Why get into technical production?
Yeah, the director thinks he’s pretty important, sitting in his fold-up chair and dishing out the orders Likewise, the actors and actresses might think they’re the dog’s danglies, flouncing around the set and retiring to their trailer when it all gets too much.
However, these guys would be nowhere without the technical production crew responsible for operating the cameras, coordinating the lighting and recording the sound.
The technical production crew are the heart and soul of the TV and film industries. They’re probably not going to be wearing the sharpest tuxedos or the most incredible gowns on the red carpet, and they’re certainly not going to be on the cover of Hello magazine anytime soon. However, these guys are the people who truly “make the magic happen.”
Just consider life without the members of these teams:
- Audrey Hepburn wouldn’t have looked half as beautiful as she does in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
- Brad Pitt wouldn’t have appeared as devilishly handsome as he does in Fight Club
- The starkly beautiful landscape shots in No Country for Old Men would have looked like they were filmed in your back garden
- Morgan Freeman’s voice wouldn’t sound like that of the best storyteller in the world
- The volleyball scene in Top Gun would have been nowhere near as homoerotic.
Camera, lighting and sound crews can work on any kind of television or film project, be it a feature film, a wildlife documentary, sporting coverage or a game show. People who pursue these careers synthesise their creative vision with expert technical skills to make sure what we see and hear on the screen is as colourful, sumptuous and powerful as possible.
Cinematography is all about the selection and manipulation of technical equipment to create eye-catching images on screen – it is what gives a film or TV show its unique aesthetic style.
What roles are needed in the camera crew?
This tricky task is in the safe hands of the people who work in the camera crew. The different tasks that these guys undertake are all part of a meticulous and subtle art, which should never detract from the on-screen action. The choice of lens, the exploitation of focus and the movement of the camera all have an impact on the final visual product.
Job roles within the camera crew completely depend on the size and nature of the shoots you are working on, and career progression can involve taking a lot of little steps.
Let’s start at the bottom though! Camera trainees are the most junior members of ‘the crew’ (N.B. sorry, this career step is nothing like joining the So Solid Crew!). This is a perfect way to get started and learn the ropes.
These guys assist the assistant camera technicians in their day-to-day duties, acting as a runner, handling lenses, and perhaps maybe even dealing with the actual film magazines. This entry-level step can often last for around two years. Consequently, you will need to consistently maintain your enthusiasm.
The next step is being a full blown camera assistant. There are two kinds: the ‘2nd assistant cameraman’ (2nd AC) and the ‘1st assistant cameraman’ (1st AC). The 2nd AC helps the senior camera operator to move and position the camera, and is responsible for handling the necessary equipment, e.g. film magazines and batteries. This person also gets the fun job of operating the clapperboard. Take 37!
The 1st AC can also be called a ‘focus puller’. Understandably, these guys are in charge of ‘pulling focus’ (i.e. adapting it when actors move towards or away from the camera), and preparing cameras for shooting. This is one of the most highly-skilled roles in the camera crew and these guys need excellent attention to detail.
The next big step up is to become a camera operator. These guys are the big cheese of hands-on camera operation. They oversee all the camera operations and are in charge of physically capturing each shot, i.e. the precision movement and focusing.
They also liaise with the director and director of photography to discuss shooting options and equipment choice. Some camera operators begin to specialise in certain operation techniques, such as Steadicam operation.
Directors of photography (DoPs) are responsible for the film, TV show or commercial’s overall cinematography. These creative gurus work alongside the director and manage the camera crew in order to give the production its unique visual personality.
The creative choices of lighting and camera movement are all down to them. These guys are at the top of the career ladder and it takes years of experience to get to this level. Some DoPs may even specialise in certain areas of cinematography, such as aerial or underwater.
The camera crew also employs people in more practical roles. If you pursue this route, you might be a crane operator (who operates heavy crane equipment), a visual assist operator (who operates video playback equipment), or a ‘grip’ (who is in charge of all the equipment that supports cameras, such as tripods, cranes and rigs).
These are the logistics heroes of the camera crew world that make sure cameras can be moved and positioned in the way that the director and DoP want.
What roles are needed in the lighting crew?
The lighting team is equally as important as the camera crew. TV shows and films cannot be shot in the dark, and these guys help to give scenes a certain mood or stylistic je ne sais quoi. The size and scope of the lighting team can vary depending on the magnitude of the production. Now, get ready for job titles with some cool nicknames!
Lighting technicians are often called ‘sparks’. These guys might rig up lighting equipment, carry out lighting tests, position lights during shoots, or manage the inventory of bulbs and filters etc.
They might report to an assistant chief lighting technician (often called the ‘best boy’), who coordinates all the different lighting technicians, liaises with the rest of the production team and provides direct assistance to the ‘gaffer’. To get to best boy level, lighting technicians might have to work for several years.
The ‘gaffer’ is in charge of all the practical lighting tasks. They oversee the work of lighting technicians and best boys, and work closely with the lighting director to assist with making the big, creative lighting decisions. They might even offer recommendations about specific lighting equipment.
The lighting director is the big dog of the lighting team. They use their expert technical knowledge and creative flair to direct how the lighting setup will meet the director’s overall creative vision for a scene. They oversee all the lighting activity and create detailed plans that determine where certain rigs and coloured lights are used.
What roles are needed in the sound crew?
Without the expertise of the sound crew, we would all still be watching silent movies, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton! A TV show or film’s dialogue needs to be clear, crisp and emphatic. Consequently, the practical and technical skills of the sound assistants, boom operators and production sound mixers are absolutely essential.
Sound technicians are responsible for checking and preparing all the sound equipment for shoots, carrying out additional practical tasks to minimise unwanted sounds on set – and they may even operate the second boom (the big fluffy microphone you see on film sets). These guys might be supported by sound trainees who do general tasks and act as runners.
Boom operators do exactly what it says on the tin. These guys operate the boom microphone, positioning it in the optimal place, where it won’t go into shot and inconvenience the actors. If the boom is hand-held, this can often be a physically strenuous job.
They don’t just position the boom in a willy-nilly fashion – all their precise movements have to be planned meticulously. These guys might also position other microphones around the set to optimise sound recording. They look after the equipment and provide other assistance to the production sound mixer.
Last but not least, the production sound mixer is in charge of all the sound recording on set. They have the overall responsibility of capturing the intricacies and subtle inflections of the actors’ voices, so as to enhance the emotive nature of the scene.
They also manage the rest of the sound crew and plan all the technical recording work. They will have progressed through the different levels of the sound crew over a number of years to get to where they are, and may get the opportunity to work on a huge range of different types of project.
These jobs can be incredibly complex and even more competitive, but the amount of creative control and technical application involved really sells it. If you’d like to get involved in the production of films, either behind the camera or microphones, and make someone’s vision (or audio) a reality, you could be ‘set’ (get it?) for a career in this area.