THE CINEMATOGRAPHER’S CREW: Lights, Camera, Repeat!

On most feature film sets, the cinematographer's team is the biggest crew on the production, which means that the cinematographer has to interact and delegate with many production members. Fortunately, the "division of labor" on the set makes this a manageable task.

Because this article will present many different positions and job titles, I figured that perhaps the clearest way to present this list would be to start at the top of the food chain, and then make our way to the bottom. I hope this will make sense to you. And if not, let me know in the comments.

For those of you who love lists, allow me to get this one quickly out of the way, divided by the three departments, sorted by relevance with the most important ones first. If you want more detail and explanation about each job title, then by all means scroll down and read on.

The Cinematographer’s Crew at a Glance

Camera DepartmentFMPU_camera_crew_1944

  1. Camera Operator
  2. 1st Assistant Camera
  3. 2nd Assistant Camera
  4. Digital Imaging Technician (DIT)
  5. Loader

Light Department

  1. Gaffer (Chief Electrician)
  2. Best Boy
  3. Electric (or Sparks)

Grip Department

  1.  Key Grip
  2. Best Boy Grip
  3. Grip
  4. Dolly Grip

The beautiful thing about a film crew is how structured it is. It has a ranking system akin to the military. This person responds to that person, that person responds to that other person and so on. The cinematography team is no different. In this article, you will learn about the general and his troops on a movie set.

Needless to say, the Cinematographer or Director of Photography (DP) is the top-ranked official in the cinematography army. He is the professional in charge of the visual aesthetics of the movie, which includes supervising three departments: the camera department, the light department, and the grip department. Sometimes the light and grip crews are collective known as Grip and Electric (or G/E), which often the case in less formal sets such as non union-shoots.

 

The Camera Crew

Out of these three departments, the camera crew is obviously the most important one. Without a camera, there’s no movie (duh!). Within the camera department, the most important person is the Camera Operator, which is in itself a highly respectable and demanding position. The Cameraman or -woman has a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. They have to be attentive to each minor detail of the shot, and report any flaws they might see in the frame. Can you imagine if that Oscar-worthy, million dollar shot with Mery Streep crying on top of a burning Empire Estate Building  is out of focus and the operator doesn’t say anything?

In a Hollywood production or a fully-funded feature film, the Cameraman is responsible for framing (including angles) and movements, while his support crew (which I’ll go over next) will be in charge of doing almost everything else from pulling focus to slating. In some underfunded projects or student films, the Camera Operator may double as his own assistant, often pulling focus himself and fetching lenses. Of course, this is not ideal, as you want the person looking through the viewfinder to be in top shape. In fact, when shooting in extreme conditions, like a blistering hot desert, it’s not uncommon to see courtesy flags (a piece of grip equipment) shielding the Camera Operator from the sun. To all the directors and producers out there, remember: the Camera Operator is the man capturing the image you want the world to see, so treat them nicely and don’t let them sweat more than they have to.

It is worth pointing out that some productions may have different kinds of operators depending on the needs of the project. A Steadicam Operator, for instance, is a specialized professional trained and licensed to operate a Steadicam (which is a camera optimized for handheld moving shots). And because his rate is  higher than the average, you may only really use him for a Steadicam shots, while your regular Operator will shoot the rest of the film.

Next on the list is the 1st Assistant Camera (or 1st AC). Although called an assistant, the 1st AC is in charge of maintaining and managing the camera department, which means supervising the camera crew and ensuring that all the gear is in proper working order. During prep, the 1st AC will go to rental houses to test the gear before checking out. During principal photography, the 1st Assistant Camera has to make sure that his crew and equipment are ready to go on schedule.  The first AC is the direct support of the Camera Operator. In addition to building the camera and moving it from shot to show, the 1st AC will also swap lenses and pull focus, thus sparing the Camera Operator from having to do it.

And if the 1st AC is the Operator’s right hand man, then the 2nd Assistant Camera is the 1st AC’s right hand man. Though I often compare this hierarchy to the military, I don’t like to say “one gives order to other” because a film set should be more collaborative and elegant in nature. But if it makes easier to understand, then yes, the Cinematographer delegates to the Operator, who delegates to 1st AC, who then delegates to the 2nd AC.

The 2nd AC is always assisting the 1st AC, helping him build the camera, organize the gear, swap lenses, etc. During prep, the 2nd AC will accompany the 1st AC to rental houses and make sure the production is renting good working equipment. During rehearsals, the 2nd AC will mark actors (taping the floor to help actors and camera know their positions). He is also in charge of filling out camera reports (which is an important document to keep track of camera settings, like the aperture and focal length, in case this information is needed at a later date such as for a pick-up.)

The Digital Imaging Technician (DIT) is a recent position that became gradually more common as digital took over the industry, effectively replacing film. The job description of a DIT has changed through the years and continues to do so as the medium evolves as well. When I was in film school, the first time I heard of a DIT I thought he was simply a digital loader in charge of backing up the footage and organizing the several SD cards used by the production(and maybe back then that’s all DITs did). Today, however, I understand that the DITs have more responsibility and knowledge than that. Now they are considered a wizard in the digital medium, having a deep, technical comprehension of all-things digital, like cameras, codecs, plugins, laptops, software, etc. Back when digital was a novelty, DITs eased the transition of some cinematographers accustomed to film into the new era. Nowadays on the set, they are responsible for some quick color grading (color correction), generating dailies, syncing audio, etc. He is an important link between the set (or the cinematographer) and the post-production house (or the editor), configuring the media and hardware as per the need of the project.

Last but not least is the Loader. Traditionally, the film loader was in charge of loading film stock into the camera magazine, which would involve either going into a completely dark room or using a light-tight changing tent to shield the film (because, if you can remember those days, the film is light sensitive and exposure to light will render it unusable). The film loader was also in charge of labeling cans of used film after the shoot and managing the inventory, including sending the film to the lab. As we transition fully into the digital era, the film loader is becoming more and more rare, and the digital loader becomes the norm. The film stock is now a compact card, and the digital loader has to manage the inventory and back up the footage. He works alongside the DIT to ensure the files are in the correct format and sent to the right place.