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Karl Lee

Camera Operator vs. 1st AC...Which Role is More Demanding and Requires More Skill?

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I'll preface this post by stating that in no way am I intending to trivialize the duties of any specific role within a film crew. Frankly, I've never worked on a project large enough to have dedicated DP, camera operator, and 1st AC positions, so perhaps it's not even my place to bring up this question...but I'll give it a try anyway :) Anyway, in the pecking order of a film crew, the camera operator typically works under direction of the DP, and the 1st AC works under the camera operator. Could it be argued, though, that despite this hierarchy, in some respects the 1st AC has a greater responsibility and requires more technical skill than a camera operator?

 

Granted, there's certainly a degree of skill involved in being a good camera operator, but from a creative perspective, camera operators typically take their cues from the DP. From a technical perspective, it seems that most responsibility is in the hands of the 1st AC. Making sure aperture, shutter angle, and shutter speed are all set properly? That's up to the 1st AC. Pulling focus, especially for tricky shots with fast motion and/or very shallow DOF? Again, that's all on the 1st AC.

 

Perhaps I'm way off on this argument. Maybe it simply comes down to the fact that there are creative and technical aspects of every production and a camera operator's duties tend to be more creative in nature, while the AC caters to the more technical side of production, and it takes both working together to end up with a quality product in the can. Still, I'd be interested to hear others' thoughts on this.

 

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I would mostly agree, in my eyes there is no harder job on set than pulling focus. With that said, finding an operator that can frame the way you like it can make or break a shoot for me. If my operator and I are not on the same page in terms of framing it slowly eats me up all day.

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Granted, there's certainly a degree of skill involved in being a good camera operator, but from a creative perspective, camera operators typically take their cues from the DP.

 

I know many talented, creative operators who would take great exception to that statement.

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Good focus pullers and good operators are worth their weight in gold. The two jobs are so different that it is a bit silly to say one is more demanding than another, it's like asking which is more demanding, being an accountant or being a truck driver? Which is more important, the person who designs a building or the person who builds it?

 

I would say that the range of technical knowledge that a 1st AC has to retain is perhaps a bit broader in scope than what an operator has to know technically, whereas in terms of physical movement, an operator has a broader range that he has to be skilled at compared to a 1st AC. Of course, in terms of physical effort, probably the 1st AC is picking up the camera more often, unless there is a lot of handheld shooting.

 

Bottom line is that you need good people in both positions. Set-up to set-up, sometimes it is the operator who has it easier and other times, it is the focus puller.

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I think in traditional hierarchy, you have it correct, but in my opinion they are more like colleagues at the high end. Sure, as a camera assistant your role is still more support than an operator (relieving operators of weight between takes, etc), but on a properly staffed production an operator is left to op and a 1st AC is typically left to pull focus accordingly, pushing other managerial duties down the line to 2nds, Loaders, and PAs. For low budget, a 1st AC will have to do more physical work (sometimes a lot more), but in these cases usually the DP operates for themselves so that is a little bit different.

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