A Fail-Safe Operation

This issue of ICG Magazine is all about action cinematography. But what really constitutes an action shot? Is it as simple as an operator running with a camera on his or her shoulder as he or she follows an actor down the street? Or is it a more complex example where things are blowing up, cars are crashing and people are falling off buildings – all at the same time?

When I first arrived in Hollywood, I visited a TV show being shot at the beach. The director had told the cinematographer that there would be no need to move the camera that day. Taking his word at face value, the camera crew used a Mitchell BNC, which is a notoriously heavy system. Sure enough, as the last shot of the day approached, the director asked if it was possible to do a shot running with the actor. The next thing I saw was four grips hefting two steel poles, which they had placed beneath the Mitchell – and the operator running behind them in the sand trying to maintain pace with the eyepiece.

There are many ways to move the camera. And we, as Guild members, often find ourselves doing work that demands movement for virtually every element in a scene. We have always played a vital role in creating the most exciting action sequences this industry has ever seen (mostly because our crews have the ability not only to physically accomplish what is asked of them, but to understand the safety protocols put in place to protect everyone on the set). Camera operators, in particular, are often at the center of technological advances; look at a tool like the Steadicam, invented by Garrett Brown in the late 1970’s, which moved the camera in ways that had never been seen before. And when it was determined that an operator with a Steadicam could be attached to a large crane, moved above the ground, and then be released as the crane came down to continue the shot, yet another exciting element was added to how directors approached action storytelling. In more recent years, we’ve had many new tools added – stabilizing, gimbal and aerial technology – to help move the camera in new ways.

I recently saw a drone shot that began on the second floor of a hotel, went through a window, down through a lobby, across a restaurant and up and out of a set of French doors, all the while following characters running to what became a gunfight out on a city street. The coordination for a shot like that not only involved a full understanding of the safety imperatives by the entire team, but it also featured the drone being guided by a camera operator at a great distance away, sometimes not even in sight of the drone itself. That’s a skill that takes years of understanding of composition and framing to pull off.

I’ve mentioned safety several times, because it can’t be emphasized enough how important it is that every safety component within every setup be fully understood. That begins with a cinematographer who has a camera team that has worked with an experienced stunt crew and the Assistant Director, who both have the safety of the entire production as their primary responsibility. New processes, like previsualization, can help to mitigate some of the action genre’s inherent hazards. A skilled and savvy operator can use these tools and say, “If we move the camera over here, we’d get a better shot that is out of harm’s way.” I don’t know any director, cinematographer or stunt coordinator who wouldn’t take that type of advice. Of course, previsualization doesn’t provide all of the answers – it simply gets the questions started; it will never be a substitute for the real-world experience of an operator who understands a shot as it is set up and rehearsed.

Because the action genre is broken up into so many specialties – underwater, aerial, and vehicular, to name a few – cinematographers (even those with experience in such areas) must rely on the expertise of those specialists within their crews. Directors of photography need to have the overview, but not necessarily the specific expertise to accomplish such challenging setups; we should rely on the people we hire to physically accomplish what we’re asking for. Particularly in a multi-camera set-up, I find that my position behind a monitor is a much more effective place to be than actually looking through a viewfinder on a camera. When DP’s isolate ourselves behind a camera, especially during an action sequence, we will never truly have that overview.


Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600

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