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So You Want to be a Television Camera Operator? Part One

So you want to be a television camera person.  It is, of course, a crucial role in television. No camera, no pictures, no television! Our next few articles will be covering the role of a camera operator in TV and we’ll hear from both ends of the age spectrum.

Firstly we’ll feature someone who has been a cameraman and lighting director for over 23 years working on some of our best-known and best-loved television shows in drama and entertainment. He will be telling us why it can be important to be opinionated!

And someone who quite recently broke into a career in cameras explains how she got into the business and what it’s like being a female in what is still largely a male-dominated area of television.

But for now – the basics: A good cameraman can save a bad shoot, and a bad cameraman can wreck an otherwise  perfectly good script.  If you love pictures and the art of cinematography; if you like telling stories through visuals; and if you can work with a team under pressure without losing your cool then you could be a camera person, my friend.

What is the role of a camera operator in television?

Camera Operators perform a vital role within the camera department on feature films. They support the Director of Photography (DoP or DP), and the Director, by accurately carrying out their instructions regarding shot composition and development. The seamless ease with which the camera moves is key to the narrative flow of feature films, and is the Camera Operators’ responsibility. They are usually the first people to use the camera’s eye piece to assess how all the elements of performance, art direction, lighting, composition and camera movement come together to create the cinematic experience.

The DoP or Director often requests a specific Camera Operator, who in turn makes recommendations about the rest of the Camera and Grip Departments. The work is physically demanding, and requires high levels of strength and stamina. Hours are long (12-14 hours a day), and some foreign travel may be required, involving long periods spent away from base”.

That description comes from Skillset and I strongly advise that if you are interested in a career in television you visit their website and learn what all the different roles in the business entail.

There are now a whole host of roles within the camera department from trainee, to underwater filming specialists, from crane operator to Director of Photography and it worth knowing what those jobs entail.

Skillet provide a good overview of the Camera Department here:  http://www.skillset.org/film/jobs/camera/

Setting aside the specialist camera operators, the two main areas of television you could find yourself in are as a single-camera on location and part of a multi-camera team in a studio or on an outside broadcast (OB).

As a location camera person you will probably have more opportunity to put your creative stamp on the filming.  In drama you are helping to interpret the script along with the director and DOP, in more low-budget factual and lifestyle shows you may find yourself making many of your own decisions as the director will often be busy juggling other jobs – if indeed there is a director! In news it could just be you and the presenter who’ll have their hands full setting up their interviewee.

As a studio camera operator, you will usually follow a camera script, which gives the order of shots. This is practised at rehearsal and is cued by the director during recording. But every production is different, every director has a unique way of working so although you may be required to offer the shots as per rehearsal, in some cases you’ll need to think on your feet. Things don’t always go according to plan and you need to understand the bigger picture if you are to contribute in a meaningful way.  If a studio contributor suddenly starts doing something different to that practised in rehearsal, you are going to have to accommodate it visually.

When I first started directing on location I was hugely grateful to the camera operator. In truth they pretty much directed it for me (and the editor pretty much edited it for me – I just took the credit for the final video insert!).  My brief experience as a studio director had me thankful for studio camera people who offered me good shots, suggested better backgrounds and even dangled cuddly toys in front of the lens to cheer up a low-budget kids show!

Cameras?  We love ‘em!

But as always around here we’d rather hear from those that actually do it. So coming up in the next post, one of the most experienced cameramen in the business tells how it really is!

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