Sunday, March 08, 2009

Your Camera Operator and You

I once had a camera operator at the beginning of a show ask me before a shot, "Can you do a boom and a move at the same time?" "I don't know," I replied, "can you pan and tilt at the same time?" The relationship between an operator and Dolly Grip is one of trust, or should be. Unlike operators, however, we don't really go through a system of tiers that ultimately results in being a Dolly Grip (at least not officially). There isn't a union dolly grip level where your dues are higher and you are required to work in that category. Unfortunately, sometimes the Dolly Grip is just someone who wants the extra two dollars an hour or is the Key Grip's brother-in-law. Over the years, this has resulted in Dolly Grips all being painted with the same brush. For those of us who have worked hard to learn our craft and earn the respect of our camera department brethren, this can be frustrating. We all face it. The operator or DP who insists on doing every shot with a slider because he isn't used to a Dolly Grip being able to hold an over- the -shoulder. The operator who picks which machine you'll be using on a show. I don't tell them whether to use an Arri head or a Panahead, why should I be forced to use a Fisher or Chapman when that isn't my platform of choice? I especially get irritated when a DP and Operator have a discussion pertaining to my field as if I'm not there. You know the one. The DP walks up to the operator and asks him, "What do you think, should we use the Peewee on track or go on the Hustler on floor?" And they don't even look at you. I'm not suggesting that our position is more important than it is, but generally you would think that the person who has to perform the shot would at least be consulted. This is why I think you have to assert your position from the beginning. Already be figuring out the best way to do the shot on the first blocking and when it's time, go up to the operator and tell him your opinion. It immediately shows him that you know what you're doing and establishes that he doesn't have to worry about how the dolly will be oriented on top of everything else he's got to do.
Generally, I work with the same operators on a recurring basis, as most of you do. I have three or four that I see again and again because we all work with the same DPs. I really enjoy working with them and a couple are actually good friends outside of work. They trust me and know that I'll solve most of their problems if they'll give me the space to do it. These are the guys that it's a continual pleasure to work with. I haven't actually had an operator that I didn't get along with or didn't like in years. Thankfully the real a-holes are few and far between. But we've got to raise the bar on the position of Dolly Grip. For too long I've worked with operators who told me horror stories about Dolly Grips who continually ran off the track or couldn't attach the low mode. I've had AC's tell me about guys who couldn't get within the same zip code as the marks. Strangely, you hear very few stories about bad operators. It's time that our field was recognized for the craft it is. It takes practice and dedication to master it and it's not something you learn overnight.


  1. Anonymous7:02 PM

    This is the best topic. For as long as I've been doing this there is always this "conflict of interest" as I like to call it. Operators and DPs making decisions without even consulting the dolly grip. It's really the same thing as figuring out how to stage a stunt without the stunt coordinator. Camera movement is what we do when we're at work. I find it fascinating when they don't ever even ask us for our opinions. I've been very lucky and have worked with amazing DPs and operators that always consult me when we're about to figure out how to do my job. But there is always the other situation and I love what you said about how they talk about it right in front of you like you're not even there. I'm confident enough with my skill level that now I just jump in and join the conversation whether I'm invited or not. I don't want to do it the hard way and I certainly don't want to get blamed by the director when the shot doesn't work out because of bad decision making. I love the DPs that tell you one dolly is better than the other when we know they've never executed a dolly shot. I love the operators that tell me which dolly is better than the other when they're never done anything but sit their ass on it and leave empty water bottles on it. DPs should choose the cameras. Operators should choose the heads. Dolly grips should choose the dollies. And all three people should decide the best way to execute the shot at hand. I think the point of this post is really about getting involved and making decisions. My current DP wouldn't set up a shot without me and the operator certainly wouldn't call for gear without asking me first. The only reason they don't is because I asserted myself.
    Last night, on a sixth-day of an 80+ hour week, I had a master shot with eight boom marks and seven floor marks. All of which took place on a 16X4 dance floor. My brain is fried.

  2. Anonymous8:15 PM

    I second that: excellent topic.

    I will also add that this (operators, DPs, and sometimes even directors, saying which dolly and gear to use, outside of their field of expertise) seems to be a phenomenon that not only plagues the dolly grip. Yes, I almost always come across DPs that say "we'll just get a Fisher 10 and call it a day" without giving me a glance (any tips for getting any words in? Especially with a new DP?). BUT, I find this also happens with other grips. I admit that I do other things as well as push, and I can't tell you how many times, on a tech scout that I'm keying, a DP will say, "ok, so we'll need the 10K there, right in the middle of the room, about 20 feet up. So, we can probably rig up a goal post maybe over there..." It's right about HERE that I feel like saying "shut the hell up, and let's move to our next location." Yes, discussing what the shot's need are is important, but *I* don't tell the DP how to light, so why is *he* telling me how to rig?? Tell me what you need, and I'll get it done. DPs that know me and trust me know that I can pull off what they want, with the shot being clear, with the look they need, and in the time they (the production) need it. During the scout, they say "10K, up there, got it, guys?" The gaffer and I nod, if there's any questions/issues, we discuss it, and move on. He knows us. He trusts us. He's aware that we can get it done. The LAST thing I need is adding another hour (at least) to a 12-hour scout day because the DP feels like he needs to talk it over in his head (and thus out loud) about how he's going to get a light or a lens into a certain space (sometimes, just to "impress" a director). In a way, it shows the DP's lack of confidence in himself, and of course, in his crew. I'll let you do your job, and if you let me do mine, trust me, the day will go a lot faster, and a lot more smoothly. And in the specific case of dolly gripping, will probably look better in the end as well.


  3. Anonymous9:34 PM

    Great post, D.
    It is time that our craft was recognized for the skill it is. I've worked with so many operators (some who are real A list guys) who are surprised that I can do a move they ask for. It always makes me think that there must be a lot of really bad dolly grips out there.
    Our job is bigger than something you just toss to the key grip's brother in law to keep him out of the way and I'm grateful that there are guys out there who take great pride in doing their job so well. That makes us all look better. I totally agree that if you approach the job with some assertive intelligence you can go a long way toward gaining respect and certainly if you do a good job and work with people who know what they're doing, they'll also know that you know what you're doing. Dolly grip is a tough and interesting job that's very hard to learn properly, takes a lot of time to perfect and is hard to understand by those who have never done it. I think it's great that some of us are talking in this forum about the fine points of the job. Maybe we can create a better environment for ourselves. The reality is that the level of respect that we get is the level of respect that we demand and we can't allow the guys who don't take the job seriously to set the bar. At the very least we can train those with less experience to do the job right and that will give us all more credibility.

  4. Anonymous7:54 AM

    Great post D !
    I could not agree more with Acraw. The respect has got to be earned unfortunately. Today there are so many dodgy dolly grips out there that you cannot wholly blame an operator for being cautious with dolly grips they have never worked with before.
    Acraw makes a really good point, that the responsibility falls upon good grips to train those who are not upto the mark.
    However those grips who don't have the experience need to want to learn, and that is not always the case. I have met guys who were in art one year, camera the next year and are key grips the next year. You cannot blame operators doubting a dolly grip or a DP doubting the ability of a key grip.

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