My goal coming out of film school was to be a director of photography. The traditional route to becoming a director photography was to work as an assistant. A camera assistant’s job involves knowing the nuts, bolts and electronics of a variety of cameras, lenses, filters and accessories that work with the cameras.
On set, when a piece of camera equipment stops working, all eyes turn to the camera assistant whose job is to fix it or replace it as quickly as possible. Every minute that production is delayed by equipment malfunction costs significant dollars.
In addition to this responsibility and the stress that comes with it, the 1st camera assistant has to keep every shot in focus, a skill that blends technique, inner knowing, and boggles my mind to this day.
Add to this: significant physical exertion and a work week that can top out at 100 hours, and it’s clear why the camera assistant’s job is one of the most difficult jobs on the planet.
So in the beginning, I applied myself to learning the assistant’s craft. The discomfort was immediate. It was really hard. Little if anything about it was fun. Worst of all, the job required excruciating attention to detail. Late in my career, I would be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Syndrome. At this point, ADD was not even in the lexicon of mental health.
Then there was DPS, the “Delayed Punishment Syndrome.” When film is the medium, no one knows until the next day, after it’s been processed, printed, and screened if the assistant has made any mistakes.
I made mistakes. Too many, and often enough to live in constant dread of what feedback would arrive from the lab the following day. With each mistake, my self esteem absorbed another blow. What’s wrong with me? became my mantra of self-judgment.
No one with the wisdom or knowledge came forward to explain to me that some of us are born with the abilities to succeed as a camera assistant, and some of us are not. A great assistant does not necessarily make a great operator. Camera operators employ a different set of skills including: communication, spatial problem solving, listening, and being able to separate what your hands are doing from what your brain is thinking. Good operators know what kinds of shots will make a sequence that can be edited together. Though I didn’t know it yet, I had those skills, and because of it I would become a very successful camera operator.
If only I could revisit myself as a young assistant and relieve him of the unending self judgment!
excerpted from Shooting Myself: Careening Toward Enlightenment in the Film Biz by Paul Babin