Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, November 7, 2021

The Ten Foot Circle

Any O.G.s here at BS&T might recall a terrific two-part guest post from the keyboard of Peter McClennan, a retired camera operator, DP, and occasional director from the Great White North.  Although it feels as though "A" is for Aerials, "L" is for Lunch went up on the blog just last year, it was actually in 2014.

Damn ... this blog is starting to make me feel old.

If you missed that post seven long years ago, click the link and take a look -- then you'll understand why I've been hounding Peter to come through with another guest post ever since. And now ... drumroll please ... here it is.


                                 The Ten Foot Circle

                                                     by Peter McLennan

 Photo by Michael Uslan 

On every set you’ll find the ten foot circle, an imaginary radius of ten feet centered on the camera.  It’s the center of the action, ground zero for the entire cast and crew. In the past, to gain unquestioned admission to that holy ground you needed to be a focus puller, boom operator, dolly grip, an actor, a director, or a camera operator. It was a small, hardworking, intense and vital group, deserving respect from all who participated in the obscure, arcane, expensive business known as Principal Photography.

At the center of that circle is the camera operator. It’s not the hardest job, that title goes to the actor, but operating the camera is the best job on set, and possibly best job in the entire industry. The operator has the best seat in the house, be it on a cushy studio dolly, standing onstage between ZZ Top, or sideways in the open door of a helicopter.

Focus pullers share some of this “best seat in the house” aspect. There’s usually nothing but empty space between them and the actors, so they experience actors' performances like few others. The camera operator shares this intimate experience, but with the added input of directly controlling how the audience sees. Of course, as some wise man said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” but there also comes great job satisfaction.

Many of the top-tier directors of photography refuse to give up operating, and for good reason. Roger Deakins insists on doing all his own operating, only excluding a few specialties like Steadicam. Emmanuel Lubeski (“Chivo”), the only DOP to win the Cinematography Oscar three years in a row, also operates, and for good reason. The degree of creative input is intoxicating, and the instantaneous, real time interaction with action and performers is addicting.

As an operator, I learned what I came to call “The Seven Word Rule.”  When the director calls “CUT!”, everyone on the set would turn and look at the operator to see what happens next. If the take is good, it’s the operator’s responsibility to approve it because nobody saw what the camera saw except the operator. That’s why the Society of Operating Cameramen uses the motto “We see it first”.

If it’s not a good take, the operator then has just seven words to explain where it went wrong and what needs to be done to fix it. Seven words, after which nobody’s listening.  Concision is mandatory, as is knowledge of the other crafts.  “The smoke’s too sourcy,” “The fireplace fire doesn’t match the master,”  “A stray hair was distracting,” “The boom dipped in,” “An extra looked at the camera.”  Or sometimes, “I need another one.”
The timing of lines or bits of business by the actors can vary from take to take. An important part of the operator’s job is to note where, when, and how things went wrong, or where a happy coincidence resulted in something special.

In addition to controlling, monitoring, and reporting on the technical issues that can affect a take’s quality, the operator is privileged to offer creative input, especially with the actors. Actors are not robots. Their performance can vary subtly from take to take. Their position in the set with regard to background, lighting and other actors changes with each performance.  and can greatly alter the character and quality of the product, rendering some takes useless and some superb. It’s part of the operator’s job to be aware of all of these factors and to offer input to all, including the director and the actors, to continuously improve what the camera sees. The English system, where the operator and the director work closely together, honours this shared responsibility and that’s why Mr. Deakins insists on operating.  It's another of the reasons why the operator has the best job on the set. Creative input.

But the job has changed, and from the operator’s perspective, not for the better. New technology has leached much of the fun from the job, but if the arrival of the digital movie camera cemented these changes, the beginnings appeared long before the death of film thanks to a long-ago intentional and unnatural act. Back in the early eighties, some bright spark decided it’d be a good idea to put a tiny television camera inside a film camera, and from that day life in the circle began to change. With the on-board television camera linked to an on-set monitor, everyone could see exactly what the film camera saw and the mantra “We see it first” was forever invalidated.  As a result, a large part of the operator’s technical and creative input was suddenly irrelevant. Now that everyone could “see it first,” everyone became an expert on actors’ performance, camera moves, lighting changes, smoke, density, random microphones in the shot and, yes, operator errors.

Of course the live video (and audio) feed has obviously improved the overall results of the shoot. The ubiquity of video village proves that, despite its complexity and significant expense. Now that everyone sees it first, problems are more readily apparent and easy to communicate. Many eyes are better than one.  And, like “We See it First,” the seven word rule has become irrelevant.
Freed from the necessity of peering over the operator’s shoulder, directors and DPs can relax in a comfy chair while seeing and hearing precisely what’s been recorded. In fact, anyone with access to the village can now experience the rare and special privilege once reserved for those behind the viewfinder.   

The biggest loser from the advent of video village is the camera operator, whose job has transitioned from one of a high status position requiring significant and continuous creative input to being a much smaller cog in the same machine. In fact, the operator is sometimes banished from the ten foot circle altogether and can be found in video village, operating the camera far from the action.

Gone is the electrifying close presence of the actors and gone is the commanding view from the best seat in the house right behind the lens. Gone is the delightful “ride at the fair” aspect of a seat on the camera crane.  And gone too is the cozy, private intimacy with the focus puller.  A tiny team of two, separate from the rest of the crew, working just inches apart, they experienced a unique shared viewpoint on the proceedings. Now they often work far apart.

For the camera operator, first the live “video assist” feed and now the digital cinema camera have removed much of the fun stuff and left all the hard stuff. Their on-set presence is still demanding and unrelenting, they still carry significant responsibility and they still have all the stress of the demands of unerring accuracy and repeatability, but with much less direct creative input.

It's a shame, really, but inevitable, and it all began when that guy put a TV camera inside a film camera.

It’s just an unnatural act, that’s what it is.