Operation Imperative – Part I

Riddle me this: what do Touch of Evil’s three-and-one-half minute opening crane shot, Saving Private Ryan’s Normandy beach invasion, or Bound For Glory’s dusty ramble through a California migrant camp all have in common? If you said they’re among the most famous shots in movie history you’re only half right. What they all shared, lest we forget, were four extremely gifted craftsmen – Phillip Lathrop, Mitch Dubin, Chris Haaroff, and Garrett Brown – operating the cameras.
Memorable shots, indeed entire movies, are canonized down through the ages, but how often are the hands behind the matte boxes, the ones actually guiding the magic box ever linked with their creations? Not nearly enough. That’s why we’re presenting Operation Imperative, our three-part exploration into one of this industry’s least acknowledged yet perhaps its most essential craft. We begin with a Q & A comprised of Dan Kneece, President of the Society of Camera Operators (SOC) whose most recent film is the highly anticipated adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s best-seller The Road, Cleve Landsberg, producer and UPM, who has worked on features from Bruce Almighty and Weekend At Bernie’s to long-form television, and Academy Award winning cinematographer John Toll, ASC, who began his storied career as an operator on films like Scarface and Urban Cowboy. Together this trio has more than 75 years of experience on movie and television sets. In Part I of our series, they chew over the recent contract provision that allows a director of photography to operate, and share their perspectives on why not using an operator may well be a disadvantage to producers in cost and quality.

ICG Magazine: Let’s start with why there is concern in the ranks among the industry’s best camera operators. What’s the genesis of the current situation?

Dan Kneece:  In the new IA basic agreement, the requirement for mandatory staffing of camera operators was removed under certain circumstances. This led to a desire among camera operators to communicate what we do for the people of our industry and why it is to everyone’s advantage to have camera operators working on all productions.

Cleve Landsberg: Producers often look to save the cost of a camera operator when the DP they want to hire also likes to operate the A-camera. It’s been done in Europe for decades, and there are some DPs who are very effective at doing this without losing efficiency and quality control.  From experience, however, I’ve found that it’s more common to find a false savings in efficiency and reduced quality control in the work when it is done.

ICG: So what information about camera operators do you contend producers need before beginning a production?

CL: It’s important before producers decide to go without a primary camera
operator that they have properly evaluated the project’s filming requirements and looked at the DP’s history of working in this fashion. I believe that most of the time having a camera operator does not cost the production any more than not having a camera operator, and that the benefits to having an operator are greater than any perceived up-front savings. Producers are not well served by taking a strict bean-counter approach.

ICG: Can you provide a specific example in terms of quality and efficiency as it relates to the shooting day?

DK: With an operator on the set, the director of photography is free to do his job while simultaneously allowing the camera operator to finesse the shot with the crew and stand-ins creating a very efficient work environment. At the same time the focus puller, dolly grip, and stand-ins get much needed rehearsals and information that they would not get as quickly without a camera operator being present. They would have to wait for the DP to return from his many other tasks before rehearsals could begin, slowing down production significantly.

ICG: What’s your take on that, John?

John Toll: Time is money still seems like a valid cliché, and some of the most valuable time spent on film sets is that period while scenes are being prepared. I can tell you that after the director and director of photography have set a shot, the DP works with the electric and grip crews in making lighting adjustments. During this time camera operators will assist the director of photography by addressing many other time consuming details. If this work can be accomplished while other work is in progress, an enormous amount of time is saved.

ICG: What kind of pre-shot details are you talking about?

JT: Checking with the director to confirm the camera placement, or setting and clearing the frame lines, checking microphone positions, rehearsing camera moves with the stand-ins, consulting on props and set dressing placement, or working with the AD’s in placing extras and rehearsing their action. When someone on a film set asks, ‘what’s taking so long’? these are some of the answers you get. Of course, for more elaborate scenes or larger sets, the list of details gets even longer.

CL: John has hit the core issue regarding tasks affecting the quality and efficiency. This can be an even more serious concern when shooting digital, since many DPs are now spending significant time in a black tent with an HD monitor.

DK: I would also add that many details can unavoidably slip through the cracks due to the requirements of schedule and the limits of an individual to multi-task. Essentially, with a camera operator working beside him, the DP has an extra pair of knowledgeable eyes, ears, and hands to help bring the director’s vision to the screen as he or she envisioned.

ICG:  So your position is that once the camera is actually rolling, the benefits to using an operator are clear?

JT:  Well it’s fair to say that the operators become the eyes of the production. They work closely with the director, the actors, and the AD’s in coordinating action for the camera. Their skills in moving the camera and in the artistry of their compositions become essential aesthetic components of the entire film. However, what might not be so apparent while a scene is being shot, is what the director of photography can be accomplishing simultaneously. They could be consulting with the director on additional coverage for that scene, or with other department heads on scenes planned for later in the day, or even doing an evaluation of the visual impact of the current scene on other scenes in the film.

ICG: Are you saying that the operator and DP, by definition, are two distinct jobs?

JT: I’ve done both in my career and to me the crafts of director of photography and camera operator are two different areas of responsibility. It is certainly possible for one person to do both jobs, I just don’t believe it’s the most efficient way of accomplishing the work. The financial cost of hiring an operator is more than offset by the contributions they make in achieving the creative and financial ambitions of any project.

ICG: Let’s talk about those financial advantages. Have you actually broken them down?

CL: Depending on the producer’s perspective, I think it’s reasonable to say that using a camera operator versus using a DP/operator combo can save a minimum of 15 minutes of company overtime and/or yield additional setups per day without any quality being compromised. Creating setups is more efficient with the use of a camera operator – 15 minutes on a shooting day will usually more than cover the cost of having a primary camera operator. Having that is smart money to me. You could also come at it with reverse logic. Let’s say that the producer does not care about saving overtime, and he or she is limiting the director to 12 hours of shooting no matter how many setups would be ideal for the scenes scheduled on a given day.  There is that much more qualitative value gained by using a camera operator, because you’re achieving a couple of extra setups per day, plus the added attention to the details John and Dan just spoke about.

DK: I would to add to what Cleve says by pointing out that to purely break this issue down in monetary terms presents an incomplete picture. With a camera operator on the set, the director of photography is free to do his primary job. In any shot there are a million things that can go wrong and if you can think of a hundred of them you’re a genius. Having a camera operator throws the odds in the production’s favor. We feel that before deciding to staff a production without a camera operator, producers should carefully consider if they are truly saving money and/or getting the best movie for their money.