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Let's explore the art of camera operation by examining what a movie looks like without one. As you will see, the role of the cameraman is vital.

There are many roles on a movie set. And while they may all be important in isolation, perhaps none is more critical than the cameraman. You know the person who actually handles the camera for every shot and scene.

Yes, there is a director and a cameraman and often a whole camera crew, but at the core of the role you need someone with certain skills to operate the camera for the theatrical results.

To prove the importance of this role, perhaps this fun video from Vanity Fair shows the best how important a cameraman is to a film or video production. And not just by showing everything a cameraman does, but also by showing what a movie would look like if it just didn't exist.

With seasoned operator Oliver Cary (John Wick 3, Orange is the New Black) as a guide, let's explore the all-important role of the cameraman and how you can learn some of the more advanced styles and techniques.

What is a cameraman?

Again, in this video, it's pretty easy to answer that question, using Mr. Cary as the entire camera department, but he does an excellent job of going over the basics. A cameraman is the person (or team) who operates a camera on a film under the guidance of a cameraman (DP) and following the director's instructions.

If you'd like to learn more about working as a cameraman, as well as the other roles in the camera department, check out these advanced articles:

Basic motivation camera shots

By motivating the camera, you are essentially controlling movement. Image from Vanity Fair via YouTube.

I like how this video first gives us an example of what a scene would look like without a cameraman, by showing us what it would look like if every shot was simply framed statically and with no motivation. The term motivation is a perfect description of how any cameraman should see his job as it is motivation that drives movement – not the other way around.

Cary gives some of the basic camera moves – like pans, tilts, and dollies – as examples of how to start getting motivation into the role.

Camera angle

Camera angle

Camera angles play an integral part in the story you want to tell. Image from Vanity Fair via YouTube.

After the basic moves, Cary delves into the basics of camera angles and how your frame decisions can be an important part of your storytelling arsenal. His basic examples include how shooting at a subject makes them look weak, while shooting at them puts them in a position of power. These decisions are not always just a matter for the camera. The DP and the director will usually do these shots, probably guided by storyboards. But as a cam op, you should still understand the psychology behind your work.

Here are some more detailed breakdowns that cover basic and advanced recordings:

Tripod vs. Handheld

Tripod vs. Handheld

Add drama to a scene by switching from your tripod to a handheld shot. Image from Vanity Fair via YouTube.

Cary shows how much drama can be added to a scene by switching between sturdy tripod frame and rocky handheld shots. However, this is a pretty exaggerated representation of how different these two can be, as it quickly glosses over the video with the use of much more reliable gimbals and steadicams in favor of the shoulder mount option where we see the camera being used.

However, the example works. It shows both the flexibility and thematic unreliability that putting down a tripod can bring to your compositions. Here are some more related tips and tricks:

Zooms and Dolly Moves

Zoom against Dolly

The decision on whether to use a zoom-in or a dolly-in should be included in the message you want to convey to your audience. Image from Vanity Fair via YouTube.

Cary briefly goes through both rack focussing and whip pans before delving deeper into zooms and dolly shots and the big and subtle differences between the two. So far, in our film-in-video narrative, the trapped attorney has noticed the nail file on the floor, and Cary's camera is faced with deciding how to convey that information to the audience.

It's fun to see the various recordings play back in real time as each option is unique in how it visually shares information with the audience and tells the story. If you want to learn more about camera zooms and dollies, check out the following resources:

Lens selection

Lens selection

Usually the director or DP makes a lens selection for each shot. Image from Vanity Fair via YouTube.

At this point, I was grateful to hear Cary admit that it is usually the director or data protection officer’s job to make lens selections for each shot, but I agree with his claim that the camera on the lenses informs just as well should be. Plus, you never know that a director or DP might always ask for your input – so be ready!

In this video, Cary shows us options between wide, medium and long with 25mm, 50mm and 85mm options and explains the basic principles for choosing between the three. As you might guess, there is a lot more to unzip when it comes to lens choices. Here are some additional articles on these basics:

Advanced techniques

Cameraman Techniques

From the camera angle to the gear selection, the cameraman plays an essential role in the end result of a film. Image from Vanity Fair via YouTube.

Finally, to round out our ten-minute cameraman class, we see Cary pull all of these core principles together for the climax of our short while the lawyer knocks down the killer with the nail file. We see how the various camera movements and angles can help change the perspective the narration dictates, and how the various handheld and lens options can best appeal to the audience.

We have a couple of more advanced moves to finish it off, with the camera boom movement being a nice final shot. If you want to learn more about the boom and other advanced camera surgical techniques, you're in luck:


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