Camera operators can dance

One night after wrap on Offspring series 2 I found myself having a drink with setup director Kate Dennis and Asher Keddie, who plays Nina Proudman in the series.

We got around to discussing camera operating. It’s only recently I’ve realised just how intimately involved a camera operator has to be in the execution of a shot. I guess I knew this intuitively, but since I’ve started working on episodic TV, where working with an operator is de rigueur, I’ve found myself examining my own operating practices.

Just like an actor, the operator takes cues from other performers in the space. It seems kind of obvious but it’s worth looking at closely.

Actors talk about wanting to find the truth in performance. I think that there’s a lot in common with the process actors go though to get a performance and camera operating. In fact, operating a camera IS a performance.

I was privileged enough to know the late Will Gibson. He was a fantastic cinematographer and I remember talking to him about his operating on the very successful australian feature film “Wolf Creek”. He talked about the camera being “reactionary”. In other words, as things would unfold in story terms, and without pre-empting, he wanted a reason to change his shot or to pan. It would have to be motivated by a sound offscreen for example, before the shot would change to the next frame.

In this way Will was performing. He was acting a role. He knew something would be happen that he would time his camera movement off, but he had to wait for the actor to make that noise. So that means, you’re a part of the acting *space*….you’re as much a part of the acting space as the actors are themselves, taking cues from them and using their very timings to create a sense of syncronicity. You have to tune into the actor’s performance.

I love the feeling of timing a great shot with an actors performance. To arrive at the composition you want at the same time time as the actor landing where they need to is magical.

Great camera operating is just like great acting. it requires a truth in its performance and for the performer to be sensitive to the other performers in the space. You’re taking your beats and timing of their performance. And they can feel the camera’s presence. Asher can feel the camera. I’m constantly amazed by her awareness of the camera.

The camera is usually like an unseen observer. But it’s informed and actually underpinned by choices made by the DOP / operator and the director about where to be and what to see. But the actual execution of those choices is done by the operator, and influenced by the actors themselves.

It’s a genuine privilege to be able to be this close to the actors in that space. You’re reacting with them and feeding off their performance. There’s a great exhilaration when you hear “cut” and look over the viewfinder at an actor when you’ve both brought some truth to the table. At once there’s a silent exchange of dialogue that goes beyond “did I hit my mark ?”

About johnbrawley

Director Of Photography striving to create compelling images
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