Do We See It First? Looking Over the Camera Operator’s Shoulder

Above photo taken on location in Baton Rouge shooting the 2nd Unit of Fantastic Four. Photo by Ben Rothstein

By Dan Gold, SOC

It used to be that the director would call, “Cut,” then turn to the camera operator and ask, “How was it?” There was no video assist, no video village, and no cluster of chairs crowding around the video monitors. The camera operator had the only really good look at the shot since it was only his eye in the viewfinder. He alone could judge the composition, evaluate the focus, and monitor the hairdressing and the make-up. Peering through the optical viewfinder of a film camera, the camera operator was in many cases, in the best position to evaluate the actor’s performance. His was the most intimate, close-up view.

With the introduction of video assist, whereby an inferior image of what the camera sees is presented on video monitors, the scrutiny of the frame was opened to everyone on the set. Now not only the director could peek over the camera operator’s shoulder but producers, script supervisors, production managers, hair and make-up artists, and anyone who happened to stroll by video village was able to see what the camera sees.

Many years ago as a new operator, I resented this apparent loss of control over the photographic frame. Other crew members would depend less on me for information about the shot, instead, they’d take a look at the monitor and make their own judgments. “I should be the one to inform them where the sidelines of the frame are,” I thought. Not some production assistant who glanced at the monitor when the shot wasn’t even framed up. Very often I would hear a comment being made about the shot on the monitor while we were still setting up the camera. I soon developed a habit of ripping out the video assist cable, and the comments subsided temporarily.

Of course, I was overreacting to the new video assist phenomenon. I came to realize that as the camera operator I still had the first and best look at what went on in the frame. The good directors realized what they could and could not evaluate based on that fuzzy video image. They learned that they still needed to collaborate with the camera operator for crucial information—as did everyone else on the crew. After being burned a few times by looking at the monitor and assuming something about the framing, the smart crew members learned to return to the old-school method and ask the camera operator about the specifics of the shot.

Then came digital. With the advent of high-definition video cameras for motion picture production, the eye in the eyepiece no longer has the best look at the visual image. In fact, the electronic viewfinder through which the camera operator looks is significantly inferior to the high-definition monitors around the set. The monitors for the director and producers at video village, and especially those inside the Digital Imaging Technician tent where the director of photography is probably watching, show much more information than what camera operators can see on the tiny monitor in the electronic eyepiece. Greater contrast, resolution, and sharpness allow the D.I.T. to see focus problems much more clearly than the operator can. The first time a focus problem was reported from the tent when I just couldn’t be sure about it looking through the viewfinder, I began to wonder if the camera operator still does “see it first.” Were we indeed losing our front row seat? Was that privileged viewpoint that makes our position the organizing center for executing the shot on its way out?

Well the good news is there are some pretty advanced on-board monitors that we can use instead of the electronic viewfinder. Many camera operators have taken to using these high quality external monitors instead of the video eyepiece. Operating with these monitors, we can see focus issues more accurately. Make-up and hair issues are more easily spotted. The dangers at the edges of the frame; encroaching lights, C-stands, and microphone booms are once again visible and can be controlled. The camera operator can even help the director of photography evaluate the lighting to some extent, as we do when shooting with a film camera.

And the truth is we do still see it first. Maybe the image in the D.I.T. tent is superior to what the camera operator sees even using a high-definition on-board monitor. But the people in the tent and the people at video village don’t see it like we see it. Each of them has their own little world to watch. Some watch the actor’s performance, some watch the hairstyle. Some watch the make-up, others the lighting, or even the smoke. But the camera operator watches it all. He or she sees the shot as a whole and yet keeps an eye on all of the individual aspects of it. The operator analyzes it to see what parts of it worked and what parts didn’t. He or she sees it not only “first,” he sees it “best.” And the camera operator sees much more than what just comes through the lens. The operator “sees” a better way to block the scene and suggests it to the director. He or she “sees” a way to make the scene more interesting by adding a foreground element or introducing motion into the shot and tells the director of photography. The operator “sees” that the clouds are rolling in and suggests to the first assistant director that we shoot another take quickly.

Perhaps we should say this about camera operators:  We see it first, we see it best, we see it all…

Dan Gold, SOC
I’ve been fascinated by photography my whole life. The power of the visual image as it magically appears in the developing tray or leaps onto the screen in a darkened movie theater always gets me. When I was a kid in New Jersey my dad and I built a darkroom in the basement. I spent countless hours shooting photos and enlarging images. My twin brother Michael and I made 8mm movies and charged the neighborhood kids to watch them. Our most successful production, a science fiction thriller entitled The Atomic Burp, grossed over $15 the first week in our basement. When my folks took us to see 2001: A Space Odyssey at Radio City in New York, I was hooked on movies.

I studied film production at Wesleyan University and the University of Southern California before joining Local 600 in 1980. Beginning as a trainee, then 2nd assistant, and 1st assistant cameraman, I have been a camera operator for over twenty years.
I’ve had the privilege of operating the “A” camera for directors of photography; Michael Ballhaus, John Seale, Fred Elmes, Michael Chapman, Jeffrey Kimball, Larry Sher, and Barry Peterson.

I’ve been able to contribute my talents as camera operator to some terrific projects. Spider-Man, Air Force One, Primary Colors, The Perfect Storm, The Hangover, and 21 Jump Street were all amazing experiences. I’ve gotten to work with interesting and creative directors, actors, and cinematographers. People like Mike Nichols, Harrison Ford, Wolfgang Peterson, Barry Sonnenfeld, Ang Lee, and Gordon Willis are my heroes.

And somehow while all this was going on I managed to stay happily married to my amazing wife Nancy while we raised three wonderful girls, Allie, Rickie and Jessie.

Dan Gold, SOC has been a member of the SOC Board of Governors serving as Vice President and Recording Secretary, and he was awarded the 2015 SOC Camera Operator Lifetime Achievement Award.

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