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Cinematography for Directors: The Crew

On 17, Jan 2014 | One Comment | In Instructional | By Colton Davie

This post could just as well be addressed to producers. While most filmmakers understand on a broad scale the different crafts that come together to make a film, like acting, production, art, cinematography, editing, music, and effects, it is not uncommon that as a department head I find myself having to explain to a director or producer the roles of the various crew members that make up my department and their importance to the project.

It is sometimes assumed that since I am a cinematographer and that as such I do the camera and lighting, then I am the only experienced person that needs to be hired to take care of the visual side of things. In very special cases this may be true, but the vast majority of the time I need the support of my crew to achieve excellent results that fulfill the vision of the director and high expectations of the producer.


The Cinematographer

The cinematographer, also known as the director of photography, is responsible for the images that make up the project. Most often this refers to the photography captured on set, but the cinematographer’s influence is starting to bleed over into the realm of computer generated imagery as well. The cinematographer’s responsibilities begin in pre-production and carry all the way through to the finishing of the project where he supervises the final output, ensuring that his creative intent, and that of the director, is carried out to the end. Here is an excellent definition of cinematography, taken from the American Cinematographer Manual.

The cinematographer works closely with the director to develop a visual approach to the project as inspired by the script or other source material. He also works alongside the production designer, who is responsible for the physical representation of the project in the sets, props, and costumes. The cinematographer and production designer support the director’s vision through choice of color palette, texture, space, and light.

The cinematographer is head over three departments: the camera department, the lighting/electric department, and the grip department. These three departments work together under the cinematographer to execute the cinematography.


The Camera Department

The camera department is responsible for operating and maintaining the camera itself and all its accompanying gear and tasks. This department is made up of the following members:

  • Camera Operator. The camera operator is responsible for the actual framing and movement of the camera. Under the direction of the director and cinematographer, he executes the composition of the shot. He supports the director and cinematographer by finding and designing shots that fit the emotion of the scene, provide appropriate coverage, and covey the appropriate feeling (of steadiness, motion, etc.). When specialty rigs are required, such as a jib or Steadicam, they are typically operated by operators who specialize in that particular rig. This is because these rigs require unique knowledge and skills that can take years of practice and training to acquire to be used effectively. Therefore, on many shoots, there may be a primary camera operator who does the general operating, as well as, for example, a Steadicam operator who does only Steadicam shots.
  • 1st Assistant Camera. The 1st AC is the head of the camera department. He maintains all the camera gear and delegates tasks to his assistant(s). In prep the 1st AC ensures that the production has all the camera gear required by the shoot and that it is in good working order. This usually means at least a day of work at the rental house prior to the shoot, sometimes several days or even weeks on big productions. He may also recommend additional camera crew. During production he is responsible for building the camera according to the needs of the cinematographer and operator. He assists the camera operator in the actual set up of the camera and moving it from shot to shot. He ensures that the camera options are set to the cinematographers wishes and that the proper lenses and filters are attached for each shot. In addition, one of his biggest responsibilities is ensuring the images are in focus by “pulling focus” during each take.
  • 2nd Assistant Camera. The 2nd AC is the 1st AC’s right hand man. He assists the 1st AC by helping keep all of the camera gear organized, making sure the 1st AC has the right piece of gear when he needs it, and by standing in the 1st AC’s place if he needs to step away for a moment. The 2nd AC is responsible for slating each shot, filling out and keeping camera reports and other camera-related paperwork, and marking actor and/or camera positions during rehearsals. Depending on the size of the crew, he may also be responsible for setting up and moving video village and/or take the responsibilities of the loader.
  • Digital Imaging Technician. The DIT is a relatively new position, and the definition of this role is evolving somewhat as digital technology continues to change. When some people hear DIT they merely think digital loader, but a true DIT is much more than that. Unique to digital-originated projects, the DIT is the on-set link between production and post. He is responsible managing and backing up the data generated on set and ensuring it gets everywhere it needs to go in the proper formats. Along with the cinematographer, editor, and/or post house, the DIT develops a workflow based on the needs of the project and the systems being used. The DIT’s responsibilities may also include on-set color correction, dailies generation, audio syncing, and more.
  • Loader. On film shoots, the loader is responsible for loading the correct film stocks into the camera magazines so that the film is ready to be used when needed. He also downloads exposed film into cans to be sent to the lab. The loader is responsible for keeping track of all the film available, loaded, and exposed, and for making sure that it is kept safe from light, dust, and other contaminants. Smaller digital shoots may hire a digital loader as opposed to a full fledged DIT. The digital loader copies, backs up, and verifies shot footage to be sent to editorial.

To get a more in-depth look at the camera department, check out 1st AC Evan Luzi’s blog, The Black and Blue.

The Lighting Department

The lighting department, also called the electric department, is responsible for power distribution and the actual lighting fixtures used to light the set.

  • Gaffer. The gaffer is the head of the lighting department. He works closely with the cinematographer and key grip to devise the lighting plan for each scene and with his lighting crew to execute the plan. He is responsible for running power everywhere it is needed as well as making sure the production has all the necessary lighting gear when and where it is needed. In prep he spends time discussing the look that the cinematographer is going for and figuring out what lighting package is needed and other logistical issues. He often recommends additional lighting crew. On set he directs the lighting crew in the execution of the lighting.
  • Best Boy Electric. The best boy electric is the gaffer’s right hand man. He takes directions regarding each lighting set up from the gaffer and delegates tasks to the rest of the lighting crew. He is also responsible for keeping track of and maintaining all of the lighting gear. In addition, he strives to stay a step ahead of the gaffer, keeping the next scene in mind so that moving on is as efficient as possible.
  • Electrician/Set Lighting Technician. Also known as juicers, or in some countries, sparks, the electricians are the ones that make the lighting happen. Depending on the size of the shoot, the number of electricians can vary. The electricians take orders from the best boy electric and/or gaffer and do the hands-on work of setting up the lights, running cable, operating lamps and dimmers, and much more. Anything directly related to a light or electricity is the electrician’s domain.

This series of videos from a panel discussion at Camerimage 2012 is a great insight into the relationship between the cinematographer and his lighting crew:


The Grip Department

The grip department is responsible for all forms of rigging, as well as the dolly, and generally placing the camera anywhere a simple tripod or handheld won’t do. This department is also responsible for modifying the light with bounces, flags, silks, and more.

  • Key Grip. The key grip is the head of the grip department. He works closely with the cinematographer and gaffer to determine the rigging requirements needed to light each scene as well as put the camera where it needs to be. He is responsible for devising all sorts of rigging solutions as well as making sure the required equipment is available when it is needed. The key grip may be called on to design anything from a massive truss rig hanging from a crane, or a way to get the camera to circle a moving vehicle, down to placing a flag to keep a stubborn flare off the lens. He often recommends a grip crew. On set he leads the grip crew in their various tasks.
  • Best Boy Grip. The best boy grip is the key grip’s right hand man. Like the best boy electric’s relationship to the gaffer, the best boy grip takes directions regarding each set up from the key grip and delegates tasks to the rest of the grip crew. He is also responsible for keeping track of and maintaining all of the grip gear. In addition, he strives to stay a step ahead of the key grip, keeping the next scene in mind so that moving on is as efficient as possible.
  • Grip. Whether there’s just one grip, or a whole team of them, the grips make things happen. Working under the direction of the key grip and best boy grip, the grips set up the c-stands, install the rigging, secure the camera, and do all the various and creative rigging tasks required by each new set up.
  • Dolly Grip. The dolly grip is sometimes considered an honorary member of the camera department. He is responsible for anything involving the dolly. He works with the cinematographer and camera operator to design and execute camera moves. He works with the grips to lay and level the track, then during the take he does the actual operation of the dolly, ensuring smooth and precise camera moves.

Bigger shoots may also have rigging crews, consisting of members from both grip and lighting departments. These teams go into sets or locations ahead of the main unit and set up any preliminary lighting or rigging so that the main unit has a head start once they arrive.

Mark Vargo, ASC put together this video profiling the wonderful world of gripology:

Grip it Good from Mark Vargo on Vimeo.


Other Important Crew

Every crew member plays a very important role which in a significant way affects the final product. The following are crew members who, although not part of the cinematographer’s three departments, are especially important to the look of the project and who, unfortunately, are often overlooked on smaller/low-budget projects.

  • Production Designer. As I mentioned above, the production designer is an important teammate of the cinematographer. Essentially, the production designer creates the world that the cinematographer photographs. Possibly the most important ingredient of a beautiful image is a beautiful setting. Boring, bland, or inappropriate production design leads to boring, bland, or inappropriate images, no matter how well they are composed and lit. On the other hand, narratively appropriate, excellent production design is a major source of inspiration for the cinematographer. When the cinematography and production design work together hand in hand, really beautiful stuff happens.
  • Script Supervisor. The script supervisor has one eye on the set, one eye on the monitor, one eye on the script, and one eye on his notes. The script supervisor looks out for continuity issues, as well as watches the director’s back to ensure that he gets everything he needs for the edit. A good cinematographer also watches out for this, but in the flurry of activity on set, it can be a great comfort and resource knowing that someone is watching carefully and making notes to make sure that there are no missing pieces once the footage gets to the editing room.
  • 1st Assistant Director. The 1st AD is production’s primary representative on set. He assists the director by ensuring that all the necessary footage is shot while keeping the production on schedule. The 1st AD has his eyes always on the clock and strives to keep the crew working quickly, while maintaining high standards of quality. While sometimes considered an annoyance on set, a good AD can be a great ally for the cinematographer by helping the cinematographer know when he needs to hurry, or when he can take a few extra moments to tweak. The 1st AD is also responsible for his team of assistant assistant directors and production assistants, as well as directing extras. A good AD helps take the load of production logistics off the shoulders of the director so he can focus on being creative and crafting the film.
  • Colorist. The colorist is usually the last person to have his hands on the footage once the edit is complete. Therefore he is in the unique position of power to either pull out the best in the images to make a beautiful and coherent whole, or cheapen everyone’s work that came before through a poor color grade. If at all possible, the director and cinematographer should be in the room for the final color grade to ensure that the look they have developed is carried through in the best possible way. If the cinematographer is not able to attend the grade, at the very least he should have the chance to communicate with the colorist beforehand and perhaps send stills back and forth to make clear his intent. A good colorist can make a project really sing, while a bad or misdirected colorist can do all sorts of harm.

Every project has its own unique set of requirements and limitations, and it is important for the producer and director to understand these requirements and limitations. If the locations are conducive to filming, the lighting requirements minimal, and the blocking simple, I can create beautiful, effective images with a minimal crew. In fact, there are sometimes very good reasons for having a small crew. However, there are some things that just cannot be done without the support of a full crew. If you want dolly moves, you’ve got to have someone to push the dolly. If you want to control the light on big exteriors, you need a team of grips to rig and move the necessary rags and frames. If you want shallow depth-of-field but sharp focus on your subjects, you need a skilled focus puller. An appropriately-sized and skilled crew will enable you to get top notch results on time and under budget.

As the boom operator on my first feature would say,

Teamwork makes dreams work!
Colton Davie, Cinematographer

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