The good news was: I was a newly minted camera operator in IATSE local 600. The less-than good news was: I had achieved this by working for seven months on Anything for Money, a videotape show. Unless I was careful, I risked becoming known as a video operator.
There was a huge gulf between camera operators known for their video skills and operators of film cameras. The prestige went to the film camera operators; they got to work on movies and television series, tell stories and create emotions in the viewers. In the best of circumstances, film camera operators enjoyed a high level of creativity by collaborating, designing and executing shots with directors of photography and directors.
A video camera operator could spend an entire career framing a medium close-up of a news anchor talking. The exception was video operators who covered sports. Knowledge of the game, the requirement for lightning fast reactions, and technical skill (like following a golf ball through the sky on a telephoto lens) can be fulfilling for operators who do sports coverage.
When my stint on Anything for Money ended, I resolved to somehow get my foot in the door as a film camera operator. Most film camera operators had arrived by the traditional route: work for several years as a camera assistant and cultivate relationships with a variety of directors of photography, who one day would promote you to operator. My experience as an assistant was on low-budget, nonunion projects, and my performance had been mediocre at best. Having worked only a few days as an assistant with union directors of photography, I was basically an unknown.
One afternoon the phone rang. I’d been unemployed for almost three months. In that time, I’d turned down video job offers. It had been 2 months since learning I was going to be a father and three months since getting sober. The phone call was a friend – an assistant director. She was working on a Universal Studios television series that was shooting at a location about 2 miles away. She spoke quickly, “We’re in a jam. We need a camera operator right now to shoot footage from a helicopter. You do helicopter, right?”
She may as well have asked, “You do brain surgery, right?”
“Paul, are you still there?” She was obviously under pressure and needed an answer, but my thoughts were consumed by precisely what shooting footage from a helicopter might entail. A murky image of an operator sitting in an open side door of a helicopter, surrounded by a rig holding the camera, big fat headphones and a microphone, his legs dangling. The legs dangling part quickened my pulse.
“Paul, the sun sets in 90 minutes, and then I’m fucked.” It occurred to me that it was her mistake that got them in this jam.
Then, without warning, I heard myself say, “Yeah, sure, I do helicopter.”
“Great!” She barked and ordered me to instantly get in my car and drive to the Marina del Rey address where the main unit was filming. I would meet the director photography and then be shuttled to the Santa Monica Airport to board the helicopter.
I arrived at the location in Marina Del Ray, was escorted through the tangle of equipment and introduced to the director of photography, Frank Thackery. Frank epitomized the stereotype, 1980’s DOP with his Izod shirt, nice haircut and bling. Frank looked me up and down. He’d never heard of me. After, “Hi, how are ya?” the next thing he said was, “Do you prefer the major mount or the middle mount?”
My synapses began firing: Major mount? Middle mount? Let me see, major is bigger. Bigger is…. probably better. So I said, “I prefer the major mount.”
Frank was slightly less skeptical, “Good, that’s what I ordered you.” My assignment, he said, was to get shots of a cigarette boat out on the ocean. He would be in the boat, out of view, calling out f stops over the radio. His eyes did one last, head to toe scan of me, as though he was looking for the crack in my confidence, a last chance to call bullshit on me before sending me off. Finally, he pointed to a van in the distance waiting to take me to the airport and wished me luck.
Tens minutes later, the van was coasting to a stop on the runway of the Santa Monica Airport. There was the helicopter. In the open side door, an assistant cameraman was finishing setting up an Arriflex 2C camera with a 10:1 Angenieux Zoom lens on the Tyler Major Mount. I casually walked up to him, made sure we were out of earshot of any other human being, and confessed everything: When it came to shooting out of helicopters – I was a virgin.
The assistant lit up, a huge smile arced across his face. I think my honesty was refreshing change of pace, and a chance for him to be the teacher. He said, “Cool! Sit down.”
I sat down in the open doorway of the helicopter. The assistant strapped me in, placed my fingers on the Tyler mount handles, showed me the zoom and focus controls, and gave me a pat on the back. “You’ll do great. You have one of the best pilots in the business, and that makes all the difference.”
The next day at around noon, Frank Thackeray called and delivered the news: Everyone loved my work. He asked if I was available that afternoon to operate a second camera with the main unit. Hell yes!
This time Frank received me like an old friend. Later that evening the head of hiring for camera at Universal Studios came to meet me on stage. He complimented me on the helicopter footage and asked if I could leave the following day to film aerial footage on a production shooting in Arizona. Hell yes!
Early the next morning, I was on an plane to Arizona. In 36 hours, I had gone from unemployed, brooding, and hopeless to seen, appreciated and in demand.
The production in Arizona was a movie of the week. When I arrived on set, I was introduced to the stunt coordinator, a kind, soft-spoken man. He described a chase sequence that he and I would be shooting. The two of us with a camera assistant and grip spent two days on this sequence apart from the main unit. In addition to aerial shots, I shot all the material on the ground. It was a blast. I was completely in my element and living the dream.
At the end of the second day, back on the main unit, the director photography had a serious health issue and was flown back to Los Angeles. His camera operator, Gary Kibbe, was temporarily promoted to director photography. I was told to finish up my second unit work and report to the main unit to take over as the operator on “A” camera.
It was evening when I arrived on the main unit set. The eyes of about sixty people watched me step up to the camera, the “new operator.” The Panaflex camera was mounted on a gear head, a tool I’d had a little, very little experience with. It became clear on the first take that I was a novice as I tried to coordinate the pan and tilt wheels in a naturalistic way. The 1st AC did a slow burn. He was far more experienced handling a gear head and more qualified than I to be the operator.
Fortunately, Gary Kibbe, the operator, now director photography, was very patient with me. At one point I had to follow an actor walking toward me as he stooped to pick up something off the ground. Tilting down and then coming back up with him was something I missed several times. Finally, Gary whispered to me, “Why don’t you let me do this one.” He did and we moved on. His gentle, face saving gesture was one I never forgot. In fact, on several occasions after this, when I was the main operator on a film and we needed to bring in an additional operator, I made sure Gary got the first call.
The sum total of my work on the main unit only lasted that evening, but I had done it. I was thrilled. My work had been good enough. Unlike assisting, I knew operating was what I was supposed to be doing.
When I got back home, I re-doubled my efforts to learn the pan and tilt gear head. One of my techniques was to turn on the television set and watch a movie with the sound off. With each shot that came up, I would imagine what my hands would be doing on the wheels.
Not long after this, while day playing on a television show, Masters of Science, I completed a shot using a gear head. When the director said “cut,” I realized that for the first time, I had followed the action without consciously thinking about what my hands were doing.
It’s a moment I will never forget.
My world was shifting dramatically. Sensory dulling escape in the form of alcohol or drugs was no longer an option. I was experiencing new levels of awareness about myself. Working with a therapist and going to 12 Step Meetings, was helping me become more aware of my crazy.
And Michele’s belly was growing. The reality that my first child would soon be with us filled me with excitement and purpose. I was looking at life from a spiritual perspective, and it gave me strength.
Now that I was an operator, I loved going to work. I was good at it. My communication skills served me well. Because I’d said, “Yes!” when someone asked, “You do helicopter, right?”my career was about to take off.
But first – I had to get fired.
excerpted from Shooting Myself: Careening Toward Enlightenment in the Film Biz by Paul Babin