The movie I'm doing now is all handheld. When I say that, I mean ALL handheld. We don't even have a dolly. It's this director's style, I saw it coming. With an all handheld show comes the usual complaints, the biggest for me being that I literally have no creative input into the process. Where I'm used to being intimately involved in the making of shots, from design to execution, here I have no part. This is the most painful for me. My operator is great and, of course, I am responsible for his safety so he does defer to me on that note. Normally, as our friend GHB so eloquently points out, carrying the camera is a courtesy we provide as Dolly Grips. I don't mind doing it as long as the camera department realizes that it is a courtesy that I am not required to provide. On an all handheld show, however, I have to justify my being there and if I want any part of the process at all, I'm always there to take the camera and make the operator as comfortable as possible. Boring, yes, but necessary. So, for the next eight odd weeks I will be wearing a backpack and clearing branches and other obstacles out of the camera operator's path while I long for the days of fifty foot dolly runs and complex Technocrane moves. There is an art to providing handheld camera support. Knowing how much or how little guidance an operator needs, knowing when to step in and point out a safety issue, even pointing out eyeline errors (my favorite), all require a certain amount of experience that is a little comfort when you are excluded from the little powwows you're used to being included in. So with that in mind, I've compiled a list of things to look for in handheld mode:
Safety is number one. You are the operator's eyes and ears when he's in the eyepiece. Take the initiative to head off any situations beforehand. Which side of camera is the gun firing? What's minimum safe distance? What does he do if something goes wrong? Have all this planned out before the shot gets hairy and you're all stumbling around in a hail of gunfire.
How does his path look? What obstacles can you remove or have removed?
What's the "Safe Word?" On our show there is a lot of gunfire and squib action. The operator is swathed in eye and ear protection and can't always communicate. I told him to just point the camera up in the middle of a take if he gets in trouble and I'll know something is wrong (or just drop it and run).
He's holding that camera for a long time, especially on an HD show. Make him comfortable. Take the camera when you can or give him a box to sit on when he can.
Know when not to be there. Sometimes it's just silly to be in tight quarters just so you can take the camera. In tight spaces, let the AC do it. He has to be there anyway. Make sure he's safe and comfortable, and then leave.
As hard as it is, sometimes to stay involved in a show like this, remember that your camera operator is depending on you. You may not be providing the same input into the process, but you can damn well be sure that if you are vigilant and do your job well, he will appreciate you. Be professional. Stay alert.
Since I'm not dealing with the usual rehearsals, marks, track etc, I actually am able to become a second set of eyes for the Key Grip and help him out a little more.
While it isn't much fun, a handheld show offers it's own challenges, although they are more physical than mental. I don't enjoy it. It's tedious. But at the end of the day, I'm still right in the middle of the action. I have to be. The operator might fall down if I don't.