Notes on the Obligations of Camera Operators

I’ve gone over this before but it’s worth repeating.

Qualify your camera operators. Someone who knows how to turn on a camera and record something is not a camera operator a director can rely on.

Having recently finished a feature film, I had several hurdles in editing that were the direct result of incompetent camera operation.

Clear your frame

There is no such thing as “camera safe”—clear your frame edge to edge, top to bottom, left to right. The entire viewfinder should be eligible for use.

No debate.

Watch your background

You will stand in slack-jawed horror at how indifferent some people behind the camera can be. I cannot count how many times I have seen camera operators declare their frame ready when there are objects and people (usually crew, if you can believe it) standing in the background.

First, fire your camera operator. Then find someone who understands that crew people are paid to be behind the camera, not in front of it. Your camera operator should be your first, middle and last line of defense against anomalies, anachronisms (pick-up trucks in the background of an Old West period film), glares, and errors.

Do not adjust color in camera

“Fixing it in post” is always the mantra of those people who don’t have to pay for fixing their blunders in post-production.

Aside from exposure and a minority of other camera settings, do not adjust color in camera.

I know of several films where several key scenes could not be used because in-camera color correction resulted in an irreparable crush of the chroma. End result: scene lost and story compromised.

Learn how to focus

This is a big one.

Okay, you would think this wouldn’t have to be said, but as I mentioned months ago in a previous post, learn how to focus your camera.

There was a scene in Shroud that was shot as a freebie, meaning I wasn’t really sure I was going to keep it in the final cut even when I was shooting it.

Well, it’s a good thing it was a superfluous scene because we discovered in editing the entire sequence was shot out of focus. We shot the scene with two cameras at three angles: over the shoulder, reverse over the shoulder, and a master side shot.

Now, if you want to talk about stupidity, check this out…

The master side shot was facing the bar which had a huge wall mirror behind it. The camera operator promised the frame was clear when in fact the entire crew could be seen in the reflection of the mirror—in every take. All the shots were useless. What do you do? Rescaling the master side shot failed to achieve a usable frame, so we had to scrap the side shot and hope to cut the scene from the over-the-shoulder and the reverse over-the-shoulder.

Every take of the reverse over-the-shoulder was glaringly out of focus. Can’t use a single second of any of the many takes.  Ruined.

The only angle that was semi-usable was the over-the-shoulder shot, but over half of these angles start off in focus then go out of focus, or have crazy camera movement (epileptic hand-held) that totally subverts the quietness of the scene.

End result: the entire sequence had to be scrapped. Not really a loss as it was a bonus scene, but I can promise you the people who robbed me of my scene will never be put in charge of another one.

Check your Camera Settings

Every take, every scene, every hour, every day—check your settings.

Know what you are telling your camera to do. There is no excuse for surprises in your footage when they are delivered to the editor.


~ by David Jetre on November 22, 2008.

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