The camera department are responsible for set-up and operation of film cameras, including choosing the correct lens, filters and settings to achieve the director's and director of photography’s vision. The department is led by the director of photography who manages the camera operators, focus pullers, camera assistants, trainees, and Steadicam and specialist camera operators. He or she will also manage the work of the electrical department.
Skills needed to work in the camera department
- artistic vision
- creativity and attention to detail
- and eye for colour and lighting
- good technical knowledge of photochemical and digital processes and camera equipment
- knowledge of photography, painting and, particularly of the moving image
- physical coordination and strength
- ability to give and to accept direction
- excellent communication skills
- diplomacy and tact when working with cast and crew
- knowledge of relevant health and safety legislation and procedure
Ways into the camera department
The majority of those working in camera studied film, photography or other arts subjects to a degree level, then start in a junior capacity, such as second assistant camera on short films, before progressing through the camera roles.
The National Film and Television School's (NFTS) MA in Cinematography provides the opportunity to specialise and is taught by practising directors of photography (DoPs). Most camera crews enter the department as trainees and then move up through the ranks of second and first assistant after gaining enough experience on set. Some of them may have had the opportunity to work in an equipment rental company.
Camera operators often progress to becoming DoPs by carrying out second unit work, but there is no set route. Less frequently they may progress from the lighting department.
Although electrical qualifications are not necessary, some training in the functions of lighting equipment and knowledge of cameras, lenses and film stocks invaluable. The are many good short courses available from the Guild of British Camera Technicians or the NFTS 16MM/35MM camera familiarisation course.
Jobs in the camera department
Director of photography (DoP)
DoPs are the heads of the camera and electrical department and plays a major creative role. They work closely with the director and heads of department to create the look and feel of the production. Their first task is to identify the photographic heart of a screenplay and conducting research and preparation into how to achieve this. They will carry out technical reccies on locations, prepare lists of required equipment, test special lenses, filters, film stock, decide on lighting, framing and camera movement and work with the director to block shots during rehearsals. On smaller productions DoPs often operate cameras on set and at the end of each days shooting the usually view the rushes with the directors. During post-production, DoPs attend the digital grading of the film. The term cinematographer is sometimes used to describe a DoP who also operates the camera.
Camera operators support the DoP and director with shot composition and are responsible for all aspects of camera operation and preparation. To move up to camera operator from focus puller is a big jump, so substantial experience is required. It's also important for camera operators to keep analysing TV and films to keep up to date with trends and styles. Many camera operators will develop additional skills such as Steadicam, aerial or underwater experience to improve employability.
Steadicam operators are responsible for the technical set-up of the Steadicam system and balancing the camera on it. The Steadicam system maintains a fluid and smooth camera move irrespective of how fast the operator is moving, or indeed the terrain they are on. Sometimes Steadicam systems are mounted on vehicles, not just humans. They work with the director, DoP and actors to set-up and perform the required shots and with the first assistant camera and first assistant director to make sure the shot choreography works. Operating a Steadicam is physically demanding and requires wearing up to 40kg weight, at a distance from your body, for lengths of time. Many Steadicam operators also work as camera operators and have undergone specialist training to expand their operating repertoire.
Specialist camera operators (e.g. aerial or marine and diving camera crew)
High-budget productions may employ specialist camera crews, including aerial DoPs, aerial camera pilots, underwater DoPs, safety divers, and aerial or marine camera operators and assistants. These are highly specialised jobs with required qualifications such as a professional pilots license or an HSE Commercial Diving Certificate as well as required knowledge of specialist recording and safety equipment.
During pre-production script supervisors check the script for errors and inconsistencies, prepare estimated running times, break down the script according to production requirements and develop story synopses and character breakdowns. During shooting they stand by the cameras to monitor the script and check no dialogue has been missed. Script supervisors must keep detailed records of all shot timings and camera movements and can provide actors with dialogue start points, continuity details and cues. They often assist sound mixers in taking additional notes of any recorded wild tracks or voice-overs.
First assistant camera or focus puller
Focus pullers support the DoP and camera operators by preparing the camera and calculating and controlling the focus of shots and other technical variables. They take lead from the director and carry out camera tests. To learn focus pulling it is good to start with easier wider shots. Experience should have been gained in a second assistant role, and as many high-end productions use two cameras there are opportunities to gain experience at a higher level.
Second assistant camera or clapper loader
Clapper loaders support the camera department by preparing and maintaining equipment and controlling tape or file stock. They are responsible for record keeping and slating of each take and will work with the script supervisor to ensure the continuity notes, camera logs and other paperwork are kept in good order ahead of supplying to the edit.
Digital imaging technician (DIT)
Under the direction of the director of photography, the DIT makes adjustments to the multitude of variables available in camera set up to manipulate the resulting image, such as paint settings, gamma curve, or gamut. They are also responsible for ensuring that the established workflow for the shoot will work and looking over footage to check for technical issues. On high-end productions, this can involve a lot of data, including different types of data, e.g. aerial camera shots from different cameras.
The data wrangler is responsible for the transfer of data from the internal working of the digital camera, such as managing the backup of camera rushes onto cards or drives and checking their data integrity. They will produce logsheets with details of the contents of the files and keep track of what footage has passed from shoot to post-production.
Video assist operator (VAO)
VAOs check the compatibility of playback systems, recording units, trolleys, batteries and external monitors with film cameras and arrive on set with the camera crew to test equipment. They are usually employed by camera equipment hire companies, and many start as runners or drivers for those hire companies. Video assist trainees help VAOs with cables and general support on set and these entry-level positions are often advertised directly by hire companies on their websites.
Trainees support the camera department and ensure equipment is moved safely and efficiently. They may assist with camera tests and be asked to load some clapperboards. They will need to liaise with digital imaging technicians and sound crew. It is not necessary to have been to film school for this role, though some experience of shooting a short film or operating a video camera would be useful
Find out more about working in the camera department
Some other job roles in technical
Grips are the people on a set who are responsible for safely setting up and manoeuvring the complex machinery needed to make a film or TV show
Electrical and lighting
Big film and TV productions need expert technicians and gaffers to light and wire the sets, assisted by trainees or juniors in the more entry-level roles