Most dramas work within a 10-12 hour day on camera, but you're more likely to be working 14 hours by the time you have wrapped the kit. You may be asked to work beyond those hours if the production is falling behind.
All action centres around the camera department on a film set. It's fast-paced, dynamic and not the place to be if you want an easy life. The PA position is the gateway into the department and where your training really starts!
A resume rather than showreel will serve you best in your search for PA roles. Find internships while at college. Work on short films and student productions.
After building your initial experience, look for roles on bigger productions that accommodate the camera PA.
Retitle your resume and apply for 2nd AC positions. Utilise your contacts, by this stage you should be able to apply for jobs on the strength of your resume alone.
The Camera Department is at the forefront of the action on set; it can be one of the most exciting and dynamic departments to work in, it can also be one of the most pressured. The DoP (director of photography) who heads up the department has overall responsibility for camera, lighting and grips, who work together to achieve the director's vision using their creative and technical capabilities. The DoP collaborates with the production designer to create the overall look of the film, bringing life, texture and light to sets created by the Art Department or when working on location.
Depending on the scale of the production the Camera Department can vary in size. The first unit can consist of the DoP (who may elect to operate the camera) camera operator, 1st assistant camera (1st AC - focus puller), 2nd assistant camera (2nd AC - clapper/loader) DIT and assistant (if working on a digital format) and the department PA. If the production is a big-budget feature, there may also be a second unit. If the production is shooting in 3D, you will also find the stereographer and a team of camera assistants. The remit of the job will change when working with a smaller team, usually with the most junior position (2nd AC) taking up most of the slack.
Camera teams run on almost militaristic discipline. Instructions are always repeated back; lenses are handed to the focus puller in a specific way (front element facing towards the 1st AC, focus ring set to infinity) and the camera is never left on its own or left on the cameraman’s shoulder after a take (leave that to the grips). For anyone wishing to work as a PA, they will observe on day one camera teams working quickly and meticulously. PA’s will need to be diligent and proactive from the get-go to make a good impression and fit into already established teams.
Despite the influx of digital formats many filmmakers opt to shoot on film when they can, so PAs would be wise to learn how to load film if the opportunity presents itself. If favored by the director and DoP, the production may choose to shoot digitally. Red, Arriflex and Sony are continuing to develop cameras that mimic the capability of film cameras and stocks, this infiltration has meant a subtle shift for camera crew over the past few years. As hard drive space is cheap, directors can opt to shoot a rehearsal - giving the 1st AC little time for rehearsals. The 2nd AC still checks the frame size to know where to position the board, but they won't be hampered with changing film magazines, and there is no gate to check. Some things never change though and the Sound Department will still ask you to cover the camera with a Barnie to lessen the noise, and the DoP will put a light where the sound mixer has just set up ... standard.
If the production has the budget, the Camera Department will have a camera trainee, intern, or PA; this is where many new entrants can find work and essential experience to progress their career.
The PA position will require you to have basic camera knowledge and some experience working on short films, TV or at a camera rental company. As the junior member of the team, you shall be there to learn and be tasked with running jobs associated with the junior position. An ideal candidate for a camera PA position must be passionate about cinematography, have some relevant experience and display professionalism while they are carrying out their duties, however menial. PAs can also be found on:
Features (independent and studio)
High-end corporate video
Another route into the Camera Department is to work within camera rental companies such as Arri or Panavision. You'll need to do your time driving equipment to the location for the first year or two, but once you’re working in the kit room, you will be exposed to cameras and contacts.
Most ACs and DoPs will come in to test the kit before the shoot; camera technicians will be helping add and take away kit, or demonstrate how individual items of equipment work. If you wish to pursue a career onset, you will find it easier to make the jump to PA or even loader on departure, especially if you've been working on short films in your spare time.
Working your way up through the camera department is an apprenticeship. At each foundational stage, your knowledge and experience will grow, for that to happen you need to look at all the other areas of the business where you can find employment, such as TV (entertainment, outside broadcast and some factual), promos, corporate video or digital content.
If you are a member of a union then learning how to perform the role to advance your career whilst not breaking the rules of the union can be extremely challenging. In these early stages, the majority of your work will be on non-union productions.
Some DoPs take a relatively new entrant to the industry under their wing to learn the ropes. Getting this type of opportunity comes from luck and contacts in the industry, so ask friends, family and their friends if they know anyone who is in the Camera Department.
For camera teams working in features, high-end commercials, corporates and music videos the hierarchy of the Camera Department can look like this:
Director of photography. The DoP will be working closely with the camera operator, gaffer and key grip to achieve the director’s vision for the film. Some elect to operate the camera themselves, others prefer to establish themselves behind the monitors with the director.
Camera operator. Working with the grips, the camera operator is not just responsible for the movement of the camera. They suggest filters and lenses to achieve a particular shot, and if the camera is on the dolly, work with the dolly grip to achieve the best flow of movement and timings.
1st AC. Possibly the hardest job on set, experienced focus pullers are in great demand on feature films as focus pulling requires lots of experience and practice. Everyone notices when the shot is soft, few give praise when it’s sharp and not many know how difficult the job is.
2nd AC. If working on film, the loader can be found in the back of the camera truck or a corner of the studio loading and unloading magazines of raw and shot stock. If you wish to work in film and don’t know how to load a mag, call the camera rental companies and ask if you can go in for an hour to practice; they usually have some exposed stock and a changing tent available. Loaders will also be responsible for the clapper board, marking each take. This sounds simple, but the placement of the board and how it's marked up is a skill to be mastered. They work in close collaboration with the script supervisor to ensure the correct information is provided at the beginning of each take.
Camera Utility/loader can be bought in on larger productions. They take on the role of ordering daily crew when needed and liaising with kit hire. Much of the work is logistically resulting in them organizing location moves and working with the production office. On a production working on film, the loader replaces utility and will be based in the camera truck dealing with the film stock, loading magazines and sending rushes to the lab alongside the above utility responsibilities.
Depending on the scale of the production there may also be dedicated roles such as:
Video assist/playback, the person in charge of creating ‘video village’, the monitor station not only for the director but script supervisor and members of the production team which can include the exec producers.
If working with a digital camera they can take a feed from one of the HDMI outputs, if working on film a feed is taken from a recorder fitted to the viewfinder of the camera, so the image replicated in the monitor is exactly what the camera operator is seeing.
Video assist/playback ops will be using a laptop and software such as Qtake to provide a reviewing facility known as ‘playback’ for the director. Both the image from the camera and a mix track from the production sound mixer will be fed into the program, which sync’s them up in real-time, allowing the director and script supervisor to review the recorded shots. On smaller productions, without the budget for a dedicated PB operator, the responsibility can fall to the script supervisor to operate the equipment which can be dry hired in.
DIT. (Digital Imaging Technician) With camera technology advancing and the film industry embracing digital technology, a DIT can be present on set to help with camera configuration, image manipulation and the digital workflow.
Data wrangler. A ‘data wrangler’ can be a member of the DIT sub-department, assisting the DIT in managing the workflow, data storage and backups.
2nd unit camera crew. Which can replicate the first unit regarding personnel, shooting any SFX/VFX scenes or acting as a second camera on set. If working on studio production, there can be multiple camera teams, especially if working with SFX or large crowd scenes. It's easier to shoot specific sequences with ten cameras, rather than replicate intricate SFXs shots multiple times.
Stereography Department. When a film is shooting in 3D, a stereographer and a team of assistants and rig technicians will work alongside the Camera Department. The 3D team will be using specially designed 3D cameras and lenses.
Steadicam operator. Some camera operators are also Steadicam ops, but most often the Camera Department will bring in an operator with a rig and a lot of experience. Setting up the arm and creating the right balance for the camera is crucial, one tilt forward on an unbalanced head and the operator can find the camera or arm rapidly flying towards their face.
Above all else, you are going to be able to need to communicate efficiently with members of the camera team. Each job functions as part of a whole, the camera PA can be part of that whole. Get into the habit of listening to instruction and repeating it back.
This applies to all PAs. Senior members of the team love to have an active PA on board assessing what needs doing to keep the team ready for action, this can be tidying up the MagLiner to having the coffee on standby.
Stay calm and focused.
On smaller productions or productions where the schedule is stretched, tensions may run high. Camera, grips and lighting can work very quickly when called for, and there may be occasions where you feel the pressure of the job. Listen carefully to what is being asked of you.
Know when to ask questions.
Being a PA means you should have a good basic knowledge of cameras, lenses, accessories. No one will expect you to know as much as the DoP or pull focus, so if there's time (such as waiting on another department before you can get going) ask some questions to further your knowledge. If you have time during lunch, ask to stay back and practice loading for half an hour.
Be friendly and approachable.
Even when orders are barked at you don’t take anything personally, keep a cheerful, affable disposition, you can’t go wrong.
Working on short films or college productions are ideal to gain some experience and get a taste of what working on drama is like. A resume with some relevant experience stands a better chance of success when looking for PA roles. Look at the MFJF collaborations board and industry essentials, keep an eye on local FaceBook groups and networks in your area.
Although we do recommend collaborations, do your research first to find out who is going to be working on the production. Student films will be backed by the college, so you know the budget is considered and insurance will be taken care of. If you're working on a short film with people you don’t know, make sure to check out the producer's track record and back catalog of work, you want to know they are following best industry practices and will be running the production properly. This means the production will be insured, catering (or at least some form of feeding the crew) has been devised, there is a schedule that is realistic and location, transport and travel plans are all considered.
If you are fresh out of college and have labeled your resume with DoP or camera operator, go back and rework it. If you are applying for a role on a feature film with little to no professional experience PA is where you start despite your degree. If you have just graduated from a major film school and have an address book full of contacts that’s a different story - but for everyone else out there with their eye on the DoP chair, you're going to need to start at the beginning.
When working on your resume check through it (or ask someone else to) to see it reads well and is correctly formatted. You can use the advice to help create a resume and covering letter. You can check it against our example to make sure it includes all the relevant information. You're going to want to keep your resume short and to the point, as many HoDs or production coordinators will be ‘scanning’ rather than reading, so try and keep it down to one page.
Think about your transferable skills when working on your resume. If you have a strong aptitude for working with computers and can demonstrate your qualifications, it makes you a good candidate for a DIT's assistant. If you have a passion for diving and have an underwater PADI certificate, underwater photography might be your next step. Referrals are commonplace amongst the camera team. Layout your stall in your resume; this is one area of the industry where your passions and hobbies can feed into your career.
Due to the formalized structure of the Camera Department knowing what each job role is responsible for is a must, as is a familiarity with the main shooting formats. If your resume has landed on the DoPs or production managers' desk and they call to see if you’re free for the job, the best way to make conversation is being able to ask 'what camera are they shooting on?' Where are they getting it from? Can you go along to kit prep? Show the other members of the team you mean business. There is a host of blogs, books and internet resources available to gain further insight into the work of the Camera Department and the roles of the camera trainee/assistants. To start you off here is a selection:
The Camera Assistant: The Complete Professional Handbook. Douglas C. Hart
The Camera Assistant’s Manual. David E. Elkins SOC
Optics and Focus for Camera Assistants: Art, Science and Zen. Fritz Hershey
Masters of Light. Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato
Painting with Light. John Alton
Shooting Movies Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot: Becoming a Cinematographer. Jack Anderson
Contemporary Cinematographers on their art. Pauline Rogers
The Black and the Blue The essential guide to the Camera Department.
You should have two networks:
A lateral network of other PA’s and junior staff who can recommend you if they are unavailable to work. Remember, this industry is founded on word-of-mouth recommendations, which is why you need to be a great PA and professional at all times.
Your horizontal network consists of those above you; 1st, 2nd AC etc. Keep in contact with everyone you meet, send the odd email, social media is a great way to stay in touch. Use your time to create opportunities, don’t wait for them to come to you.
While all of the above is taking place you are going to need to provide a roof over your head and food for the table which can be costly, especially if you are living in a big city. A wage is going to be essential while you're looking to gain experience and generate a living wage.
If you find yourself waiting tables, working behind a bar or pouring coffee it’s relatively the same starting wage as a PA. These roles can be ideal when starting out as they offer some flexibility in your working hours, enabling you to take a few weeks off to work on a low/micro-budget feature and go back after. Work can be sporadic in those first few years, so having a subsequent fallback income can be vital.
The role of the camera PA is to support the entire camera team unless there is more than one unit. You will work especially closely with the 2nd AC, who has the task of completing their workload in addition to acting as a mentor. Be as supportive and helpful as you can, their advice will help you establish yourself within the department. A PA may find themselves:
Getting the coffees and bringing them to members of the crew who need to stay with the camera.
Taking instruction from the 2nd AC, the more responsibility they give you, the better the job you are doing.
Help the 2nd AC to set marks, always have your camera tape close by.
Establish a video village. The task of setting up a video village will be the responsibility of the trainee or PA if no one is employed specifically to do the job and operate playback/video assist. Make sure you locate it somewhere sensible. Often both the Camera and Sound Departments will opt to work wirelessly, but if the signal isn’t strong enough, you will most likely be running BNC/HDMI cable to the monitors.
Get sides for the camera team. Sides are a printout of the scenes to be shot that day. Usually one of the ADs or the Set PAs will have these. Search them out during breakfast and get them to your team as soon as you can. Also, find out if your ACs like anything done to the sides. Some like the characters' names highlighted in different colors.
At the very start of your career, you will probably be working on non-union productions. Your responsibilities can be very varied. Once you progress to union jobs, however, this becomes more fixed and you are unlikely to be completing work that is part of someone else's job.
Positions for PA's on unionized shows mean you will need to be a member of the union to work on them. It is most likely that at the beginning of your career you will work on non-union productions. Make sure you to keep all your documentation, including your contracts, as you will need them later should you wish to apply to become a union member.
In the US the labor unions were established to protect members of production - across the arts - from exploitation. Read our guide on union and non-union productions to fully understand their role in film production. The unions and guilds who represent the Camera Department are:
After completing your time as a PA on a variety of productions, it’s time to begin submitting your resume for trainee or 2nd AC positions. Hopefully, during your time as a junior member of the crew you will have observed and asked the right questions, and during your downtime (if finances allow) worked as a 2nd AC on short films. You may also be looking at union positions if you have the required hours and started the application process.
If you have worked with many of the same 2nd ACs, you could now be loading film for them and have gained information on how to complete camera reports. When you become a 2nd AC, remember to be kind to your trainees and PA’s and furnish them with all the advice that has been bestowed upon you.
In terms of time, your progression on the Camera Department ladder is completely in your hands. Some 1st AC’s never progress to camera operating for example - and this can be entirely through choice. A 1st with fifteen to twenty years experience will build up a solid reputation and multiple work offers. An experienced member of the team will always be a busy member of the Camera Department. So think about where you want to go at the beginning of your career, stay focused and work your way through the system.
Also, if you become a member of a local, you will need to pay to establish yourself with them in another role - that also means not backtracking and working in your previous position. The role of the trainee is a union position, so if you are applying for trainee roles on union productions you will have to consult Local 600.
Members of the Camera Department are frequently some of the first to arrive and the last to leave; they will often be found working when the rest of the crew has taken a break. Some days may feel monotonous, backbreaking and pressured. Other days you may find yourself working in locations of spectacular beauty or sharing a joke that will have you laughing for the rest of the day.
One thing to keep in mind if you work in the Camera Department is that camera work, whether assisting or shooting, is immensely physically demanding. Film cameras can be very, very heavy, so if you want to be an operator, that camera is going to be sat on your shoulder if you’re going handheld. Keep this in mind, many camera operators suffer from back problems so look after yourself during your career. Regard it as a bit of career future-proofing as you may feel indestructible at 20, but perhaps not so much at 50.
You should also know working in the Camera Department can be incredibly pressurized, especially when your career is in its infancy. Working as a PA will require you to be professional, proactive and most importantly diligent when working to assist the rest of the team.
Loading your first mag in a professional capacity and watching it click into place can be nerve bending. Having a roll of rushes come apart in your hands in the changing bag due to lack of concentration or experience more so. If you are in any way of a nervous disposition or have a tendency to panic this may not be the department for you - even DoP's with 20 or so years under their belt have bad days, it's how they handle those days that set them apart.
There are no technical or academic qualifications required for the position of PA, what you will need is a good work ethic, can-do attitude, be willing to put the hours in and have a real passion for the filmmaking process. You won’t need a health and safety qualification as yet, but it’s wise to remember that working on a set or location can be potentially dangerous. Always be aware of the space you are working in, and think about any potential hazards that may arise. You will need a full clean driving license as you may be called upon to drive a van, a first-aid certificate could be beneficial.
A college degree can give you options at a later date if you decide to switch careers, so think carefully about how it can help you in one, five, ten years after graduation. When looking at courses in film or media ask questions such as do the have:
Practical modules with recognized industry equipment, make sure they teach you about working on film and digital.
Lecturers (full-time or guest) who are working in the industry.
Internships throughout your degree, or contacts to help you find them.
Affiliations with industry-recognized institutions.
A chance to meet alumni or industry members.
Functional taught modules which demonstrate how current equipment works.
Listen to instruction carefully.
Don’t be afraid to speak up if you're unsure of what has been asked of you, most loaders have done your job and would prefer you came back with the correct flight case or set of filters. Communication is key, just watch how the 1st and 2nd are telling each other what they are doing throughout the day, it's a consistent stream of information that enables them to work efficiently.
Getting to set half an hour early gives you time to have a cup of tea and wake-up properly. It also allows you to watch and assist in the camera build while paying close attention to where the extra kit is going to live, on the Magliner or in the van. Pay close attention to where everything is stored and make sure it goes back in the same place.
Know the chain of command.
If you have a problem, don’t go to talk to the DoP about it, forward it on to the 2nd. Once on set, you need to observe the rules, know who to talk to and who not to talk to.
Pay close attention to the 2nd AC.
Put yourself within whispering reach of them when the camera is about to turn over, just in case there is a last-minute task to accomplish.
Stay in your own department.
Each department takes a great deal of pride in the work they carry out, and the flow of communication between its members keeps them ticking along nicely. If you move a cable, try and put up a flag or reposition the dolly this all breaks down. If there is a stand where it shouldn’t be let the lighting team know, they may have a purpose for it that you haven’t counted on.
Be dedicated and take pride in your work, even if that may be finding a cup of coffee for the camera operator. A genuine love of being involved in the filmmaking process should not be concealed; your enthusiasm will often endear you to your colleagues. Your attitude and the way you approach a task is often the most likely attribute to gain you further employment, be enthusiastic yet professional.
There is always something to do; nothing drives HoDs crazier than seeing a junior member of the team sitting down while others are working. Just being on standby is enough. Competence is prized above all else in the Camera Department so prove that you are, however you can.
Avoid eye contact with the actors during a scene.
Camera operators can hide behind the camera, but assistants can often find themselves exposed. As a PA, being aware of your positioning is of vital importance, especially if you're following tip 4.
Never leave the camera unattended.
Often the 1st AC will stick by the camera and if they leave set it falls to the 2nd AC. This is for a variety of reasons, if you're on location it may rain, if you are in the studio it may get knocked, and if you are working digitally the various cables running to the DIT may unexpectedly turn into a trip hazard. Whatever the reason, make sure you look after the 1st or whoever has to stay with the camera. They will thank you for it.
If you are bestowed a set of daily tasks by the 2nd AC make sure they are your primary focus, your colleagues will be expecting these duties to be carried out. You will need to manage this with the constant set of requests that are fired at you during the day, try to prioritize and if you feel you are struggling tell the 2nd.
Crossing. This is a term to familiarise yourself with as it alerts the camera operator you are ‘crossing’ the camera’s field of view. This term is used in all Camera Departments, large and small.
Turning over. When you hear the term ‘about to turn over’ this refers to the camera getting ready to record.
Barney. The camera cover which deadens the sound of the camera, more often used with 35mm cameras, not used in reference to an argument.
KBS. is a term used when a situation is about to get stressful, usually due to a quick turn around on a setup.
DFI. ‘We have changed our minds’.
Sausage. A movable mark that looks like a long bean bag, not the type you purchase from the store.
Baby legs. a term for the smaller set of tripod legs. The tripod can be referred to as “the sticks” and is actually part of the grips responsibilities rather than the camera team.
Apple Box. The Grips Department will have a stack of 'apple boxes’ which are - in essence - wooden boxes of varying heights. There are Full, ½, and ¼ size apple boxes with an inch thick box that is known as a pancake. Particularly useful if you need some height to reach something. The grips also carry wedges to chock up the track on uneven surfaces, so if you are presented with a table that is uneven ask a grip if you can borrow a wedge, they usually carry hundreds but make sure you give it back at the end of the day ... grips don’t forget!
Most dramas work within a 10-12 hour day on camera, but you're more likely to be working 14 hours by the time you have wrapped the kit. You may be asked to work beyond those hours if the production is falling behind.
Having a vehicle can be vital, especially if you're working at one of the major studios. Although not environmentally friendly, being independent of anyone else's travel arrangements means you are not bound by other people's wrap and call times.
Your transport arrangements do need to be considered if you are working at one of the studios. One way of getting to the location may be to hitch a lift with the camera truck; you might have to have a think about how you get home if you are engaged for longer than a day. The larger camera rental companies are all on the tube line, so this may help you out of a jam for dailies, but be proactive and address your logistical arrangements as soon as you can - then apply for a driving license!
Your progression through the department will depend on your experience and a little bit of being in the right place at the right time. Typically a camera trainee will need two years of experience under their belt, racking up experience on a variety of jobs. You may, however, feel your resume is full enough to begin to apply for 2nd AC positions sooner, or a 2nd AC whom you have a good relationship with may move up the ladder and take you with them. This is an industry where personal connections are extremely important; your network is key to finding work.
Working on short films or student films can assist you in your ascent of the Camera Department. While working on a short film you may encounter focus puller gaining expertise as a DoP and data wranglers gaining experience in the role of camera operator. Most short films are a training ground for professionals and new entrants alike.
Your first port of call should be your Head of Department. If you feel the conditions you are working under are unreasonable, then you should seek out the unit production manager (UPM) who has responsibility for the crew. Do speak up if you are in difficulty. Working on a film set can be hard work, and you have a responsibility to look after yourself while following your passion for film.
If you work within television drama, the likelihood is you will be working in a similar capacity to that of a feature film production. If you decide to follow the camera assisting route in broadcast factual and entertainment, you can continue to work on short films to give your CV drama experience, but your crossover will be harder. Expect to start a few grades down from where you have been working.
Many 2nd AC will be happy for you to use their floor bags to avoid confusion, but you should arrive with your own. The basics in your floor box/run bag should be:
Assistants pouch, save time go for the large one with a nice big chunky belt.
Jewelers screwdriver set.
A good pen(s)
A Sharpie, the industry darling when it comes to pens, but to be honest, any permanent marker will do that doesn’t bleed on camera tape.
Policeman's notebook, perfect for the tea orders amongst other things.
Set of Allen Keys
Sausages (the type you get from Panavision, not Tesco)
Gaffa tape and Duct tape (Duct is stickier than branded Gaffa tape and cheaper, great if you are working with meters of cable)
Selvyt cloth or any anti-static cloth for lens cleaning
Soft paintbrush/makeup brush.
Lens cleaning fluid (Rosco or Panaclear)
Multitool - Gerber or Leatherman are two of the preferred brands.
Torch, can be any but there is a lot of love for the Maglite in camera circles.
Floor bags/boxes are built over time so don’t be in a rush to have it all. See what your colleagues use most, and invest when you’re ready.
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