Camera Assistant, Focus Puller
What you do in the job?
The assistant to a film camera operator, will set up the camera where required, put on the desired lens and then pull focus whilst shooting. That is, changing the focus setting of the lens as the action changes in front of it, to keep the actors/action in focus.
Camera Assistants support senior members of the Camera department, and undergo an important practical apprenticeship. Camera Trainees provide general support to the department, while more senior Assistants carry out precise and complex technical tasks involving camera maintenance and operation. Most television productions are shot on various tape or digital formats, other than high budget drama productions, or commercials, which may be shot on film. Techniques are similar, and Assistants need to know how to work in all media formats.
Camera Assistants usually work on a freelance basis; work offers are unpredictable, and planning ahead can be difficult. Most bookings come via recommendations from more senior Camera Assistants, or DPs or Lighting Camera operators. Hours are long (12-14 hours a day), and the work is intensive and can be physically exhausting. Some foreign travel may be involved, involving long periods spent away from base. Established Camera Assistants can make a comfortable living, and are likely to progress to the next professional level within a few years.
On dramas or commercials, Camera Trainees/Runners offer general support to the Camera department, carrying out simple tasks such as collecting camera equipment from a hire company, delivering messages to the production office, etc. Second Camera Assistants have more specific and important responsibilities involving camera maintenance, and film or tape stock control. On productions shot on film, they load and unload the camera magazine (a removable section of the camera that houses each roll of film) and ensure that the correct stock (type of film) is used. Camera batteries must also be charged, and other camera accessories must be ready (standing by) in case the DP or Camera Operator requests them. Second Assistants are also responsible for the clapper-board, and write daily camera reports, logging how much film has been shot, what shots are on each roll of film, and any special processing instructions, or the numbers of tapes used, and time-code details. They may also take the daily rushes (unedited material) to the laboratory, or hand them over to the production office.
First Camera Assistants (Focus Pullers) give more hands-on support to Camera Operators and DPs. They calculate the correct focus settings for each shot, and all other camera variables; and prepare the camera, and adjust it during filming in order to keep specific parts of the shot in focus (known as “pulling focus”). Throughout each shooting day, they also check and store (“wrap”) the camera kit.
On documentaries or factual programmes, the Camera department is much smaller than on film shoots, usually only involving a Lighting Camera person or Camera Operator, and a Camera Assistant. Camera Assistants offer general support to the Lighting Camera person or Camera Operator, by preparing and labelling tapes and other materials, maintaining and preparing camera accessories and lighting equipment, and assisting with camera operation in any way required.
What qualities are required?
A good knowledge of film from film school probably. An understanding of cameras and optics, and of film behaviour. Well co-ordinated with good concentration, you’ll need to be fit and strong as you will frequently be lifting heavy film cameras.
Camera Assistants need a thorough working knowledge of how cameras work, and the way that film, tape and digital equipment is operated and used. At more senior levels, knowledge of camera engineering can be very useful, as Senior Camera Assistants are often required to diagnose any camera operating problems. First and Second Camera Assistants must work with great accuracy and efficiency, and even Camera Trainees/Runners must always apply a “can do” attitude to the simplest of tasks.
Key Skills include:
ability to take direction;
ability to carry out instructions with great attention to detail;
ability to work under time pressure and in stressful situations;
excellent communication, interpersonal and team-working skills, and diplomacy;
a mathematical mind to work out focus settings and technical calculations;
good IT Skills;
knowledge of the relevant electronics;
physical stamina, good colour vision and excellent hand-to-eye co-ordination;
knowledge of the requirements of the relevant Health and Safety legislation and procedures.
How you start and where you can go with it?
Film school, perhaps runner, clapper loader, to focus puller. Then onto camera operator, and maybe lighting cameraman / director of photography. This career path can take many years.
Film schools and some training courses offer good basic preparation for any role in the Camera department, but industry experience is vital. Camera Trainee or Camera Runner jobs are the most common entry-level roles in the Camera department. On a television drama or a commercial, the progression is to Second Camera Assistant (also known as Clapper Loader on film) and finally to First Camera Assistant (Focus Puller). On documentaries and factual productions, only one Camera Assistant is usually employed, although increasingly Lighting Camera operators work without Assistants. Working as a Runner in a film or video tape equipment hire company, a camera manufacturing company, or a film-processing laboratory, is a good entry-level position.
No specific qualifications are required for the role of Camera Assistant, although a good grounding in Maths and Physics, and a thorough understanding of the principles of stills photography are very useful. Some industry approved training courses, such as those run by FT2 or Cyfle provide a good grounding in camera work, but most Assistants acquire their practical skills through hands-on experience on the job. Continual professional development is vital, as technology changes rapidly. Attending short training courses, studying trade journals, and joining industry forums are effective ways to learn about new equipment, practices and techniques.