In just about any filmmakers career, they’ll spend a good deal of time as the support. Call it a second shooter, production assistant, or 1st AC – there are a bunch of roles that don’t have the prestige of Director or DP.
The fatal mistake of the second shooter is to think that there is any less opportunity in one role over another. It’s all relative. There is always a chance to make a difference, both for yourself and for the larger picture.
Here’s a short story of a shoot we did for CBS last year that really drives that point home.
Last year, Joyce and I spent a great deal of time in New Orleans working on a one hour Superbowl special. As it came close to Superbowl Sunday, things started to get really busy for CBS. As the broadcast network of the game, they had a bunch of specials to put together and many of them would come together in the days leading up to Superbowl Sunday.
One of the biggest pieces they were putting together was the Superbowl Open – a short piece that would air right before kick-off. Together – CBS, Superbowl, the Open – it all meant that there would be some pretty awesome resources put into bringing this piece to life.
We got a call the day before the shoot seeing if we’d be interested in tagging along. Pete Radovich, director of A Game of Honor, was directing the piece. Think Lombardi Trophy, an awesome NOLA stage, a 50 piece kids orchestra, some unreal lighting design, a grand piano, and Helmut Vonlichten (formerly of E.S. Posthumus).
They already had a DP plus a 20′ jib as a second camera. That means we’d be last in line – a third camera. Remember, we were in New Orleans for an entirely different shoot, one that had very long days, so it would be an easy excuse if we wanted to pass.
Do I wish I was asked to DP a spot as special as this? Absolutely. But they had an excellent DP in place and that wasn’t how we could help on this one.
Never one to turn down an opportunity, we rigged the Epic up on the Steadicam and Joyce and I joined the shoot, me as the Steadicam Op and her as my 1st AC.
We showed up with every intention of being the best third camera CBS had ever seen. Ever chance we got, we pushed ourselves just a little further than we thought we could go. And in between our chances, we schemed on how we could do even more the next time our name was called.
The spot turned out wonderfully. We even had a few shots that made the final cut. More than that, I hope we added to the overall shoot and helped to make the piece stronger.
Here’s the twist:
The Superbowl Open was nominated for an Emmy earlier in the year. Apparently we made enough of a difference on the shoot that Pete, the director, added our names on the submission.
Last night, at a Gala in New York, Joyce got to sit in the audience as we won our fifth Emmy as a studio. An opportunity to play a small role in a large piece that turned into something pretty special – an Emmy.
Let’s keep it real for a minute – most third camera shoots won’t lead to an Emmy. However, every shoot is certainly a chance to make a difference, to take a step forward. Some of you may recall Grant’s story – he started as a PA on a shoot and parlayed that opportunity into a leading role, co-director, for our studio’s first original film.
If you find yourself in a support role, how do you make the most of it? How do you make a mark? How do you make a difference?
Over the years, we’ve played every role you can imagine. We’ve also worked with literally hundreds of support crew. From all of that, we bring you what we’ve learned about what it takes to really stand out.
7 Tips For Being A Badass Second Shooter
1. Take direction but don’t need direction.
Trust in the vision of those leading the shoot. Don’t try and be the hero that objects to everything with an alternative idea to make the shot better. Focus all your energy on taking what’s been asked of you and delivering at an exceptional level.
For the Director and DP, they’ll have hundreds of things swirling around in their head. The last thing they need is to be challenged on every decision.
On the other hand, whenever you haven’t been asked to do something, use that time to see what else you can be doing. Don’t let yourself get caught sitting around and waiting. We don’t get hired for what we believe we can do, so take any free time and show what you can do. Respect boundaries and don’t try and play hero – but within those constraints add as much as you can.
You want to get noticed as a second shooter? Come back with stellar footage beyond just what was asked for. It’s why I’m always so excited if I’m ever lucky enough to have Joyce as my second shooter. She’ll never come back with less than way more than what was asked of her.
2. Go that extra mile. A 100% is for sissy’s.
Your role is to make their life easier – however you can. Showing up with coffee, throwing batteries on charge, or helping setup lighting are all things that are absolutely noticed.
Whenever you’re given something to do, ask yourself what else you can be doing to beyond the obvious.
Working with Joe Stunzi as a 1st AC (assistant camera) is an absolute delight. Most people, when you ask them to setup the Epic on a tripod, will grab the camera and place it on the tripod. Then they’ll walk away. But Joe – ask him the same thing – and he’ll level the tripod head, make sure there is a clean card in the camera, ask what lens you’d like, apply proper filtration, get the white balance close, and make sure there is water nearby.
Each one of those extra steps make him irreplaceable and make him our first choice when we need a AC.
3. Own and solve your own problems.
Realize that the worst thing you can do in a support role is take more time than your saving. You’ll have problems, that’s part of filmmaking and it’s part of life, but always always always own them.
Bring solutions, not problems.
This definitely doesn’t mean hide your problems. If it’s big enough, it’s important that you let the right people know so they can plan accordingly. The difference is, bring them solutions to the problem, not just a blank stare and an idleness as you wait for instruction.
On our first AT&T Olympic shoot, we were shooting on two Red cameras; Epic and Scarlet. As DP, I was running the Epic, and our second camera was operating the Scarlet. As we were doing some final checks and waiting for Ryan Lochte (a gold medal swimmer) to arrive on set, Ray Tsang on the crew came up to me with a pretty big problem.
‘Umm, the Scarlet won’t record. When I hit the record button, nothing happens.’
Now, most people would stop there. It would now become somebody else’s problem to figure out. But in this case, the conversation didn’t end there. His first statement was followed with three more, that completely changed the gravity of the situation.
‘I’m trying to swap batteries, do a full reset, and see if that works.’
‘I’m on hold with RED, waiting to talk to customer service.’
‘I’ve sent a text to a friend at a local rental house – he’ll be able to get us the most up to date firmware and some tips on what’s up.’
And then the best part of all.
‘Give me 15 minutes and I’ll have it back up. One of these things will solve it.’
When something gets in your way, push yourself to come up with three possible solutions before you bring the problem to somebody else. Not only will the attitude get you noticed, but you’ll demonstrate that you can handle pressure, think quickly, and take initiative.
4. Always be a step ahead.
You want to know the best thing you can ever tell a director or DP while on set? That’s already taken care of.
Know the call sheet. Know the locations. Know what’s coming up next.
Rather than wondering when the next interview will be, needing directions to the bathroom, or asking how long until this shot is done – be the one who is always there to help and guide others with all of that same information.
Add, don’t take away.
Want to knock a Director or DP on their ass? Know what’s coming up next, deduce what they’ll most likely need, and ask if you can start prepping it for the next shot.
Think about the camera and lenses most commonly used, and see if you can get those ready at the next location. Look at how the last interview was lit and see if you can get the lighting ready for the next interview.
Notice the director getting hungry? Find food. Tired? Find coffee and offer it to everybody. Anxious? Offer three ways you can help make their life easier.
5. Bring an unforgettable attitude (in a good way).
If you’ve never been on a film set before, I’ll let you in on a little secret.
Filmmaking can be stressful.
Every part of the crew adds to the collective energy. The way you respond to requests, the way you do whatever it is you’re asked to do, and the way you interact with everybody else are all part the energy you are bringing to the shoot.
It requires extraordinary effort to not only take initiative, go that extra mile, solve problems, and hustle, but to do all of that with a smile on your face. With a buoyancy that make you a pleasure to be around. Make yourself worth calling over the person who might know camera, lighting, or any other technical thing more than you do.
There is a world full of talented people out there. Few of them are a true pleasure to be around. Your energy will get you noticed more than anything else you bring to set.
6. Let less equal more. Push the creative.
The advantage of the second shooter is how much less they are usually responsible for. Where the DP or first camera is usually the one getting the must have shots, the second shooter can take the time and space to try and see what nobody else has.
Always know where the lead shooter has been and what lenses he or she is working with. Then do something different.
Sometimes you’ll be asked to use a certain tool and focal length to get a specific shot, but when that’s not the case, always look to add something strong to the mix.
If they are often on a tripod, try a slider. If they are shooting wide, try and shoot tight.
Realize that this isn’t about you finding your favorite lens, tool, or the first shot that came to mind. The game here is the exact opposite. Be constrained by what the lead shooter has chosen, and make the most out of what’s left.
Never get caught getting a similar shot with the same focal length. It suggests you don’t trust the DP (you can do it better) and that you’re pushing to develop additional creative.
7. Always take the chance to speak up.
This isn’t a contradiction to our first suggestion, take direction, but rather an addition.
There will often be times on set when a Director, Producer, or DP will share an idea and ask for feedback. Be ready. When it happens, speak up.
This is your chance to show the types of ideas your capable of, how you can make them relevant to the story at hand,
What you’ll often find is that a strong idea leads to an opportunity to make it happen.
Regardless of your position on set, a great idea shared at the right time is always a welcomed addition. And it is one of the surest ways to make yourself a welcomed partner the next time an idea needs to be discussed.
On a large commercial shoot last year for Boston Consulting Group we had a production assistant, Chris Rasmussen, travel from Minneapolis to join us in Chicago. He hustled, he stayed a step ahead, he always went the extra mile – but when given the chance, he also added strong ideas on how to solve problems and get us to where we needed to be. We brought him on as a producer for the next shoot, and we’ve had a relationship with Chris ever since.
There you have it – 7 tips for being a badass second shooter that can completely transform the impact you have on your next shoot.