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Advice on preparing for first film, rather than digital, job as a 1st AC

James Malamatinas

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I've just been given a great opportunity to be 1st AC on my first film project. I don't know much about it yet but it is a two day shoot on an SR3. I have worked on a film shoot as a 2nd twice before, once as a clapper-loader and once as a trainee, other than that all my projects have been digital. I’ve got just under 2 weeks to get myself ready and I’m trying to take as much on board as possible.


First, what are the main things that need to be covered when prepping for a film shoot? I’m particularly concerned about the accuracy of lens markings given this will be absolutely critical without a monitor to check. We will have 1 days prep in a rental house what are the tests I should be doing and what should I be looking for?


Second, although I try to use the monitor as little as possible when shooting, I do use it for spot checks before rolling to check that I haven’t blown a shot, I’m slightly nervous about focus pulling completely blind but excited about as well! Would you recommend doing anything differently on film opposed to digital? I don’t have a DoF calculator but would investing in a Kelly’s be necessary or worth it?


Is there any kit that I may be overlooking from my floor bag that I wouldn’t use on digital but would need on film e.g. cleaning?


I will be spending time practising my focus guessing and reading through the Camera Assistants manual over and over but what else can you recommend?


Despite a few nerves I’m really looking forward to working with film again and getting that experience, just want to make sure it goes as smooth as possible.


Thanks for any suggestions.

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The biggest tests you're looking for in prep is edge to edge sharpness of a lens, as well as doing a steady test. You should also check that the collimation and FFD is correct. You can't really do any of these properly without shooting a test roll, and assuming the prep day is the day before shoot - that's going to be tough. Hopefully you can push for the shooting of a test roll, perhaps pushing prep back a day to give you a day to process in between - if something goes wrong because you didn't test properly they're going to blame you, not the fact that you didn't have enough time to shoot a test.


I would very much reccommend a DoF calculator. I personally use pCam for iOS, but there are equivalent apps and other manual options. Get one, and start learning your DoF. You're shooting S16 so you're generally going to have a lot more leeway than you would on 35mm, but once you start getting up into the longer focal lengths you're going to start having issues, especially if you're shooting wide open.


I'd also suggest learning run time vs feet, so that when the DoP looks at you and says 'we've got 30 feet left, how long is that?' you don't give him a blank stare or have to spend 5 minutes trying to calculate it.


Check the gate after every shot, and make sure you speak up if there's even a slight chance that there was something in there.


Make sure you measure everything, and get measures for different spots around the shot. Guess the distance before you measure it. Be prepared to make judgement calls if an actor misses their mark - this is why I reccomend a DoF calculator. You know that if an actor misses their mark by 6" on a 9.5mm lens, then they'll still be sharp. But, if they're 6" off on a 50mm lens at 1.3 you may have to adjust. You'll hopefully get rehearsal time, and if you need rehearsal time - ask for it. It's easier and cheaper to rehearse a tricky focus pull than roll on it and blow it.


Trust that you're sharp, and trust your operator to let you know if you go really soft. If you're not sure, ask for another one but don't make a habit of blowing the shot. The one good thing about shooting on film is you don't have 20 people gathered around monitors letting you know every time you blow a shot.

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Thanks Jax that was a really informative and helpful post. I spoke to the DOP about the registration test and he said there almost certainly won't be time for it and not to worry about it. Is the kind of scenario where I should really be pushing for extra time? The kit is coming from Panavision so I'm not sure if he feels the chance of such a problem is slimmer.


As for the FFD and collimation, what tests are these and do you have links to explanations of how they should be performed? In terms of testing actually sharpness the DOP said that setting up charts and then eye focusing through the viewfinder should be suitable – is this something I can rely on or again, should I really be trying to get a roll of film shot? Also, and this may be a silly question, but does how the eyepiece dioptre is set during my testing affect focus. If for example I check the marks at a setting that is sharp for me, if the DOP has to change the diopter how much it will affect what he sees as sharp. Generally with RED’s and Alexa’s the DOP have generally gone for on-board monitors.


I will pick-up a DoF calculator, I do not have a iPhone so it will be a Kelly’s for now, and I’m already reading through the SR3 manual and learning feet to time conversions as you suggested.


I have never had to check the gate and I will look around this forum for advice on how to do it. Do you have a preferred method?


As for practising distances I have a disto which I purchased recently and I’m using that around my house to guess distances and measure up.


It probably worth mentioning that I have not done a huge amount of kit testing, I am generally a second 2nd AC who has had experience focus puller on smaller budget projects which have rarely had the budget to offer full testing days. The other occasions I have done tests they have usually been fairly rushed and basic such as checking that all requested kit is present, in working order, fits together as expected and that the lens marking are correct. This is part of the reason I’m taking extra time to prepare properly.

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Hey James,


It'll be good for an experienced 1st AC to give you chapter and verse on your questions. I'm not one of those, but some of your questions are easily answered.


I think you need a good relationship with your operator and DP, whichever one is able to help you and tutor a little on this job.


The FFD and lens colimations need a skilled camera tech / lens tech. If you have a little field autocollimatotor and really know how to use it you can check for yourself, but normally you can rely on the camera/lens technician(s).. Ask them when these checks were last done. Ditto the registration check..


I think if you are unfamiliar with the lenses one thing that might help is to ask the lens tech to put them on the projector and you will quickly get some feeling for them. If you are getting a day of prep at Panavision, I would ask.




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Thanks Gregg, I'll make sure I got through it all with the technicians when I get there, I'm planning on getting there as soon as they open so I should have a full day. Thank fully I don't think there will be an enormous kit lists to go through which should mean I can get to know everything properly.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Checking the gate isn't difficult. You need to do this after you're finished with every setup and before anyone moves anything. Take off the lens and shine a flashlight at the gate. You're looking for hairs or anything else that shouldn't be there, that may have blocked light from hitting the film. If you see anything, call it out immediately, as the last setup will have to be re-shot. To remove the object, gently run an orangewood stick around the edge of the gate. Only if this fails to remove the hair should you use a blower or canned air. Put the lens back on. If there is nothing in the gate, put the lens back on and call out that the gate is clean.

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(Sorry for making two posts, it wouldn't let me edit my previous one to add this info)


If you've asked for more prep time and been denied, unless you feel very strongly that you need it, there's no reason to keep pushing for it. You've done your job by asking and covered your ass. It's now on the DP if there's a registration problem.


You should always set the diopter for your eye when testing lenses. Point the camera at a white object or light source and throw it out of focus. Adjust the diopter until the ground glass appears sharp. It's always a good idea to make marks on the diopter for your eye, the operator's eye, the DP's eye and the director's eye (if he/she likes to check the frame through the viewfinder), so that you can quickly adjust it for each of these people.

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