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What’s become of the Cameraman?

Dan Mears Cameraman

The Cameraman

Over the last decade the TV & Film industry has gone through some major changes.

Since the introduction of the Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera, high quality, shallow depth of field footage has become accessible to anybody who can afford a DSLR. Long gone are the days of only being able to achieve that elusive film look with a 35mm film camera.

So with this, has the role of the person behind the camera taken a shift? And therefore what we call that person?

Shooting on a traditional Broadcast Camera

In the past…

Lets look back 20-30 years at the role of the Cameraman within the TV and Corporate industries. Back then the role was restricted to those who understood how to use a 16mm film camera. Then, when the quality of video cameras had improved, it was the engineers from the studios that took on the role.

It required a specialist to understand both the operation of the camera and the art of filming!

Most of these Cameramen were either referred to as Portable Single Camera (PSC) Cameramen or Lighting Cameramen, with the latter also being proficient in lighting for video too.

Just to add, at this stage most of the people who operated cameras were men, hence the job title Cameraman. Obviously the role is now fulfilled by both men and woman and I am sure there is much debate about the job title. For now I shall continue to use the job title Cameraman to mean both men and woman operators.

MiniDV Days

As video cameras got more widely used across the TV and Corporate industries, the manufacturers started to make smaller, high quality cameras. In addition to their reduced size they were cheaper too, making them more accessible to others within the industry.

As these cameras got ‘easier to use’, Directors and Producers were asked to self-shoot. This allowed productions to film without hiring a Cameraman. As the amount of Self-Shooting Producers/Directors (PD) increased the humble Cameraman was only booked for the more demanding shoots or where a separate person was required.

Thankfully for the Cameraman, on many productions their skills and experience was still required, along with their higher quality broadcast cameras too!

Dan Mears Sony Z7 HDV Camera

Shooting on the Sony Z7 miniDV/HDV Camera in 2009

The DSLR Revolution!

For years the Film and TV industry were quite well separated. Films and TV Commercials generally shot on 16mm or 35mm film. While TV and Corporate industries shot with broadcast cameras.

The TV and Corporate industries always aspired to the film look. With it’s 35mm shallow depth of field and high dynamic range. There were tricks to emulate the film look with broadcast cameras but sadly non of them really hit the mark, either being too cumbersome or just cheap trickery!

Then, in 2009, Canon introduced their Canon 5D Mark II DSLR Camera to the photographic industry. They added a video mode to enable Photojournalists to shoot video alongside their still images. Little did they realise this allowed you to shoot with a 35mm depth of field quite easily and cheaply! While it had finer quality issues, it was the best option to emulate the film look without using a film camera.

Just like in the MiniDV Days, this high quality camera became accessible to anybody who could afford a DSLR. The Corporate industry jumped on the camera like hotcakes. Then the TV industry, and everything was shot with a super shallow depth of field for the next 3 years!

Not only did this camera rock the TV and Corporate industries but the Film industry too. Film Cameramen got wind of this amazing camera and started to use it on large scale Hollywood films, such as Act of Valor (2012) shot by Shane Hurlbut ASC.

A New Breed!

With the introduction of Video DSLRS a new breed of Cameraman was created, the DSLR Cameraman.

I admit, I finished university around the time of the DSLR revolution. I bought a Canon 550D and thought it was amazing! I’d very often opt to shoot on this camera, over my Sony Z1 video camera, as the picture quality was so good!

Dan Mears Canon 550D DSLR Camera

Shooting on my Canon 550D DSLR in the Yorkshire Moors in 2011

This revolution did really get a lot of people shooting high quality videos, not just in the industry but hobbyists and students too.

This wasn’t only due to the accessibility of cheaper filmmaking equipment, but the increased ability to share video content. As the speed of our internet connections increased the ability to share video content online boomed, starting the YouTube generation!

Being able to easily share video content online, for free! meant you weren’t restricted to the usual distribution channels, such as broadcast TV, cinemas, film festivals, DVD rentals and sales etc. You were no longer restricted by commissioners, executives and the holders of the coffers!

It started a new wave of ideas and approaches to filmmaking, along with a cottage industry of new filmmaking equipment!

Digital Film

Around the same time as the DSLR revolution the Film industry was being disrupted too, in the form of the RED ONE Camera.

The RED ONE offered an alternative to 35mm film, promising greater accessibility to high quality cameras for filmmakers. Now… it wasn’t quite as accessible as the Canon 5D Mark II, but did offer some cost saving compared to shooting 35mm film.

RED ONE Cinema Camera

DoPing a short film on the RED ONE Cinema Camera in 2011

Before the onset of ‘Digital Film’, films were shot on 35mm or 16mm film and generally required a complex camera crew to run and operate the camera.

This consisted of a;

  • Director of Photography (DoP) (or Cinematographer)
    • Head of the Camera and Lighting departments. Responsible for the overall look of the film. They choose the camera, lenses and filtration along with the choosing the lighting for scenes.
  • Camera Operator
    • Physically operated the camera, whether handheld or on the tripod. Decides camera placement and movement with Director and DoP.
  • Focus Puller (1st Camera Assistant)
    • Responsible for running the camera department and looking after the camera. A lot of the role revolves around pulling focus, which is a specialist skill! Generally the 1st Assistant doesn’t leave the camera.
  • Clapper Loader (2nd Assistant)
    • Responsible for slating takes, loading film and keeping the camera running, such as charging batteries and assisting the 1st Assistant.
  • Camera Trainee
    • The first rung on the ladder and usually involves carrying and moving heavy boxes!

These roles still continue today, with some slight tweaks and alterations. Equally, new roles have been created to, such as the Digital Imaging Technician (DIT), who’s job is to look after the camera’s digital media and footage.

When Industries Merged

With this push towards the 35mm film look in the TV and Corporate industries, the move to Digital Film in the Film industry, the two industries began to merge.

While the equipment was getting crossed over from one discipline to another, more notable was the movement of crew to operate this equipment.

Professional DoPs and camera crew were being drafted into the world of TV to make the most of this Digital Film for TV productions. At the same time, those in the TV industry were trying to catch up on this Digital Film revolution, learning about large sensor cameras, cinema lenses and such like.

This crossover opened a door for those Lighting Cameramen in the TV industry to become DoPs, working with Digital Film to shoot their TV documentaries then moving on to shoot dramas and features.

Manufactures jumped on the bandwagon with the introduction of the Canon C300 and Sony F3/F5 cameras. 35mm sensors cameras specifically designed for the TV and Corporate industries.

Shooting on the Sony F5 35mm Camera in 2013

Where are we now?

Some nearly 10 years on from the DSLR and Digital Film revolution, where are we now?

With the explosion of online content, and the expectation of high quality TV and corporate productions. More and more pressure is being put on the Cameraman to create Oscar worthy pictures. Gone are the days of just picking up your broadcast shoulder mount camera kit and going out to shoot. Now decisions have to be made about;

  • The choice of camera/format.
  • Whether to shoot 4K/UHD/HD.
  • What frame rate to shoot, is slow motion required?
  • What Picture Profile to use, such as Log or Hyper/Cine Gammas.
  • Choice of lenses to best suit the project.
  • Filtration and post production LUTs.
  • Whether an assistant is required to pull focus! or any additional crew.

All of these decisions are the type of decision made by a Director of Photography on a film production where they are directing the photography, working along side the Director to achieve a look.

Dan Mears Sony FS7

Shooting on my Sony FS7 35mm Camera in 2017

The Role of the Cameraman

As we can see, the role of the Cameraman has drastically changed from that role 20-30 years ago. While there is still some work for the humble Cameraman, more of the quick turn around, journalist content, is being shot by self shooters. Meanwhile, the higher end content is being fulfilled by somebody who needs the skills and knowledge of a Director of Photography.

When you work with me I do much more than just turn up and shoot, you can see this in my work. I like to direct the photography and work with the Director to determine a look for each film.

This then spans into making choices about cameras, lenses and lighting to match the mood of the film. It is for this reason I call myself a Director of Photography.

Given the changes in the industry perhaps we should come up with a new term for the Cameraman who lights, shoots large sensor cameras and ultimately creates a look…

The age of the “Digital Cinematographer” is upon us!