Do We See It First?
by Dan Gold, SOC

It used to be that the director would call "Cut" then turn to the camera operator and ask, "How was it?" There was no video assist, no video village, and no cluster of chairs crowding around the video monitors. The camera operator had the only real good look at the shot since it was only his eye in the viewfinder. He alone could judge the composition, evaluate the focus, monitor the hairdressing and the make-up. Peering through the optical viewfinder of a film camera the camera operator was, in many cases, in the best position to evaluate the actor`s performance. His was the most intimate, close-up view.

With the introduction of video assist whereby an inferior image of what the camera sees is presented on video monitors, the scrutiny of the frame was opened to everyone on the set. Now not only the director could peek over the camera operator`s shoulder but producers, script supervisors, production managers, hair and make-up artists and anyone who happened to stroll by video village was able to see what the camera sees.

As a new operator I resented this apparent loss of control over the photographic frame. Other crew members would depend less on me for information about the shot, instead, taking a look at the monitor and making their own judgements."I should be the one to inform them where the sidelines of the frame are" I thought. Not some production assistant who glanced at the monitor when the shot wasn`t even framed up. Very often I would hear a comment being made about the shot on the monitor while we were still setting up the camera. I soon developed a habit of ripping out the video assist cable and the comments subsided.

Of course I was overreacting to the new video assist phenomenon. I came to realize that as the camera operator I still had the first and best look at what went on in the frame. The good directors realized what they could and could not evaluate based on that fuzzy video image. They learned that they still needed to get crucial information and collaboration from the camera operator. As did everyone else on the crew. After being burned a few times by looking at the monitor and assuming something about the framing, the smart crew members learned to return to the old school and ask the camera operator about the specifics of the shot.

Then came digital. With the advent of high definition video cameras for motion picture production, the eye in the eyepiece no longer has the best look at the visual image. In fact the electronic viewfinder through which the camera operator looks is significantly inferior to the high definition monitors around the set. The monitors for the director and producers at video village and especially those inside the D.I.T. tent where the director of photography is probably watching show much more information than what camera operators can see on the tiny monitor in the electronic eyepiece. Greater contrast, resolution and sharpness allow the D.I.T. to see focus problems much more clearly than the operator can. The first time a focus problem was reported from the tent when I just couldn`t be sure about it looking through the viewfinder I began to wonder if the camera operator still does "see it first". Were we indeed losing our front row seat? Was that privileged viewpoint that makes our position the organizing center for executing the shot on its way out?

Well the good news is there are some pretty advanced on-board monitors that we can use instead of the electronic viewfinder. Many camera operators have taken to using these high quality external monitors instead of the video eyepiece. Operating with these monitors, we can see focus issues more accurately. Make-up and hair issues are more easily spotted. The dangers at the edges of the frame; encroaching lights, C-stands and microphone booms are once again visible and can be controlled. The camera operator can even help the director of photography evaluate the lighting to some extent, as we do when shooting with a film camera. Arriflex still promises that a future version of the Alexa will have an optical viewfinder so we can once again look directly through the taking lens.

And the truth is we do still see it first. Maybe the image in the tent is superior to what the camera operator sees even using a high definition on-board monitor. But the people in the tent and the people at video village don`t see it like we see it. Each of them has their own little world to watch. Some watch the actor`s performance, some watch the hairstyle. Some watch the make-up, others the lighting, or even the smoke. But the camera operator watches it all. He sees the shot as a whole and yet keeps an eye on all of the individual aspects of it. He analyses it to see what parts of it worked and what parts didn`t. He sees it not only first, he sees it best. And the camera operator sees much more than what comes through the lens. He "sees" a better way to block the scene and suggests it to the director. He "sees" a way to make the scene more interesting by adding a foreground element or introducing motion into the shot and tells the director of photography. He "sees" that the clouds are rolling in and suggests to the first assistant director that we shoot another take quickly.

Perhaps we should say this about camera operators.

We See It First, We See It Best, We See It All.

(First published on the July/August News Letter of the Society of Camera Operators SOC, acknowledgement to the Society for their permission to publish this article on our website.)


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