operators will showboat their equipment to deflect the on set pressure. This is a mistake. This sort of attitude eats up time and makes communication with other departments worse. It’s best to just be a diligent person. Then they will be able to spot problems on the monitor and avoid any drama that devours time on set. Many people can get the first call for a job but it’s attitude that determines a rehire.
“A Camera Operator is a freelance position and if the rate is good, most people take the job unless they’ve gone a long time without a break,” says Duguay. Larger productions tend to hire Camera Operators because they have the budget to support them; many independent projects have the Cinematographer operate the camera. Camera Operators typically work five to six-day weeks with projects that last a couple of months. (The large projects support that level of production.) After a project is completed, a Camera Operator can end up with two or three weeks off until the next job goes through.
Usually the Camera Operator works most closely with the Director of Photography, however, some Directors like to work directly with them. Each production has their own style. Otherwise, the main collaborators are the Camera Department, 1st Assistant Camera and 2nd Assistant Camera, as well as the 1st Assistant Director. The Key Grip is also a close contact because Grips are always standing by with a courtesy flag, apple box, or an adjustment to their equipment for removing lens flairs.
“It can be difficult for someone to become a Camera Operator or Steadicam Operator,” warns Duguay. The former is tough because many Cinematographers operate the camera on lower level productions and it takes experience to get hired on big shows. The reason Steadicam operating is difficult to break into is that the only way to get the job is by becoming an owner/operator. The gear is expensive. Some people take out a loan or work as a 1st Assistant Cameraperson to save up to buy a used rig. Once they have the gear, they start working for cheap and slowly build a reel so larger productions will hire them. In the beginning, most money that comes in from Steadicam operating usually goes to buying more gear so more professional jobs can be booked.
One way to break into camera operating on larger jobs is to be a Steadicam Operator and bundle the services together. Some Producers are willing to take a chance on hiring a Camera Operator with less experience if it means they’ll get a discount on hiring a Steadicam Operator.
How Much Does a Camera Operator make?
The Camera Operators’ union provides a rate card, which provides scale rates for different types of productions. If an Operator is freelance and not a member of the union, he or she must set their own day rate based on the type of production and its budget combined with the Op’s level of work experience.
Unions, Groups & Associations
There are only a few good resources for people interested in becoming a Steadicam Operator or Camera Operator. “The best online resource is thesteadicamforum.com. It’s a series of forums where people can ask questions and buy equipment. It’s a great way to network and begin a career. In terms of organizations, the SOC (Society of Camera Operators) is good to check out as well as the ICG Local 600 Camera Union. Both have information on being a camera professional,” says Duguay.
- Take any kind of filmmaking class and collaborate on student films. Make shorts.
- Attend a still photography class.
- Practice putting heads in boxes (framing and composition).
- Watch a lot of movies and study the framing in classic and favorite films. Try and replicate them with a basic camera. Even an iPhone can work for practice.
- Get a job as PA on set and watch professionals in action.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“The best thing to do as a Steadicam Operator is to take a workshop. Sometimes people buy a bunch of equipment and then realize that they don’t want to do it. There’s a moment when someone puts on the rig and realizes they love it or hate it. Taking a few days’ trial period with a professional to use the gear and see if Steadicam operating is something they want to do is a smart move.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The biggest mistake young Operators make is they enter a set with fancy new equipment and act like a know-it-all. Most people don’t want an opinion unless they ask for it. Also, an opinionated personality will take longer to get a shot. Their reputation will die and nobody will hire them. Having a sense of humility goes a long way in working as a Camera Operator or Steadicam Operator.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What about bookkeeping as a Camera Operator or Steadicam Operator?
A lot of the business side of being a Camera Operator gets overlooked. They need to be incredibly organized, especially when it comes to joining the union. The union requires logs of hours from each job worked, totaling one hundred hours. Letters from each of those project’s Producers are required as well. Some people are sloppy with bookkeeping or work logs, which can result in delays for joining the union, which handicaps their career. Beyond that, all gear needs to be insured with its own serial number and to get the proper write off, an LLC needs to be formed separating the Operator from their equipment. It’s easy to get extra fees in taxes from working freelance, too. Therefore, it is incredibly important for a Camera Operator to be organized in their bookkeeping.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“What level of fitness is required to camera operate or be a Steadicam Operator?
Being in shape is of critical importance. Operators need to run full speed with fifty pounds attached to them, repeatedly. When filming, there is no time for breaks because it costs time to rest. The job is physical enough to keep the Operator in shape. However, in between jobs, they need to be doing core workouts, squats, leg exercises, and running. Keeping in shape will impress Producers and Directors so they’ll hire that person again. The additional stamina allows more shots to be pulled off with technical precision.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Orlando Duguay is a Los Angeles based Steadicam Operator and Camera Operator who has worked on a number of successful projects including It Comes at Night, Cam, Inheritance, JackRabbit 29, Hold On, Emma’s Chance and Fantastic. He also regularly shoots music videos and television projects like Sharp Objects, Black Monday, and Euphoria.