What is a camera operator?

William B. Demeritt III
June 12th, 2013

I think I started in film school wanting to direct. As time went on, I realized I was missing a great many skills required of a director, most of which were not technically specific to the title of Director. Love, life, family, meaning, loss, tribulation, failure… all the things a person picks up along the way to becoming a good storyteller were glaringly absent from my life’s CV up until then, and probably for the foreseeable future. However, the wonders of the visual world always had my attention, and a good friend of mine made me aware of the position of camera operator.

I knew life would share with me whatever was in store as it felt appropriate, so too would my career in film. However, the midterm goal was established, and I was thrilled to realize there was a title for what I’d really wanted all along: camera operator. Someone to guide the audience and care for every thing inside, and outside, of the frame.

Who, or what, is the camera operator? In the last decade, we’ve seen a decline (at least at the Union level) in the requirement for a camera operator. I don’t blame changing technology or changing budgets for the reduction and marginalization of the position. Rather, I think the ethereal nature of that job is the cause of it’s almost fluid nature, appearing some places but not others. After all, as one mentor and camera operator put it, “doing my best job means the audience never detected I was there; they were so engrossed in the story” and the act of operating camera never distracted from that tale.

I think many of the people I look up to in industry have some interesting thoughts on the position. One colleague described the position of camera operator as “the most easily replaced or fired person on set”, because nowhere else is a single position at the overlap of so many departments who, when tempers flare, can convince the powers that be that fault rests with the intersection rather than the vehicles passing that crossroads. We can upset the electricians with late requests for lights to be moved, grips with last minute dolly changes, art department with not sharing with them important information about decoration malfunctions or mis-positions, directors for framing poorly, makeup and actors for not asking for a quick touch-up during long takes, etc. etc. etc.

On the other hand, another mentor once said, “[camera operators] are the editors best friend and the DP’s conscience.” We find diplomatic reasons to help back up a DP’s thoughts when conflicting with the director, and on a moment’s notice. We shoot from the hip, sometimes without a rehearsal, and must remind everyone of what shots are missing (for the editor’s sake). We anticipate the needs of everyone, from the dolly grip who needs time to lay track to the camera team who have to flip modes. The camera operator is the largest personality on set that doesn’t let anyone think they’re the biggest personality on set. Wallflower and ambassador, visualizer and prognosticator.

Most of this is who the camera operator is long before and long after their eye ever touched an eyepiece.

Even with the most diplomatic of skills, and even with the greatest of set presence, in the end, I think great camera operators look at an image and get a feeling like a young man in a moment of infatuation. We see an imagine, and either it’s love or not. The image may be great, wonderful, beautiful… but I think camera operators live for that moment of love.

They’re rare, and that’s why they’re incredible. Like I’ve mentioned before, when Nestor Almendros was operating the “house on the hillside” reveal shot in “Days of Heaven”, and when he came down, he had tears in his eyes and said, “…it’s just one of those shots.”

William B. Demeritt III