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Film Camera Operator


Film camera operators operate film and motion picture cameras and related equipment to record different types of film. They use specific cameras, lenses and lighting techniques to create a desired look to a film or documentary. They sit or stand behind the camera lens and try to compose moving pictures. With experience, film camera operators learn how to manipulate the camera to produce altered effects. Camera operators meet with producers, directors, electricians, actors and editors on a daily basis to discuss the shooting schedule, visions, any problems and future improvements.

On a film set, the camera operator works directly under the director of photography (DP) and over the second cameraman. They are responsible for the smooth panning and tilting of the camera and keeping shots framed and composed as required by the (DP). The DP has the authority to reject any shot that has faulty camera movement, focus, composition or any unwanted encroachment in the frame by a person, thing or effect, therefore the camera operator may have to re-shoot any shots with flaws. Camera operators read charts and compute ratios to determine variables such as lighting, shutter angles, filter factors, and camera distance. Many will walk around a set with a 35 mm camera taking pictures. Camera operators use different techniques in filming such as zooms, fades and blurring of the background, with a close up focus.

Many camera operators specialize in a particular type of film such as feature films, television films and documentary films. This way, they become specialists in operating a camera for a specific genre. Camera operators adjust the position and controls of photographic equipment and select cameras, accessories, equipment, and film stock to use during filming. Camera operators trouble shoot around the set or location for potential problems and to determine filming and lighting requirements.

Film camera operators make sure that all the visual components of the story are captured accurately and interestingly. They work with different lighting techniques to achieve different looks. Some camera operators are responsible for setting up the audio equipment and making sure the actors voices will be heard clearly on the tape. However, on larger film sets, camera operators only do their primary job. Some may also be responsible for camera maintenance and buying film, lenses or other special parts for the camera. These operators will have to work within a set budget and keep inventory.
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  Interests and Skills  
Film camera operators need to have excellent motor (hand-eye) coordination, good vision and hearing and a great deal of stamina. They should possess an interest in electronics and new technology. Film camera operators must remain alert while performing routine, repetitive tasks and respond quickly if any potential problems occur.

They should enjoy working with a crew of people and be able to clearly communicate ideas and take positive and negative feedback. Those who will be traveling must be comfortable with being in dangerous surroundings and often remote locations. Finally, they should enjoy operating, testing and maintaining camera equipment.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Confer with director and electrician regarding interpretation of scene, desired effects, filming and lighting requirements
  • Read charts and compute ratios to determine variables, such as lighting, shutter angles, filter factors, and camera distance
  • Check all film that is loaded in the camera to make sure it has been properly threaded and zeroed
  • Make sure there are no flares in the camera lens and that it is properly scrimmed
  • Set the camera eyepiece focus to the proper diopter setting for the operator's eye
  • Make sure the camera speed is correct prior to each take
  • Make sure the camera shutter is in the proper position and that light is not leaking into the camera after each take
  • Physically operate the camera at the times required by the director of photography
  • Make sure the proper lens, matte and cam are positioned on the camera prior to each take
  • Indicate to the boom operator when the microphone is in frame and give him limits so he can get in as close as possible
  • Move the camera and operate the optical controls
  • Follow instructions from the director concerning the mood or dramatic effect to be achieved
  • Make minor electronic adjustments to cameras
  • Maintain and store camera equipment
  • Film camera operators work in film studios and on location, which may be remote and foreign. For example, Tomb Raider was filmed in Cambodia. Film camera operators will work long, often irregular hours, sometimes up to 15 hours per day. Coping with tight schedules and deadlines can be stressful. Those working on smaller, independent films may be required to lift heavy equipment.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Film camera operators work for film companies and studios. They either work as freelancers or on contract with a film studio. Once they gain experience, film camera operators will be able to get jobs based on the name that they build for themselves.

  Long Term Career Potential  
The film industry is very competitive so inexperienced camera operators must be willing to start at the bottom of the ladder. Once camera operators have gained experience, they can move to positions in larger studios or film sets and become more specialized.

Freelancing has become the trend for people seeking or continuing careers as film camera operators. Contract employment can also be found in producing "in-house" programs such as corporate videos. Some camera operators may decide to move into still photography or television, which is in fact quite similar. Since they are already equipped with technical skills, they can move into any broadcasting technical positions involving cameras, including editing.

Experienced film camera operators can advance to technical supervisory positions and, if they have the necessary ability and experience, eventually become directors or producers. The highest level that a camera operator can advance to in the same area is the director of photography position. This position allows camera operators to become the artistic visionaries and create their own ideas on camera.

  Educational Paths  
The majority of film camera operators have a university degree or college diploma in broadcast journalism. However, there is nothing required by film studios or companies. As with most positions in the film industry, on-the-job training is the best training and learning option. Aspiring film camera operators should volunteer on films and film studios to learn first hand from experts. Also, this will help people decide if they truly wish to pursue this profession.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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