What would it be like to be a ... Camera Assistant?

We asked Jessica Clarke-Nash - who has worked on a variety of films, televison programs and video clips - about her career behind the camera as a
camera assistant.

Jessica on set

My job is as a camera assistant. On a big film, such as Wolverine, I work in a position called Preview Stills Assistant. It's a very new job and is only found in big Hollywood blockbusters who can afford it. I help the Cinematographer [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinematographer] in making the film look a particular way. For example a film like a horror film will look all dark with lots of black but will make the red (colour of blood) stand out, or a happy romantic film will have lots of bright happy colours that all complement each other. I can do this on the movie set by taking stills photographs and developing them on my computer then sending it to the lab that processes the film so they can match the colours on the film to the colours of my photographs.

Jessica behind the camera

When I'm on a lower budget film or TV show then my position is as a Focus Puller (also known as 1st AC) or as a Clapper Loader (2nd AC). A focus puller does exactly as the name says: pulls the focus of the camera so the actor is always in focus. For example if someone is walking from far away towards the camera then the focus puller turns a dial on the side of the lens so that the audience can always see the actor in focus. They are also responsible for all the technical settings of the camera. The Clapper loader loads the film into the camera magazines and Claps the slate. They also clean and maintain any accessories to the camera and often are responsible for setting up a screen for the director to see what the camera is seeing.

What does Focus mean? In the left picture the plane is in focus. In the right picture the lady is in focus. Can you see the difference?

Why did you want to work behind the camera?
When I was a kid I visited a TV show set that was full of exciting stunts and action. There were only a few people who were allowed near the action and they were the actors and the camera crew. I desperately wanted to be part of the excitement, but knew I wasn't suited to be in front of the camera, so decided I wanted to be behind the camera. Once I started learning about film cameras I completely fell in love with the creative and technical sides of using the camera to make a film.

Because of the conditions, such as being really cold or too hot, where has been the most difficult place to film?

There are always difficulties to every place that we film but it's the weather that generally determines whether we have a good day or a horrible day. The desert is always a hard place weather wise to film as it's so cold and often close to freezing when we first arrive to set up before the sun comes up. Once it's the middle of the day, however, it's completely the opposite and you're struggling to cope with blistering heat and no shade. It makes it hard to choose what to wear in the morning.

However, what's the worst for me personally is when it
rains and this happens a lot on a film set. It's a well known joke that if you're in a drought just send a film crew and you're guaranteed for it to pour with rain! That doesn't stop us from filming, though: we work rain hail or shine. The mud is the worst as it makes it slippery to move around, and the rain getting through your clothes makes you cold to the bone. It's next to impossible to keep all the equipment dry and clean so, for days afterwards, you're still cleaning mud off everything!!! I once filmed in a swamp where it felt like the rain was coming up from underneath you as well as from above. I've never been so wet in my life.

Do you have to buy any of your own equipment?
I have my own Digital SLR camera and computer to do preview stills.
It was very expensive but necessary. It's most important to know and trust the equipment that you work on as they're what you depend on. I also have a ‘kit’ for focus-pulling that includes all sorts of tools and equipment to make my job easier. It has such things as tape measures, screwdrivers, lens cleaning accessories and of course a Slate to mark the beginning of each shot. Another important piece of equipment is a Dark Change Tent or Bag which allows you to put film into the magazines without the film being exposed to light.

Jess with her SLR camera on the set of Wolverine

How long is your working day? Some movies are shot at night so you must have to start work really early and finish really late!
A minimum shooting day is 10 hours but that doesn't include any unpacking or packing of the equipment. So generally the shortest working day would be 12hours. It's very common though for a lot of overtime to happen as it's cheaper to keep everyone a few more hours at the location to complete a scene then bringing them all back again the next day. On a film such as Wolverine the average day is 14 -16 hours; nearly double a normal office working day. On commercials it can be even longer; for example, a brand new car is being released but it's only available to be filmed for 36hours. So the crew will get there before the car arrives then work right through the 36hours then pack up afterwards. These are very long days.

I've heard that in some movies, to get it really right, the director has to do the same shot over and over. Have you ever had to use the clapper board lots on one shot?
Yes, it's important to get all the details right when creating a film and often that requires doing the same thing over and over again until all the people involved get it exactly as the director wants it. For example, the camera operator has to move the camera at the exact right moment. If there are any props or animals then there are generally more takes to get what is needed. However, more often than not, the reason to do numerous takes is to get a different performance from the actors so the director can tell the story that he/she wants. The most I've ever slated one scene was 26 times just to get the right performance from the actor. There are many directors who are famous for numerous takes such as Baz Luhrman (Australia), James Cameron (Titanic) and Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa).

Jess operating a clapper board

Do you get to meet and become friends with some of the actors?
Actors are just like normal people when they're on set working and just trying to do the best job they can. As we all work in close proximity [nearness] and in high adrenaline [exciting] situations for long periods of times. You meet and talk with the actors just like any of the other crew and just like if you're doing any other job in the world. Some people you like and become friends with and some you don't. It's just the same with actors. Actors are often asked to do things for the film that your average person doesn't do and often it involves trusting the crew around them with their safety. Sometimes this involves stunts or special effects (like explosions) but quite often the actors are put in uncomfortable positions and then have to perform to the camera as though nothing is wrong. Most actors have my respect for doing what is a very tough job. It's definitely not all glamorous for them.

Jess filming a scene in a movie

Were you a fan of The X-Men before working on the movie?
Absolutely!!! I grew up on the comic books and then was a fan of the cartoon that was on TV as it was the only show my brother and I didn't fight about watching when we were kids. I thought the original X-Men film was cleverly made and was a HUGE fan. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is actually the first film I've worked on that I would've been eagerly awaiting the release of even if I hadn't worked on it. When I got the job I was jumping up and down with excitement, and after working on the film I'm even more excited about seeing it when it gets released at the cinema next month.

My mum really loves Hugh Jackman. What can you tell us about him as an actor?
Hugh is not only a great actor but is one of the nicest people I've ever met. There are nearly 250 people working on a film at any one time and he is the first actor I've ever met to know everyone’s name. He walks onto set every morning with a huge smile and happily greets everyone as he passes.
It doesn't matter if he's been working 16 hours just like the rest of us, he is still happy to have a chat. He's very talented at what he does as he is able to jump between emotions from scene to scene within a few minutes. On the one day we could be shooting a love scene, then a death scene, then a beat-the-bad-guys-up scene, and it's not easy to go straight from being happy in love, to emotionally devastated [really, really sad] to then somehow come up with the physical energy to do a big fight scene. It's a big ask of an actor to do that, but Hugh happily does it and seems to enjoy every moment of it.

Hugh Jackman, playing the role of Logan/Wolverine

What are your favourite fims?
Oh, there are far too many to name. I honestly couldn't name just one. Most of them aren't what are traditionally called great films but generally remind me of certain times in my life when I related to the characters or was swept away with the story. It also depends on when you ask me as I change my mind all the time. I'm a real girl and adore ‘love stories’ and ‘period films’ are definitely a favourite of mine, such as
Pride and Prejudice or Much Ado About Nothing. As a teenager I loved films like Dirty Dancing and 10 Things I Hate About You and I still enjoy films like these even today. A drama that can make me cry like Pay it Forward or Life is Beautiful will always be on my favourites list. And of course I always enjoy big action films like Die Hard, Speed or Transformers. However, I'm not a huge fan of Horror or Suspense films and will avoid them at all costs.

Do you look at a film in a different way because you know about the tricks of filming?
I certainly analyse films a lot more to the annoyance of the people around me but if a film is good then I get caught up in the story and don't notice any of the tricks. If a film isn't engaging [appealing] then I often find my mind wandering and looking at camera movements or lighting techniques. Probably the best thing about seeing films while working in the industry is having an understanding of how much work goes into making a film and so therefore marvelling at big scenes that may only last 10seconds on screen but knowing that it would've taken months of preparation and days to set up before filming.

Jess operating one of the cameras

What do you hope to do in the future?
I would one day like to be a Cinematographer or Director of Photography on a feature film, but that is a very long way away. For now I'm very content working and learning with some of the great film makers in a hope to one day use these experiences and knowledge to create my own piece of cinema.

Jess working late into the night

Thank you so very much Jess for all the wonderful information. We are amazed at how long the working days are for people having to work behind the scenes to be able to create special moments on film. Thank you once again for your story.

James has drawn one of the older-styled movie cameras with a hand-winding mechanism. I don't know if Jessica has used one of THOSE before!

Mr Williams' Wiki http://mrwilliamswiki.wikispaces.com/