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Who Does What on the Camera Crew?

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If you’ve lived in New York long enough, it’s bound to happen to you one day as you turn a corner: you’ll be gazing from the sidewalk as a movie, TV show, or commercial is being shot. You may ask yourself, “Who are all those people besides the actors standing around on the set?” Read on to discover the crew positions that you’ll find listed in the credits of most professional productions, and how, despite appearances to the contrary, the crew is indeed putting in a full day’s work, and then some.

As befits B&H Photo Video’s focus on all things photographic, the emphasis here is on the visual trades, but we admit that other on-set positions are, nonetheless, crucial to production. This article outlines some of the “below-the-line” crew positions; in other words, the worker bees that bring to life the creative vision of the “above-the-line” director, writers, and producers. “Above- and below-the-line” comes from accounting terminology, this referring to show business after all.

DP

Starting from the top, the Director of Photography (DP), in cooperation with the Director, and the Production Designer, determines the look of the project. With the help of the Gaffer, the DP also sculpts the lighting of the show. The DP chooses a visual format (4K, HD, 65/35/16mm film, etc.—yes, film is still being used), a camera system , lenses, filters, etc. S/he may create a shot list from which to work, based on the script, and/or the Director’s storyboards. A DP will know what size lens is needed, and at what distance to set the camera, to frame the scene according to the Director’s vision. The DP may also weigh in on location, set decoration, wardrobe, and even hair/makeup choices—anything and everything in the visual realm. A large part of the DP’s work is done in pre-production, before shooting even starts. In post-production, the DP will confer with the Colorist at the post facility to finalize the look of the project. Some DPs come from lighting, being former gaffers, and others may work their way up from being a Camera Operator. If you look at the credits for many episodic (1-hour weekly dramas) shows, you’ll see that sometimes a DP will move on to directing an episode, and then perhaps transition completely to directing.

Gaffer

While not technically part of the camera crew, the Gaffer is a photographic position, following the directions of, or conferring with the DP to light the set. Depending on the experience of the DP, and on the speed of the production, a DP may give very general directions for the look they want, or they may specify the type and placement of the lighting fixtures they prefer. Gaffers will often work as a team with the DP, developing a shorthand for certain looks. In addition to knowing the strengths and characteristics of different types of lights, a gaffer will have a good understanding of how long it will take to light the scene accordingly. Yes, today’s cameras can capture amazing images in ever-lower light levels; however, the best, most natural-looking narrative imagery you see is still being lit in some way by a lighting professional. Wildlife documentaries aside, if you see footage that looks achingly beautiful and natural, chances are it’s been lit in some way, even if only with a single light source, or a handheld reflector for close-ups. The choice of what time of day, and in which direction to shoot for exterior shots are a few of the DP and/or Gaffer’s educated decisions that determine the look of the shot.

Camera Operator

The Camera Operator physically controls the movement of the camera during filming. This includes operating from a tripod or dolly (coordinating with the dolly grip), handheld operating, and controlling drones, gimbals, and crane-mounted cameras using remote-control devices. The ability to operate geared heads, and geared remote heads is the sign of a polished operator (think of an Etch-A-Sketch’s right- and left-handed wheeled controllers, but on a much smoother, more sophisticated level). Independent content creators may, out of necessity, be both DP and camera operator, but having a camera operator frees the DP to concentrate on the overall look of the project, and to confer with the director while the camera crew rehearses the shot.

A.C.s

The Assistants, Camera are responsible for the care and feeding of the camera beast, with duties divided between the first A.C. and the second A.C. The British titles of “focus puller” and “clapper/loader” give a clue as to these assistants’ respective duties. Being a camera operator can be a breeze compared to the numerous duties of the Camera Assistant. If you’re technically minded, enjoy heart-pounding stress, and have the physical constitution of a mountain climber, this could be the job for you! The first A.C. performs the crucial job of adjusting, or “pulling” the focus on the lens as the camera, and/or the actors move on set. Focus pulling is often done with the aid of a high-resolution monitor, and a wireless, or manual focus system, but an instinctive ability to gauge distances is required. The Camera Assistants also build and disassemble the camera, and transport the camera, its accessories, the lenses, tripod system, and their accompanying cases and bags to, from, and around the set. The second A.C. is responsible for keeping enough recording media in the camera, slating the takes, and keeping notes on lens choice, aperture settings, focus distances, frame rates, preferred takes, filter usage, etc. A “camera utility” may be hired to handle camera media, and to help the DIT distribute the camera’s video signal to various display monitors. Absent a camera utility, these duties fall to the Camera Assistants, as well.

DIT

You’ll find the DIT (Digital Imaging Technician) huddled with the DP in a black tent on set. The DIT is responsible for the video recording settings, the look of the video signal being sent to different on-set viewers, and distributing the signal stream. Akin to a video engineer, the DIT also wrangles the data recorded by the camera(s)—downloading, duplicating, and/or prepping the media for transportation to the post-production facility.

And who are you, the humble onlooker, to the crew members mentioned above? You are designated a “looky-loo;” in other words, a member of the public who has happened upon a shoot, and is enjoying a break from your routine watching the scene unfold. Should you accidentally pass through the background of a shot, you have now become a “bogie”—an unauthorized, and for the purposes of getting a release form, probably unidentifiable participant in the shoot. Productions will appreciate you looking on quietly, just as you will enjoy the crew’s genuine effort to get the shot as quickly as possible so everyone can be on their way. Crew members may appear to have time on their hands, this is due to the “hurry up and wait” nature of production—some departments can only begin to work after another team is finished with their own duties. And as you continue on your way (perhaps to the B&H SuperStore), remember that the typical shoot is based on a 12-hour day (plus commuting), and you may not envy the crew’s work day, after all.

6 Comments

Really nice text, thanks!

Thanks Otavio, I appreciate the compliment!

Perhaps there should be a grip?

I agree that the grips (especially the dolly grip) and electrics are integral to pro cinematography. Since the article length is limited, maybe we'll do a companion piece on other crew members.

Spot on and funny Mary!

Thanks Dennis!

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