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Glynn Albert

Camera Operators are being paid less than Janitors

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After spending years in the best photography school and after investing multiple tens of thousands of dollars in broadcast quality cameras and professional gear, I am still making less per hour than most janitors. Is craigslist and Mandy the only place for newbies to get work?

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It's common knowledge that breaking into "camera operating" (outside of reality TV) is extremely difficult to do. WAY harder than getting AC work, and possibly even more difficult than getting DP jobs. Mostly because it's not in as high demand as it used to me, since more and more DP's opt to operate themselves nowadays.

 

I know a well experienced 1st AC who's making that leap, so he's currently suffering from the lack of work coming in as word spreads that he's no longer AC'ing as much, and going for more operating jobs. So, it's a big leap.

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[Excerpted from "What I Really Want to Do: On Set in Hollywood" chapter 24]

 

What the heck is a Camera Operator?

Using a variety of support tools, the Camera Operator points the camera at whatever the Director asks him to and composes it in an aesthetically pleasing frame.

 

 

That, and what else?

Once the basic parameters of the shot are defined by the Director and DP, the Operator works with the First AC and the Dolly Grip to choose which equipment is best for the setup. The Operator then adjusts the blocking marks of Actors, set pieces, and props if necessary to create the most aesthetically pleasing frames. It is also the Operator’s responsibility to keep “movie stuff” out of the frame, like the boom pole, C-stands, lights, cables, tape, unwanted shadows, and even members of the crew.

 

While the First AC is really only guessing where to put focus, the Operator is the only one on set who can actually see if an Actor has proper focus on him. The Operator should try to watch for this and give the First AC feedback, both good and bad.

 

There may be instances when the Operator may be asked to split off from the main unit and shoot inserts or even entire scenes. In this case, he is considered a Second Unit DP and usually will be re-rated, meaning he will get a pay increase for the day as if he were the DP for the production.

 

Where do I really need to go?

 

It’s not an easy thing to break into the industry as a Camera Operator. Most people either rise up through the ranks or enter the job market as a full-fledged Director of Photography. Though not very often, VIDEOGRAPHERS (video camera operators) sometimes manage to jump over and operate film cameras for television or movies.

 

The bottom line is that you have to be where the shows are being made. If adequate film work is going on in your hometown, then you’re at an advantage, but you’ll still have to join IATSE Local 600 in order to work on the bigger shows.

 

While items like STEADICAM and WESCAM are considered specialty skills, an Operator should be proficient operating in all other circumstances. He should know how and when to use a fluid head, a gear head, a “low-mode” head, a remote head, and a Dutch head. Handheld operating can happen at any time, and the Operator should be comfortable with many different types (and weights!) of cameras on his shoulder.

 

The Steadicam Operator not only needs to be excellent at his specialty but can’t overlook learning how to operate under “normal” circumstances. Many productions will hire a Steadicam Operator who is expected to also operate a regular camera when necessary. Specialized Operators, like Wescam (aerial) and Hydroflex (underwater) are usually called on a day-to-day basis to perform their one task.

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It's common knowledge that breaking into "camera operating" (outside of reality TV) is extremely difficult to do. WAY harder than getting AC work, and possibly even more difficult than getting DP jobs. Mostly because it's not in as high demand as it used to me, since more and more DP's opt to operate themselves nowadays.

 

I know a well experienced 1st AC who's making that leap, so he's currently suffering from the lack of work coming in as word spreads that he's no longer AC'ing as much, and going for more operating jobs. So, it's a big leap.

 

Then anyone who wants to be a DP should first be a grip, then a gaffer then a DP? Are these designations blurring in the new media?

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[Excerpted from "What I Really Want to Do: On Set in Hollywood" chapter 24]

 

No matter what title on set, people in a town like LA who buy and competently utilize broadcast equipment and pro lighting should be able to make a decent living in some segment of the industry. right?

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No matter what title on set, people in a town like LA who buy and competently utilize broadcast equipment and pro lighting should be able to make a decent living in some segment of the industry. right?

 

Well, it took me ten years to make a decent living... how long have you been out in the professional world?

 

I don't think there is any guarantee of making a living and this is a particularly slow period, an industry-wide slump, but most of us get work through contacts from previous work, so it's a slow process of building contacts over time. Eventually you reach a tipping-over point where you get calls from lots of old contacts, plus new ones. So you just have to hang in there and keep making contacts through work.

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Cam ops are the red headed step child of the film industry in my opinion. I only say this, because they are neglected; but if you utilize them correctly, they can save you so much time.

 

DP's that can't let go of the reins enough to trust an operator to do their job (or sometimes a better job than the DP) are going to make it hard for you to operate for them.

 

I recently shot a feature and had an operator. Having him there gave me so many benefits that I will try to work with an op as often as possible in the future.

 

I do think it's easier getting work as an AC than an op.

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Is craigslist and Mandy the only place for newbies to get work?

I don't know if there is really a good place for a "newbie" operator to get work. On those very small jobs they generally don't hire an operator, unless they need steadicam for certain shots. So it's a bit of a Catch 22. "Newbie" steadicam operators can learn this way though.

Operating is one of the few jobs on set that really doesn't have a lower position that trains you for the job. AC'ing doesn't train you to be an operator, but it's the closest. But you can know every camera inside and out and it won't do you much good when you put your eye to the eyepiece to operate. Sure, you can learn good things from watching other operators work, but watching and doing are two different things. I guess what I'm saying is that the job of conventional camera operator isn't really an entry level position, but of course there is no other way to learn than to do it.

So, I guess after all that, I have no good advice for you. Sorry.

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A couple of weeks ago I dp'd a promo where we employed a steadicam operator. He was the sole operator as we were shooting 1 camera @ 100fps throughout the whole promo.

That was my first experience as a dp not operating. I absolutely hated it!

It didn't help as well that the Op was a complete twat...

It's left a sour taste in my mouth and one experience that I feel very reluctant to repeat.

 

99.9% of the time I always operate my gigs. I feel that alongside my lighting, (like everyone else, I'm sure) I offer my own touch in framing and connection with the actor(s).

 

I understand and really appreciate that there are some amazing operators out there (I certainly met a couple when I ac'd) but I will always want to operate, as I get so much from it.

And that is a thought that I seem to encounter more often than not when I chat to other dp's.

 

So Glynn, although nothing is impossible I'm not really sure if solely being an operator is going to get any easier......

 

This as always, is only my thoughts......

Edited by Serge Teulon

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If getting paid well is all that's important, then by all means, take the janitorial job. The reason janitors are paid better than many other professions (not just film and television jobs) is simply this: Who wants to do that job? One needs to be able to take heart that one is at least being well compensated in order to put up with the ick.

 

Unfortunately for all of us who choose a career that is more fulfilling (if not actually cleaner) -- and then seek out the training to do it -- is that there are a lot of people who don't want to be janitors and do want to do what we do. The basic laws of economics dictate that wages will be forced downward in our chosen profession, and that is true for us individually right up to the point where our work is guaranteed to generate more income than we cost the producer (or, in my case, the investor). Sadly, that means there is a very long period in which we "pay our dues" for very little money (or, frequently, no money at all).

 

My advice is to be creative about how to survive building your resume. Until the unions all go to being "open shops" and dry up the pool of cheap, trained talent, no one truly has any collective bargaining strength, so the problem will persist. Assuming you don't have a wealthy parent or spouse supporting you, you've got to learn to live on what you can earn or find a "survival job" that loves the fact that you run off to make movies from time to time (and, yes, they do exist).

 

I wish I could bring lightness and cheer to this discussion, but that's the real world as I see it.

 

Also, I personally wish everyone who wishes there was more work to go around would produce something, anything... :)

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That was my first experience as a dp not operating. I absolutely hated it!

It didn't help as well that the Op was a complete twat...

It's left a sour taste in my mouth and one experience that I feel very reluctant to repeat.

That is unfortunate. I don't blame you for feeling that way if the guy was that big a pain.

I offer my own touch in framing and connection with the actor(s).

I feel the same way when I'm operating both steadicam and conventional. But if the DP is chomping at the bit to get at the camera it doesn't matter how good the operating is, they just want to do it themselves.

I understand and really appreciate that there are some amazing operators out there (I certainly met a couple when I ac'd) but I will always want to operate, as I get so much from it.

And that is a thought that I seem to encounter more often than not when I chat to other dp's.

I know this is true for a certain amount of DP's, and that's fine. But the truth is, it does save time and money to have an operator, especially on features and TV. When you're trying to shoot many many pages a day and you have to light as well as figure out that really tough dolly or crane move, it just takes a lot longer to do both things. If that's a luxury that can be afforded, then no problem.

I don't think it matters as much on commercials.

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Hey Brad,

 

You're right, it was a shame that it turned out the way that it did.

 

I'm a firm believer in collaboration. As a matter of fact, collaborating is one of the big kicks I get out of my job. And I completely agree, on features and dramas, that it does save loads of time to employ an op.

Although I said that I would feel reluctant to taste that water again, I would not refuse to ever work with an op. I will however, next time, take more time and consideration on who I pick to work with.

Edited by Serge Teulon

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If getting paid well is all that's important, then by all means, take the janitorial job. The reason janitors are paid better than many other professions (not just film and television jobs) is simply this: Who wants to do that job? One needs to be able to take heart that one is at least being well compensated in order to put up with the ick.

 

Unfortunately for all of us who choose a career that is more fulfilling (if not actually cleaner) -- and then seek out the training to do it -- is that there are a lot of people who don't want to be janitors and do want to do what we do. The basic laws of economics dictate that wages will be forced downward in our chosen profession, and that is true for us individually right up to the point where our work is guaranteed to generate more income than we cost the producer (or, in my case, the investor). Sadly, that means there is a very long period in which we "pay our dues" for very little money (or, frequently, no money at all).

 

My advice is to be creative about how to survive building your resume. Until the unions all go to being "open shops" and dry up the pool of cheap, trained talent, no one truly has any collective bargaining strength, so the problem will persist. Assuming you don't have a wealthy parent or spouse supporting you, you've got to learn to live on what you can earn or find a "survival job" that loves the fact that you run off to make movies from time to time (and, yes, they do exist).

 

I wish I could bring lightness and cheer to this discussion, but that's the real world as I see it.

 

Also, I personally wish everyone who wishes there was more work to go around would produce something, anything... :)

:) Well, I agree. I have been on several shoots lately, here is my current reel if you would be able to provide any constructive criticism that would be great.

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:) Well, I agree. I have been on several shoots lately, here is my current reel if you would be able to provide any constructive criticism that would be great.

 

Personally, I'd go with a slightly lower image quality to get it to start playing faster, though having the option to select the smaller file size as you've done does cover that if you're not comfortable sacrificing on the picture (and I can certainly understand that -- I just find that if it doesn't start playing within 15 seconds, I surf elsewhere unless I'm on the site for a very specific purpose as so many websites I visit never load). Incidentally, you'll want to proofread the text around the link to the smaller version.

 

I'd also suggest trying to shave about 10-15% out of the reel. Each shot you include should be showing a different aspect of what you can do, and in preserving the story arc of some of your footage, I think you're including stuff that is redundant from a photographic point of view. Also, your night work is beautiful, so I'd recommend trying to get that earlier in the reel, as precious few people watch reels the whole way through. All that said, you've done a good job editing it all together to have a real sense of narrative, which is essential in a reel, so if any of these suggestions muck with that, then don't do them.

 

I also think you've done a great job in including on the website the one thing that everyone who is looking to hire someone needs: the information about why to hire you and not somebody else. In this case it's the equipment list. Looking at your website I know that I'm not only getting a DP, I'm getting a rental package as well. However, you may be limiting yourself to video work right now. You may also want to include a list of other (film) cameras with which you've got a professional relationship, especially if you've got an in with a rental house and can get them for the producer below rate-card prices.

 

Nice work overall!

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In this case it's the equipment list. Looking at your website I know that I'm not only getting a DP, I'm getting a rental package as well. However, you may be limiting yourself to video work right now. You may also want to include a list of other (film) cameras with which you've got a professional relationship, especially if you've got an in with a rental house and can get them for the producer below rate-card prices.

 

Why include an equipment list (of owned equipment) at all? THAT limits more than anything else. Ideally, you're out there selling YOURSELF... your skills, experience, and personality. The gear is secondary (or fourthadary! :P )

 

The problem with including gear as part of your selling point is that by telegraphing what you already own, you may inadvertently be prejudged by potential clients who may want something that you don't have or who want a specific skill that you can do but don't own the gear for at the present time.

 

Again, IDEALLY, you'll market yourself and get a call. They tell you what the job is and you discuss the logistics and equipment needs for THAT SPECIFIC PROJECT. You may have everything you need and you may not. But what you currently own should be inconsequential. If you don't own it, you'll subrent it and charge the production the rental cost + extra. Or you'll purchase it (if the project is long enough to justify a purchase) and bill as if you owned it anyway. Either way, by telling the client ahead of time what you have in the garage, he may look at such a list and decide (before talking to you) that you aren't the right person by virtue of what you just happen to own at that moment. When going on a job, your skills are one thing. The gear is, and should be, an entirely different matter.

 

If gear has to be mentioned, it should be only in the context of what you are qualified to use, particularly if there is specialty equipment involved. Otherwise, sell yourself only, not the gear. That invoice will take care of itself. :)

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Janitors work harder than camera operators. That's why they get paid more.

 

I am taking a bit of flack here aren't I.

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Why include an equipment list (of owned equipment) at all? THAT limits more than anything else. Ideally, you're out there selling YOURSELF... your skills, experience, and personality. The gear is secondary (or fourthadary! :P )

 

The problem with including gear as part of your selling point is that by telegraphing what you already own, you may inadvertently be prejudged by potential clients who may want something that you don't have or who want a specific skill that you can do but don't own the gear for at the present time.

 

Again, IDEALLY, you'll market yourself and get a call. They tell you what the job is and you discuss the logistics and equipment needs for THAT SPECIFIC PROJECT. You may have everything you need and you may not. But what you currently own should be inconsequential. If you don't own it, you'll subrent it and charge the production the rental cost + extra. Or you'll purchase it (if the project is long enough to justify a purchase) and bill as if you owned it anyway. Either way, by telling the client ahead of time what you have in the garage, he may look at such a list and decide (before talking to you) that you aren't the right person by virtue of what you just happen to own at that moment. When going on a job, your skills are one thing. The gear is, and should be, an entirely different matter.

 

If gear has to be mentioned, it should be only in the context of what you are qualified to use, particularly if there is specialty equipment involved. Otherwise, sell yourself only, not the gear. That invoice will take care of itself. :)

Yes, that's a very great point Brian. But as a newbie, how best might I stand out in LA with 10,000 plus other camera operators and wanna be newbie DP's liek me. Please Visit My Reel

 

Ultimately there is no secret but to hang in there. Right?

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Ideally with one's talent ;)

 

Though admittedly I have a gear listing on my site, though recently, that hasn't been netting me jobs, really. It's been more word of mouth, tenacity appling for things I see posted around, and perhaps (one hopes) my reel and disposition.

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Janitors work harder than camera operators. That's why they get paid more.

I have to respectfully disagree, if that were the case than Janitors would be paid more than lawyers. Because Janitors surely "work harder" than lawyers. Would you not say that pay is generally based on the application of specialized knowledge? Cinematographers and photographers who have educated themselves surly fit that bill.

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Yes, that's a very great point Brian. But as a newbie, how best might I stand out in LA with 10,000 plus other camera operators and wanna be newbie DP's liek me. Please Visit My Reel

 

Ultimately there is no secret but to hang in there. Right?

 

 

Pretty much, yeah.

 

BUT having said that, a lot depends on what you want to shoot. Are you trying to be a Cameraman for narrative features? Or would you rather be a Cameraman for lower budget documentaries? Or perhaps you'd rather be a Cameraman who shoots things like Behind-the-Scenes, marketing interviews, premieres, corporate video and that sort of thing?

 

If you're going the feature route, owning gear isn't likely going to get you the job. It might, but not likely. What you'll want in that case (to work your way into the job market) is ACCESS to good deals on gear which means building relationships with rental houses and Grips who own trucks full o' stuff. PEOPLE are the "tools" you need to have on hand, not gear.

 

Documentary and "Entertainment/Corporate" type work WILL be easier if you own a few things. Not necessarily a camera because shooting formats will likely change with every client and project. But owning a small lighting package, at least enough lights/grip/electric, to shoot a simple interview is very handy. If a job arises that requires more gear than that, then it is probably big enough to warrant production hiring additional help and you'll subrent whatever else you need for that day. A great way to break into the LA market is by meeting other Cameramen who typically like to have others they like who they can call to cover jobs or for additional Operators on bigger jobs. You can meet them and Sound Mixers and Producers at events like Press Junkets and Premieres where many congregate on a regular basis.

 

Very few people are able to shift from one type of production to the other successfully. The first (Narrative Features) has a working protocol where you have lots of help from a relatively sizable crew whereas the second (Documentary et al) you must be very autonomous as you'll be transporting all your own gear to and from shoots, setting it all up by yourself, and basically doing it all very quickly.

 

But yeah, more than anything, it can just take time to build up a clientele and your reputation in a new market. Gear might help, but not likely. If you don't have it and they ask if you do, you can just tell them that you can get ANYTHING needed and shift the discussion back to the shoot itself. Some vendors/companies own their own cameras and lights so you don't have to own anything to work for them (and if you do, you wouldn't get to rent it to them anyway).

 

Going rates in LA for "Videographers" (using Beta, Digibeta, F900, etc) are between $600 and $800 for 10/hrs. Camera and lights will rent for around $1300.00/day. If you work every day, you'll do very well, but not a lot of us do work every day. 18 days a month on average is doing pretty well. I don't know if that's more or less than a janitor, but I'd rather spend my time shooting than cleaning toilets. ;)

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Personally, I'd go with a slightly lower image quality to get it to start playing faster, though having the option to select the smaller file size as you've done does cover that if you're not comfortable sacrificing on the picture (and I can certainly understand that -- I just find that if it doesn't start playing within 15 seconds, I surf elsewhere unless I'm on the site for a very specific purpose as so many websites I visit never load). Incidentally, you'll want to proofread the text around the link to the smaller version.

 

I'd also suggest trying to shave about 10-15% out of the reel. Each shot you include should be showing a different aspect of what you can do, and in preserving the story arc of some of your footage, I think you're including stuff that is redundant from a photographic point of view. Also, your night work is beautiful, so I'd recommend trying to get that earlier in the reel, as precious few people watch reels the whole way through. All that said, you've done a good job editing it all together to have a real sense of narrative, which is essential in a reel, so if any of these suggestions muck with that, then don't do them.

 

I also think you've done a great job in including on the website the one thing that everyone who is looking to hire someone needs: the information about why to hire you and not somebody else. In this case it's the equipment list. Looking at your website I know that I'm not only getting a DP, I'm getting a rental package as well. However, you may be limiting yourself to video work right now. You may also want to include a list of other (film) cameras with which you've got a professional relationship, especially if you've got an in with a rental house and can get them for the producer below rate-card prices.

 

Nice work overall!

Thank you. I had not considered these points. Thanks.

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I will however, next time, take more time and consideration on who I pick to work with.

Not everyone gels perfectly all the time. Hopefully next time you'll be happier.

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I understand and really appreciate that there are some amazing operators out there (I certainly met a couple when I ac'd) but I will always want to operate, as I get so much from it.

And that is a thought that I seem to encounter more often than not when I chat to other dp's.

 

Operating is the best job on the set and I love it. It really keeps you connected to the cast and the set and to the visual image. I work with two great operators and I often feel left out of the process. But, as a DP, I also have other responsibilities. I am sort of a firefighter who has to keep an eye on the whole forest and put out the fires which often isn't as much fun as operating. I am constantly asked to look at schedules, pre-light sets with the gaffer, or talk with the effects supervisor. There are a lot of things that would fall through the cracks if I spent my time behind the camera.

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Very few people are able to shift from one type of production to the other successfully. The first (Narrative Features) has a working protocol where you have lots of help from a relatively sizable crew whereas the second (Documentary et al) you must be very autonomous as you'll be transporting all your own gear to and from shoots, setting it all up by yourself, and basically doing it all very quickly.

 

I took the route of doing both and it was very successful to me. Shooting small non-fiction out of my car allowed me to build up and pay for a small grip electric package and hone my hand held skills. Shooting features trained me to work with larger crews and complex set ups. I prefer dramatic narrative of scripted TV and features. But it is sure reassuring to know I can always shoot interviews.

 

Lots of new operators approach me for work and I often find they lack the instincts to find the right shot. You can really pick these skills up in a non-fiction environment where YOU are finding the right shot.

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