Function

Naturally, you want the best people for the crew, with scope and responsibilities for each job clearly defined. I try to work again and again with the same people, whose work I know and trust, but this can't always be done. When you are taking on unknown personnel, try to check them out with people who have worked with them. Try to find out both the professional factors and the human factors. Can they do their jobs not just competently but creatively? What are they like under stress? What are their best points and their faults? If I am taking on a new cameraperson, I want to see examples of previous work and talk to other directors who have used him or her. And invariably I will want to sit and chat with the prospective camerapersons to get my own overall impression before committing myself.

Problems with personnel have occurred when I have worked for television companies and have had to accept staff camerapersons. Sometimes they have been terrific, but a few times, I have had camerapersons who were bored, burned out, and just waiting for retirement. In those cases, the film suffered by having to use someone who was uninterested in the film and the job.

The functions of the different personnel are usually well delineated. The soundperson looks after the sound quality of the location recordings. He or she needs to be an expert on equipment and microphones and also a person of taste and sensibility, with a sensitive ear for what is being recorded.

The assistant cameraperson is usually picked by the principal cameraperson, since the two must work closely. Among other things, the assistant will check equipment, lenses, and filters, will change magazines and keep the camera clean, and will generally set up and carry the equipment. As the key assistant to the cameraperson, he or she will often act as focus changer on difficult scenes and will assist with lights on a small shoot.

The electrician, or gaffer, is in charge of the lights, a job that carries both heavy artistic and technical responsibilities. Although it is the job of the cameraperson to define the lighting style, on a documentary film the gaffer often has considerable leeway for decisions. Gaffers may be told specifically what lights to rig and where, but they may also be given very vague directions, such as "Key light from here, back light from there," and be on their own to carry out the job. Besides being experts in lighting styles, gaffers must also know everything about kinds of lights and their maintenance and about electrical systems. Does the small house have an adequate power supply? Should a special electrical board be brought in for the filming? What will the use of twenty-five kilowatts of electricity do to the stage lights in the concert hall?

Besides letting the cameraperson choose the assistant cameraperson, I also consult with him or her on the choice of a gaffer. The two will be working hand in hand, and if the gaffer knows the cameraperson's style and method of work, that's a great help to the production.

The grip is the muscle of the group, with the task of helping with all the heavy jobs. Grips may carry equipment, help with the lights, or drive. They handle the odd jobs and may be called on to help in many undefined capacities. On a small production, the assistant cameraperson may also function as a grip; on a larger production, that will be a separate job.

I rarely take a production manager (or PM) on a small shoot; instead, I do most of those jobs myself. But when the job is quite arduous, I do take a PM—if the budget allows it and if the extra person doesn't disturb the shooting. The PM is the general manager of the shoot. Together with the director, he or she draws up the shooting schedule and points out any problems that may be involved in the plan. The PM will handle advance preparations, take care of travel, hotels, and food, and look after the money. One of the tasks of the PM is to spot impending difficulties and to troubleshoot when they happen. The PM goes into action when the camera breaks down, when the rental company doesn't have the right van, when officials get difficult, and when the spare stock fails to arrive. Obviously, the PM should be someone who is highly intelligent, organized, and fast—a man or woman of action. These super people do exist, and they are worth their weight in gold.

Choosing the right cameraperson is your most important crew selection decision. Though the film's success depends on many people, the cameraperson's work is crucial. Together with the director, he or she is responsible for shot selection, lighting style, and all the camera movements. It goes without saying that the cameraperson has to have a creative eye. But he or she also needs to have fast reactions for news or verite style shooting and the strength to carry and use a heavy shoulder camera if there will be extensive handheld shooting.

In recent years, films have often credited the "cameraperson director," and some of the best documentaries have been made by this double-functioned personality. But is the combination of cameraperson and director good policy? In some films, it not only makes sense but also may be the only way to get the film made. This is particularly true of cinema verite and observational cinema. On Salesman, Al Maysles had to be both director and cameraperson, and the same was true when Jon Else shot his film about the de Bolt family of California. I prefer, however, to have the two jobs done by different people. When a cameraperson's eye is on the lens, he or she cannot usually be aware of all the nuances in a situation. The director has more distance, is less involved, and can be more aware of the overall scene rather than the particular detail. The director can also listen more carefully and see how the conversation is going to affect action.

I don't believe that there is one ideal cameraperson, but I do believe that there is an ideal person for each film. However, the cameraperson who is ideal for film A may be disastrously wrong for film B. It's all a question of style and situation. Some years back, I shot a film on art and artists. We had ample shooting time and a very controllable film situation. We also had a heavy lighting job. For the job of lighting cameraperson, I chose a friend of mine named Robert. Bob was marvelous at composition, provided he had plenty of time, and he was also an artist with light. That was exactly the combination I needed. Six months later, I shot a sports film, and Bob was the last person I thought of contacting. For the sports film, I needed someone who was fast and decisive, someone with both news and verite experience, someone who would essentially be picking the shots without my help. Although he was a superb cameraperson, Bob just didn't have the skills or the temperament for that situation.

More than any other crew relationship, the director-cameraperson relationship is that of partnership. Together they will plan the style of the film, and once the filming starts, they become almost inseparable. Sometimes there will be difficulties and divisions of opinion between the director and cameraperson (more on that later when we discuss directing), but the more the two understand each other, the better the film will be.

One last point: It makes sense to take the cameraperson on a location scout before filming starts. The cameraperson's eye will be able to spot production difficulties, and he or she will also be able to advise you on the kind and amount of lighting you need for the shoot.

Film Making

Film Making

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