AC & DIGITAL CINEMATOGRAPHY

By Danny van Deventer

Any comprehensive – and permanent move away from shooting on film and in favour of digital capture only, in tandem with the prevailing cost-cutting in our industry, will ruin my profession. I am an assistant cameraman (AC) based in The Netherlands and I care deeply about the continuation of quality in our day-to-day work on set. This article therefore seeks to inform you exclusively of how, in my opinion, the present day technological changes (i.e. the advent of digital cinematography) and cost-cutting impact us professionally as well as personally and why this matters so much to every caring AC. No need to discuss the attributes of film versus digital, nor go into the subject of image resolution or exposure latitude. This isn't about money or commercial considerations either. It's all about the AC at work, plain and simple and it might be of interest to you as the AC's perspective on this subject is hardly publicised, if at all. Although due care was taken to base my observations solely on facts obtained through personal experience and maintain impartiality throughout, it is changing –, highly frustrating times that motivate me to write and I think I should not avoid controversy. In writing I sincerely wish to represent the interests of the AC and do them just. However, I cannot hope to please all and I will readily accept any criticism from those who know their profession best; the AC. In order for me to make the case and for you to fully appreciate my concerns for the future, I would like to go back for a moment and remind everyone of what the job of the AC working on the film set is all about.

First of all you should know that a cameraman, also known as Director of Photography or DoP, does not do the camerawork just by him - or herself. The DoP has, ideally working alongside in the camera team, various colleagues, such as a camera operator and a number of assistant cameramen. AC's come in different appearances; there is a 2nd AC - often known as the clapper-loader - and a 1st AC, also referred to as the focus puller. Careful consideration should be given to the fact that there is no school or institute for training these assistants; both professions are exclusively taught whilst working on the film set. Any work-shop on the subject, or the odd class in film school, can only serve to lay the foundation of knowledge and never come close to replace the many years necessary perfecting skills through performing actual duty on set, if any level of professionalism is to be attained. The function of the 2nd AC or clapper-loader is roughly four-fold; he or she handles the film (unexposed and exposed); identifies each take of film by means of a so-called clapper-board, keeps administration of every bit of film that is used and last but not least is there to assist all other members of the camera team to his or her best efforts. The 1st AC or focus puller is the direct technical aide to the DoP; first in line responsible for – and full-time occupied with, the practical -, proper functioning of the camera-equipment during the entire production. The focus puller is the nearest thing to a camera-technician on set and he or she also takes pride in keeping in perfect focus whatever scene is played out in front of the camera. However, there is much more to the AC's involved in shooting film and how their careers progress, so please allow me to elaborate.

The 2nd AC or clapper-loader, starting out at the beginning of a career, possibly has the best job imaginable on set. Work may be physically demanding, yet it is universally considered as highly rewarding by all who ever ventured into the profession. Simple -, timeless virtues are taught in the most natural way possible. The aspiring clapper-loader will soon learn amongst other things that carrying great responsibility, taking time and not be in a hurry to gain knowledge, concentrate at work, cleanliness, being punctual and ever present, allowing to trust instinct, taking care for the physical and paying attention to the detail, preventing waste, acknowledging the here and now and above all the seemingly mundane, as well as perfect execution of basic logistics all of which entirely in your own hands, pay off tremendously and consequently will not fail him or her to earn the honest respect and affection of peers. Knowledge grows over time from the slow-but-certain true insight into getting to know the film magazine, then the mechanical workings of the camera, followed by the careful handling of lenses etc. These things can be comprehensively understood, even by those not-technical minded at first. The experience gained in this manner ultimately results in a deep respect for the camera equipment, as well as for those who create through these means. Guided by the senior members in the camera-team, it is the job to learn the meaning of an honest day's work on set and a possible kick-off to a successful career. Any enthusiastic clapper-loader learns, over time, what it means to be a specialist at things that look so deceptively simple like the perfect execution of the clapper-board. While always looking after the principle of its administrative function and readability, this clapper-board is handled with flawless timing and thoughtful respect for the actors. Clapper-boards are brought to the set in sizes XL to tiny, should always appear in frame readable, well lit and preferably in focus. It is all a clapper-loader ever wanted for a business card. After the slate is done, the board and it's operator vanish from sight at once, mindful of the fact that time = film = money. Seemingly no one will notice or appreciate the subtle efforts made by the clapper-loader in this respect, but it makes all the difference on set. This is just one example of how the aspiring clapper-loader fully achieves by own momentum in his or her capacity as a respected member of the camera team. All the while amidst being busy the urge becomes irresistible to observe in detail what else is going on around. Without realising the clapper-loader is settling in, either for a long career as is or.. a career move. What better way to prepare becoming..

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1st AC; charged with responsibility for all matters technical regarding the camera equipment used on set and – when pulling focus – freelance magician. In my opinion a focus puller will only become truly motivated and thereby proficient , when permitted the basic prerequisite of understanding the technical process before him or her, for which in turn full responsibility can then be taken. Let me try to describe the level we would all like to attain as focus puller one day. Each job starts with the preparation of camera equipment and the focus puller (based on in-depth knowledge) will shoot an extensive test film, which should be able to withstand the highest level of scrutiny and therefore (seemingly unnoticed) serve all involved for the duration of the entire production. The quality of the focus puller will show through the informative nature of this test film. The AC then goes on to compile the complete camera package; he or she does not like missing pieces, therefore aims to be safe rather than sorry and seems not to overlook any detail. A focus puller interested in logistics, mindful of foresight gained through experience and allowed to choose optimum equipment in the interest of maintaining quality, will perform at the highest level and thoroughly enjoy the experience. Shooting day arrives and the film equipment that was successfully tested and prepped can only be expected to yield proper results if both equipment and film stock are handled with due care, every step of the way. Exposed film will need developing and printing or scanning before anything can be said about the image quality of that which was shot. Notwithstanding this aspect, the experienced focus puller takes pride and confidence in just how the camera equipment is put to use and consequently will not need to worry about today's negative showing up any imperfections in tomorrow's rushes. It is important to realize there are no mysteries at work here and you may discount the luck-factor as well. Provided the AC understands the inner workings of the camera equipment in the areas where vital parameters count, realizes what to look for during preparation, knows how to shoot a critical test and careful handling of equipment comes as second nature, shooting film and pulling focus is no uncertain bet for those who received appropriate training and develop experience over the years. Consequently, any technical difficulties that do arise while shooting can then be dealt with by the AC through reason, based on – and guided by - the factual comprehension of mechanics and optics to the extent of their practical use. Any responsible – and inquisitive focus puller can learn to understand the inner workings of a film camera to a degree where they can diagnose based on insight and consult third parties (e.g. the rental house) in a meaningful way accordingly.

On set, the pragmatic 1st AC subsequently switches on the magic when pulling focus (a manual procedure) and can again afford to do so self-assured. He or she has – until recently – not had the luxury of HD monitoring or - playback when shooting on film, rather relies first of all on his or her own physical wit and in addition develops the necessary close working relationship with the DoP or camera operator who is judging the scene through the optical viewfinder. Critical observation, split-second decision making whilst carrying great responsibility and plain trust between the camera operator and the focus puller are all that these two professionals need to keep the film shoot moving with the full confidence of the creative crew around them. These very human – and unique attributes in the relationship between the operator and the focus puller characterize the emotion driving the professionalism for those pulling focus on film. Having no HD replay to fall back on and nothing or nobody at this moment in time being able to confirm with absolute certainty (until rushes can be viewed) whether the scene was indeed successfully exposed on film and in focus too, confidence at this point stems from true technical knowledge, acute sensitivity to physical distance and what must be the sixth sense . In my opinion, a 1st AC having learned to successfully pull off demanding focus on film, can do so with confidence on any recording medium, not the other way around.

What has changed for the AC? Digital cinematography has taken great stride recently and made inroads into celluloid heartland. Many professionals are enthusiastic and even the greatest fans of film should acknowledge that digital has many useful applications. I can understand that where technical – or creative motivation may point to benefits when going digital in a given situation, such projects are accordingly shot on digital. To me digital capture isn't the problem; solely digital capture is and what has sadly changed recently (or rather grown out of all proportion), is the length to which the proponents of digital acquisition will go to declare film as obsolete and the apparent success with which this message is spread. In this country at least, the extent to which a change in attitude is taking hold, is unheard of. Fortunately quite many are also shooting film, but it is becoming ever more apparent that one day this situation may definitely change and free choice will be lost. Quite separate from the discussion regarding picture quality, archiving etc; those who advocate to desert origination on film entirely for whatever reason and/or deem cost-cutting an inescapable necessity, unfortunately also seem not to take into account what will change for the AC who choose a career working with the equipment and accepting responsibility for it. I do not suggest for a moment that shooting a film is just about keeping the camera assistants involved happy, but I am counting on wise decision makers to appreciate the benefit to the end product brought by the experience of all traditionally involved in working on set. This includes the AC and it should be clear that these technicians - just like any other crew member - can only be expected to contribute 100% when motivated through positive factors like proper education, comprehensive hands-on training, respect and true challenge. Along with making sure of running a viable business, those in charge do well to contemplate the (future) level of competence and motivation within their crew. Wherever possible – not in the least with respect to the final decision of the director and DoP in these matters - a fair balance should preferably be maintained regarding the choice of image acquisition, in order to - amongst many, many other things - guarantee a broad – and truly rewarding education to the AC. Most – including myself – can live with shooting digital, but cannot live without shooting film. I have been an assistant cameraman to every video – and digital format over the last 20 years and although clearly preferring film much more, it hasn't been too big a problem. Why not? Because of the education that I had to begin with and the challenge I retained through the ever present balance – and variation in the choice of recording formats. Until now. Digital is screaming at us from every corner these days.

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Returning to the clapper-loader; the majority of producers would like to maintain a full camera crew, but not all can. These days the 2nd AC often isn't hired at all and the producer informs us that they simply can't afford the extra manpower. Much was made - in the run-up to the arrival of digital cinematography – of how the film clapper-loader would evolve into the digital clapper-loader or data handler and we need not fear any negative impact. Fact of the matter is that any 1st AC now knows through experience that this prediction turned out to be wholly inaccurate and in the process the experiment has sadly degraded the career of the clapper-loader, bringing no other benefit on set in return. An experienced clapper-loader working with film, will only leave the set to re-load camera magazines whenever proceedings there allow him or her to do so; for example when the rest of the crew prepares to set up the next scene. Simply maintaining an eye on the loaded film stock; logistics here have never been a problem and re-loading can even be postponed until necessary. Exposed film is simply unloaded, end of story. Not so with digital cinematography; all footage shot will want instant transfer to hard disks and extensive -, technical examination of the content; this implies that the person responsible is off the set for a considerable duration of time as soon as the current recording media is filled to capacity. Shooting obviously continues and because the services of the clapper-loader are still needed on set, the function of the data handler cannot be combined with that of the person responsible for the clapper-board, therefore rendering the idea of a digital clapper loader an impracticality. These days, when shooting digital or for reasons of cost-cutting, the clapper-loader is often left out all together, only to be "replaced" by a data-handler or so-called DIT, whose job is exclusively to discharge data files from flashcards or other recording media to hard-drive; rightfully checking the content in detail. This new situation sadly leaves the focus puller without a desperately needed professional helping hand on set. Not bringing the clapper-loader has other consequences as well and it means for example handing the clapper-board to the assistant director. However honestly helpful, he or she unwittingly further degrades the job of the AC's by making painfully clear that performing a decent slate – once upon a time - was an art unnoticed. We can all agree that the slate board, with all it entails, is still as important as before, however we silently make do with sloppy slating.

Hopefully enough helping hands on set are available to take over the various ambulant functions of the 2nd AC, but none can be relied on permanently and we can't blame well-meaning multi-tasking members of the crew for this. The resulting situation is highly unfortunate and left to the frustrated 1st AC to sort out. Accidents do happen and equipment can end up scattered around. The data-handler or DIT might by some be perceived as replacing the clapper-loader, however he or she could not be further removed from being in contact with – or affiliated to – the 1st AC. The clapper-loader working on film however - through the nature of his or her task - is always in close contact with the focus puller when it counts and can therefore over time learn by observing. No such hope for the DIT who – when doing a responsible job – is occupied with the virtual, not the physical and therefore can't be counted on in this respect. Disappearing therefore is the natural chain of knowledge transfer. Furthermore, upon inquiring, the job of DIT is commonly described by those at work as not very exciting to say the least and I cannot believe anyone on set aspiring to become part of the camera crew, will seriously consider making a rewarding career out of DIT for any significant length of time. As a result, the traditional attraction of starting a career in the camera crew has – through lack of job prospects - been dented with the arrival of the DIT. In those instances where the function of clapper-loader is retained however, he or she is left to perform duty with the slate-board, ferry flashcards back and forth and help carry equipment. You will appreciate that these tasks fall far short of the original job description and are in itself not especially inspiring. To expect a clapper-loader to be content with performing the slate and little else in the way of a trade, is painfully ignoring the fact that what remains of his or her profession, is very much without challenge or perspective, especially to those who know better. When nobody is meaningfully training 2nd AC's on set anymore, or clapper-loaders simply are no longer around to be taught in order for them to acquire the skills to move up the next step of the ladder, what hope – based on common sense - can there possibly be for a next generation of quality focus pullers, originating – as they traditionally do - from the pool of clapper-loaders? If we continue in this fashion, it is obvious that we will be left with just one type of AC; the focus puller. Remember, those sincerely seeking to start a career as AC cannot obtain any knowledge or training but for what can be taken in on set – over the course of years. With next to no training or the proper attitude that comes with the job, these new 1st AC's will be required to perform in the very same way and on equal level as those with a long career behind them. If we go digital and nothing but digital, I fear every upcoming focus puller will grow up amidst the instant-gratification of this medium, not understanding the technique involved, therefore not able to care, each and every one of them re-inventing the wheel, over and over again. Without organic transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next or tradition to speak of, the status of every AC is seriously degraded. This isn't just the case for the 2nd AC (if still existing at all) seeking training, it equally applies to the 1st AC, looking for a good assistant and taking great personal satisfaction from passing on a mountain of practical information to an upcoming generation.

With regards to the 1st AC or focus puller; when shooting digital he or she is faced with a camera featuring unfortunately next to no user-serviceable areas as opposed to a mechanical-optical process which can be observed and understood, cared for and influenced as in the case of working with film equipment. Surely, the focus puller can no longer be held accountable like before. Not bearing responsibility, nor willing to fake, any caring AC will sooner or later start to feel detached. Each (strictly) electronic device in this world, such as a digital camera, is operated solely by means of a digital menu and just being able to find your way around in that doesn't mean you understand one iota of what is going on inside, nor how anything one does as a human being has any beneficial outcome with respect to the performance quality of the camera. Film camera's generally have a display with a menu too, but in addition to that require the 1st AC to also understand - and allow physical care for - the relevant mechanics and optics, as well as to have an insight into the actual working of this instrument. The AC can never hope to understand the inner workings of the digital camera in such a way as to turn this knowledge into any practical benefit on set. It is not possible for the AC to diagnose - or truly influence - the electronics inside to any meaningful degree in the case of questions raised or malfunction of equipment in use. To be able to do so would require a PHD in electronics or IT (or both) and to posses that would defy working on set, because one would receive infinitely more satisfaction (not to mention financial compensation) working elsewhere conceptualizing camera's or writing software. Apart from dutifully exchanging subparts – something that isn't expected of them when using a film camera either – the AC has no business with the inner workings of the digital camera and in my opinion this constitutes a mayor change for the worse. Please consider that every ambitious -, beginner AC entering this industry and seeking equal experience on all recording formats - including film - instinctively learns that gaining technical insight and taking full responsibility is not just a precondition, but a big part of job satisfaction too. This very human aspect of our profession is under mortal threat.

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No concerned AC can pretend to understand the inner workings of the digital camera and this either bothers us, or forces us to be indifferent to this aspect and live with it in that way. Each outcome not contributing to our profession. Malfunction on a digital camera is routinely dealt with by a re-boot, or a plug-out-plug-in-again type of operation, which invariable almost always solves the problem, but leaves the AC feeling pretty useless in his or her capacity as a thinking person. In my opinion an exclusive reliance on digital capture will no longer require the AC to have an insight worth mentioning, would therefore not bring caring AC job satisfaction in the long run and as a consequence undermine quality and discipline. I'm talking about day-after-day on set; no longer being able to see clear work coming straight out of your hands to the extend as is the case when shooting film. In my opinion the job of the 1st AC has just become a whole lot less challenging and therefore less rewarding. Turning to the preparation of digital camera equipment for shooting; testing simply doesn't require the same level of basic knowledge or commitment as it does on film. What you see is what you get. If the picture is unsharp, you can often reset the back focus on the camera yourself. Not a very intelligent operation for those who are used to respect rigid parameters set on cameras ready for check-out. AC's rely on the rigidness of parameters in order to distill cause and remedy in case of technical issues, not to mention matters with respect to insurance cover. Procedural change in behavior to this respect does not require skill, nor stimulates systematic thinking and therefore devalues our profession.

All but a few digital cameras are fitted with an electronic viewfinder, even though every professional knows that judging lens performance during prep is simply done better through an optical system. Determining sharpness and fine detail - especially in the middle of shooting - is not always clear either when having just a monitor or this electronic viewfinder at your disposal. How can it be that the AC charged with ensuring critical focus is suddenly deprived of the established quality means – i.e. full optical viewfinder - to judge this aspect of his or her responsibility? Whatever is set in the menu determines the way the camera will shoot images; however this operation takes 5 easy minutes at most, in the full knowledge that later – on set – both the operator and the sound engineer may eventually work the menu as well. This opens up the possibility of unintended false settings and – in any case - leaves the technical operation of camera ever less the domain of the focus puller. The sense of being responsible really starts ebbing away. Shooting day arrives and the 1st AC, being the one setting up + moving around the camera equipment and pulling focus, is in all honesty left with little other work to do. He or she may look very busy, but don't be fooled. Digital intervention is completely changing the nature of our profession these days. Cost-cutting routinely results in extremely tight production schedules, add to that a camera which is perceived to virtually shoot without interruption, using digital media costing next to nothing and the experience shows that many (though certainly not all) digital sets at some point can turn into pretty frantic affairs where the quest for quantity rules. Workload therefore is increasing on all crew members, not just the AC. When shooting film, a gate check or re-load provides an accepted break in pressure, maybe just allowing all to pause and think. An unspoken mark of respect to the camera and it's technical crew. Within the space of a year or two of shooting digital, many outside the camera crew have now become conditioned to attaining a frantic pace of shooting. When it comes to technical matters concerning the camera equipment during the shooting of a scene; there simply isn't the patience anymore. To the AC the exchange of flashcards becomes a rushed affair. Very often no time is granted to tape-measure a distance or – more important - do a rehearsal; as soon as the camera is in position, the trusted sensor allows a quick zoom-in, providing an arbitral focus mark and away we go. This no longer has anything to do with pulling focus and therefore deprives the focus puller of the very essence of – and satisfaction from - his or her profession. Where is progress for the AC?

In my opinion - with respect to focus - no true skill or self-confidence can be attained by the (aspiring) 1st AC in circumstances where he or she is under pressure, while at the same time given the tempting option of checking focus on the HD monitor. In these situations digital shooting doesn't only allow absolutely no room for pulling focus on instinct; it actively stands in the way of talent developing quality standards. Since we are in a hurry so very often, the prevailing thought these days seems to be that if most of what we are shooting is in focus - it's O.K, though no one will admit to this understandably. Just as was the case with the clapper-loader; it is a sad mistake to think that a focus puller should be content with performing focus duty on 4K under pressure and little else in the way of a trade. This painfully ignores the fact that whatever remains of the profession is very much without challenge, respect or perspective, especially to those who know better. Throughout actual shooting the vast majority of operators or DoP's discard the electronic viewfinder because it is judged to be of inferior quality, distracting and a strain to the eye. They prefer to operate using the on-board monitor instead. With the operator looking at a mini-monitor, much (if not all) of the close working relationship described earlier between this operator and the focus puller, is lost. Apart from the fact that the operator also has many other considerations to attend to, focus cannot always be effectively judged off a mini-monitor. As a result instant replays of difficult set-ups are frequently called for in order to judge - among other things - focus and this is yet another unfortunate development not re-assuring to the 1st AC trying to build up confidence, nor is it stimulating self-reliance. The optical viewfinder on the other hand, allows the operator to judge the many aspects involved in a scene much better, simply through immersing the eye in a closed off space, excluding unwanted distraction. Judging focus of a scene being shot, therefore comes almost automatically and certainly at no extra effort. Sometimes in the case of bad focus with digital, the feedback to what's visible on remote screens, may – in no constructive fashion - come in from multiple directions, instead of just being communicated by the camera operator who knows much better how to re-direct the AC.

Pulling focus on HD or multiple-K forces some AC's to work off the monitor.. what example for the next generation. I am referring here to general shooting; not just those instances when using a very long tele-photo lens. How is it possible that the AC – instead of being in proximity to the camera, as well as the subject - can pull focus off a monitor and be confident to provide the director and DoP with good focus throughout a given scene? Considering we need to anticipate actors moving to – and fro, hand held shooting, working with children, animals and many other types of improvisation, there simply is no substitute for pulling focus in the traditional -, informed way. One thing is certain; the AC wouldn't be at the monitor if not put off by the hyper sharp -, instant picture on general display and/or if he or she would still have that intimate working relationship to the operator. In the same context, many AC's are also rightfully complaining about the acute nature of picture-focus when shooting high-resolution digital, simply because the digital sensor often doesn't yield the same depth of focus as it's celluloid counterpart. Film is still somewhat easier on the nerves. Another every-day drawback to the AC in the digital field is the fact that camera specifications and output quality seem to rule above all else. The AC knows about ergonomics and importantly which equipment works well for him or her too. Unfortunately – as seen in relatively low priced digital production cameras with high specs - little or no thought seems to have gone into considering the needs of the AC. Having been forced to accept this, he or she is now introduced to the idea of using digital SLR camera's to the same end. Highly de-motivating. Apparently there is a law out there defining processor speed and/or storage capacity in relation to the time span this takes to double; frankly I am more worried about the accompanying price tag that seems to sink ever lower. This correlation may lead to the worsening of a situation already materializing whereby the low priced, unworkable digital camera with no room for ergonomics designed by those utterly ignorant with respect to the needs of the AC, apparently has the right output specifications to compete in deadly fashion with decent equipment perceived as costing too much by those who decide about such matters. Once more, the AC stands to gain no benefit whatsoever and should therefore not be expected to join in the apparent enthusiasm all around. Back when I joined the camera crew, the equipment was not always spanking new, but it sure was exclusive and costly. I felt incredibly privileged to be around and the inspiration I received from being allowed to use the film camera equipment of that time – offering the AC clear opportunity for development - motivated me to great extend. I now fear we may lose this sense of wonder as well.

Camera assistants are expected to perform duty using the resources allocated to them and they will not complain easily. The AC however were also taught to raise their motivated opinion the very moment proceedings no longer allow them to achieve responsibly or in those instances where quality is sacrificed. Allow me to add to that job satisfaction lost to great extend.

Danny van Deventer

This article was first published in December 2009

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