In my experience, there are basically two kinds of shows. Those where the shots are meticulously planned out, and those where they aren't. On most sets, the director and DP plan out the shot with a finder. You get your marks. You know exactly what's going to happen and have a vague idea of where the camera needs to be at specific points during the shot. On others, the director or DP gives a vague wave of the hands and says, "Start here and go over here." You look at the Camera Operator and he rolls his eyes and mouths, "Good luck." Needless to say, the first kind are the easiest for me, although not always the most challenging. I'm presently doing the latter. It's a comedy with two high profile comedy directors (figure that one out). They are both great guys and the DP is a joy to work with. But there is a lot of vague hand waving and pronouncements of, "Start here and maybe we won't see the track." The Camera Operator, who is honestly one of the best in the world rolls his eyes and....well, you know the rest. The beauty of this system is the fun of not really knowing what is going to happen and having to adjust the shot as it unfolds. It gives the Dolly Grip more creative control over the shot and your skills really come into play. This style is affectionately known as freeballing.
God bless my Camera Operator. He honestly asks my opinion about shots and framing and gives me the freedom to make split second decisions as the scene unfolds. It can get a little frustrating sometimes, though, because I never really know what to set up because the rehearsals are so vague. What can be difficult is coming from a very rigid form of working to this freewheeling type of shooting. I've done movies where the camera placement was critical down to the inch. I was literally measuring the rooms to make sure I knew where the exact, symmetrical center was. You learn very quickly to look for clues as to where the camera should be- lighting fixtures or tiles in the floor are great indicators for lining up a symmetrical shot. It can be hard, though, to go from this style and be plunged directly into the less formalized one. I got a little testy today with my Focus Puller over a shot that we literally were making up as we went. I didn't mean to. I'm usually a pretty easygoing guy with my camera crews, but at one point I was just, like, "Dude, I don't know. It's the first time I've seen it and it was with second team." Now I'm a guy who prides myself on hitting marks. I don't miss often and if I do, I'll be the first to tell the focus puller that I was off by 2 inches or whatever. But when the actor is all over the place and you have to clear another actor and you are constantly booming up or down or adjusting left or right or in and out to hold the frame, things can get a little tense. I have to give it to our focus puller and operator. As challenging as my job can be on this movie, I can't imagine trying to hold focus or keep a nice frame with actors moving all over the place and the dolly constantly adjusting. All in all, although I do like the freedom to wing it, I am ready to get back to a more controlled style of working. The good side of all this is that it's very relaxed and mistakes are easily forgiven. It's a comedy, and comedies, in fact, moviemaking in general should be fun. I once did a comedy years ago* in which we used the very rigid form of working which was not fun at all. The DP was a Jackass and everyone from the actors on down was tense and unhappy. Overall, I'll take freeballing any day.
*To this day, this was the most miserable experience of my career. Six weeks in Vegas and top rate and all I could think about was leaving. Someday, we will meet again, my friend.
I'm with ya on being torn on this issue. Sometimes I like it when we have definitive places and marks to go to because I love to see perfect camera shots unfold perfectly, and on the other hand, sometimes I like it when it's up to me to compose good shots no matter what the actors do. The problem I have with the latter scenario is that directors and DPs are getting away with this fly-by-the-seat-of their-pants style which, as people like us know, is just them passing he buck and not doing their own jobs. It pains me to watch a really good camera operator do the director's job all day long and not get credit or payed appropriately for it. That's the only part that bugs me. But I do like it when, like you said, they look back at me behind the dolly and say, "Good Luck...you get us in the right place and I'll frame it up!...or...So are you ready to do this?" and I always reply, "It's gonna be great!!"
I dropped by the set of D's show a few weeks ago to see some friends and saw exactly the kind of stuff D is mentioning. I was talking to the mixer when the wardrobe guy announced matter-of-factly "We're in the shot."
I just picked up a drink glass and pretended like I was an extra.
I would imagine the good side of freeballing with these two directors is that they realize that they're flying by the seat of their pants and can recognize that they're forcing the camera team to become part of the improvisation.
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