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How to get a foot in the door of TV Camera work

Colin Rogal on Camera

So you want to be a TV cameraperson? Then what you need is advice from a professional camera operator with a long track record in television.

Colin Rogal is a very experienced and successful TV cameraman who has worked on many excellent TV shows, from C4 Dispatches to BBC’s Horizon, from drama and documentary to travel and the arts. His experience is in certain areas of television – largely on location rather than on pedestal cameras in studio – but his advice is still relevant to anyone interested in a career literally behind the camera and he offers some very useful contacts.

Colin wrote an article some time ago on what it takes to be a TV cameraman and offering advice to those starting out. He’s kindly agreed to let me reproduce it here on the understanding that technology and ways of working have changed a lot – even since he first offered this advice a few years back. Today multi-skilling is the order of the day and a cameraperson may find himself or herself having to direct on location as well; whilst a researcher may be asked to go out and direct a short film and be expected to operate the camera.

Whether that is a good thing is another discussion altogether and one that Colin tackles on his own site: http://www.rogal.org.

But for now, right here, let’s hand over to Colin Rogal with his words of wisdom on being a TV camera operator.

 

What is a Cameraperson in Television?

CAMERAMAN is a broadly used term, applying to feature film d.o.p, to studio pedestal operator, to news VJ, to the home movie maker. Programmes and their budgets come in many sizes, and directors’ ambitions vary from realistic to absurd. In other words, there are a lot of variables. Most cameramen will find a niche that they fit or that fits them after a few years of searching. How they get there depends on the route they take into the business.

(You can find Skillset’s guide to roles within a TV Camera Department here: http://www.skillset.org/tv/jobs/Camera)

 

How do you get into television camera work?

The standard of camerawork is a major factor in the quality of a TV programme. At a basic level very poor photography is only sustainable for a few seconds within a TV programme: think of home-movie footage of news events, or the “You’ve been framed” type programmes. If a cameraman’s footage is poorly focussed, composed, or exposed the whole programme may be lost. Therefore programme makers are unlikely to risk offering the camerawork to people whose work they don’t already know to be good.

There is generally no shortage of cameramen and a known quantity will nearly always get hired before an unknown one.

The great Catch 22 in my industry is that no-one will give you a job if they haven’t used you before, UNLESS they are desperate AND have heard good things said of you by others in the industry AND have seen your work and liked it. It’s a problem one encounters all the time, but one that particularly frustrates when trying to move out of one pigeon-hole to another.

Anyone who has attempted to jump between news and documentaries or documentaries and drama will tell you this. One lucky break occurred for me while looking to move over to documentaries from news and current affairs: the phone rang in the middle of the night and a good friend asked if I could take over the shooting of a documentary from him the next morning. He had food-poisoning !

I went on to make several films with the director of that programme.

One conclusion that you should draw from the above: it pays to be thick-skinned, because you may have to take a lot of rejection. You might be the most talented cameraman in the universe (not true! I am!) but until people begin to know your work, only patience and perseverance – and the odd lucky break – will get you through.

That’s all very well, and is my advice to anyone already experienced and skilled in the art of camerawork.

 

But how do you gain those skills and that experience in the first place?

Well there are hundreds of ways really.

You could go to COLLEGE and study photography, media studies, film making. Those courses didn’t really exist when I was at school, but they sound like a lot of fun, and you get to put some initials after your name (initials have no practical effect in the real world though).

I’ve attended several of the short courses at the National Film School in Beaconsfield (www.nftsfilm-tv.ac.uk) and was rather jealous of the long term students whose lifestyle seemed to involve lots of watching films and talking about finishing some amazing project (for finish read start). One student there had managed to stretch his three-year degree course to seven!

Whether such courses make a big difference to how much the industry wants people is open to debate. I’m sure there have been many successful students who have gone on to great careers behind the camera. However I’d be willing to bet that many students leaving such courses find them of little practical value in the search for that elusive first break and may feel left behind by the kid who went and made the tea at his or her local facility house, and was able to gain experience on the job.

If you don’t want to go the college route there are other ways into the industry.

 

Inexperienced people are taken in and trained by some businesses. FACILITY HOUSES, which are hire companies dealing in TV and camera equipment, use an army of technicians who check, clean, fix equipment before and after each rental. It’s a dirty job, often with fairly unsociable hours, but as a way of getting hands-on practical experience of loads of different camera equipment it’s a fantastic start.

Those technicians will eventually go out on shoots with the equipment as assistants as they get more experienced. Some facility companies have trained up their technicians from scratch to become full camera assistants, sound recordists, and even camera operators.

There are several of these companies operating in London and they do recruit frequently. Here are some of them, in no particular order of importance:

 The Cruet Company

Digital Garage Ltd.

Electra Film and Television Ltd

ICE Film

Hammerhead Facilities

Prime Television Ltd.

Shift 4 Facilities

 

Another way in is via BROADCAST and/or PRODUCTION companies that have in-house camera departments. The BBC is one obviously, as are the ITV companies, Channel 5, Sky, MTV, and the big production companies like Mentorn.

The entry procedure will be more formal, as will the training, but the advantage is that there is a constant need for people to staff their in-house programmes. A foot-in-the-door attitude is needed here. Write to them and ask what areas they recruit into. Again, persistence pays off with companies like these; don’t be put off by rejection. Keep pestering them.


The TV NEWS business is fantastic training ground for many aspects of television. A good news cameraman is a different beast to the cameraman found in slower paced television. Often as much of a journalist as a photographer, his skills may be those of persistence, instinct, speed and bravery.

News nowadays requires multi-skilling and the ability to work alone. But every day is different and demanding and there is no better way to learn fast and to see the world (with all its warts). Again be persistent. Try to get to know people. Offer to make the tea. Most news cameramen have to work one-man-band these days, at least some of the time. Anyone who offers to help lug all that heavy equipment around is going to be popular.

And remember to investigate all the foreign news companies working in London: there are lots.

 

If DRAMA and FEATURE FILMS take your fancy (hah! whose don’t they?) this is one area of the industry where there is a clear hierarchy in the camera department. Large features will have large camera departments, usually with a camera trainee attached. If you can latch onto such a team then a formal career path is available – from trainee, to clapper-loader, focus puller, operator, d.o.p (director of photography). But the industry is small in this country, so it probably helps to know someone.

Oh, and if you do get to the top, give us a job!

From the occasional jobs I’ve done in the MUSIC INDUSTRY I suspect it’s also who you know and what you’ve shot before which are the most important aspects.

The same goes for ADVERTISING.

A lot of television is made for trade and industry purposes – training films, information films, etc. This side of the industry, known as the CORPORATE sector, offers possibilities. Large corporations will have their own audio-visual departments, and may enjoy relatively large budgets. The skills needed are similar and

Colin Rogal

they may well have a formal recruitment strategy.

 

SOME GENERAL TIPS

  • Be prepared to work for next to nothing for a little while in order to gain experience. There are thousands of small production companies out there working to very tight budgets who will welcome extra hands if they’re cheap.
  • Once again, be prepared for rejection, it happens to everyone.
  • Be prepared to work hard (12 hour days are fast becoming the norm), take criticism on the chin, watch and listen.
  • Keep an open mind about photography. There are no absolute rules. There are a thousand ways to light a scene, no single one is right.
  • Listen to the people who edit your material. Ask them what more they would like and then on the next job remember to include it.
  • Look at what you like on TV and ask yourself how the cameraman achieves that look.
  • Television is a team effort: some of the best shots start as suggestions from the sound department, the sparks, the PA. Things that you may think break the rules sometimes end up working wonderfully.
  • Experiment, but remember to deliver the basic shots first. Unless you’re shooting on film, most editors will be glad if you give them more than they need.
  • And remember, above all, it’s who you know that counts so don’t upset anyone unnecessarily. They may be in a position to hire or fire you in the future.

 

I hope this helps you. Good luck with whatever you do.

I almost forgot to say that this really is one of the BEST JOBS you could have.

At the risk of sounding arrogant, I have glimpsed the minds and lives of presidents, prime-ministers, rich people, poor people, the most worthy and the most dastardly of people, I have travelled far and wide, and I’ve had the satisfaction of seeing my work crafted by skilled directors into some great documentaries. And still they pay me to do this …?!

 

Thank you, Colin. You can find Colin’s own website at www.rogal.org and please do read his thoughts on how multi-skilling has affected the quality of television on the original version of this article.

2 comments

  • Ethan Duffy says:

    Something I’ve seen a lot (in my limited experience) is self-shooting recently, a lot of the simpler, or in some cases all of the camerawork in ob docs would be done by the swiss army knife Producer/Director.

    The case of food poisoning shows the value of being availible – I think ‘craft’ camera operators will increasingly be brought in only when visual quality is specifically required or if a lot of coverage is needed, which would make for a smaller pool of more specialised work.

    Here’s my showreel, just graduated myself, though from a ‘normal’ media course, not beaconsfield.
    http://vimeo.com/23774043

  • Glam says:

    If you are looking for a camera work then don’t miss out registering at glamtalents. It’s the best talent hunting portal for cameraman to get hired

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