T.Stops Blog

The Kung Fu of operating camera.

Welcome back to Tstops.

Its been a while, but for good reasons.   I recently spent a considerable amount of time in Singapore DPing a TV series for the national broadcast station MediaCorp.  At the time we started this project, an unfamiliar camera to me, the ARRI Amira was the tool of choice for the production, they wanted an all handheld look, and the Amira is the best there is for that function.  I will go much further into detail on this project in another Work Log post, but carrying a 30lb piece of Aluminium, glass and magnesium on your shoulder for a month you come to realize a few things.  First, I LOVE operating a camera handheld.  The shot clock as I came to call it, the timecode in the view finder would tick by and minutes would pass by in what felt like seconds.  Entire one take action scenes, with the camera going from ground level, to my shoulder level while sprinting after actors and stunt people fighting, jumping over grip equipment and ducking under steel beams all with my eye glued to the viewfinder would just somehow… happen.  I would hear cut, and sort of “wake up”, sometimes 100 feet from where I started with what looked like an obstacle course between end point and start.   I am not the most athletic guy on earth, but with my eye in a viewfinder, somehow my mind goes blank, my focus goes into overdrive and a sort of dance ensues and my body just made it happen.  When operating handheld, your position in relation to the actors is ever changing and you become in a part of the performance, and in a way a part of the shot more than if the camera were on dolly, jib or tripod.   The camera is no longer just a window into a world, but an actual observer in the scene.  It may seem obvious, that yes, the camera is the audiences view of the story, but as a camera operator, its your personal point of view.   You are a spectator onset, with your own marks, timing, energy and physicality.   My wife, a professional dancer, often said when dancing she doesn’t think of what to do, it just happens.  Her body knows the choreography and she can simply channel the emotions through that.  This is exactly how I felt on this production.  I had never done so much handheld at once, or for so long.   2-8 minute takes, one after another for nearly a month.   Most of the shots contained a choreography between actor and camera.   You stop thinking and start feeling the shot and pace.  Jedi training stuff.

As an experiment, if you have a camera with a viewfinder, I recommend spending a significant amount of time only looking through the view finder for a day.  Once you become so comfortable with the practice of seeing the world through a small window, it becomes your second nature, then something interesting happens.   You stop thinking about the framing.  Your inner aesthetic takes over, and the frames start to find them selves.   This is where the Kung Fu comes in, not in the popular definition of a fighting style, ( a more recent definition)  but the other meaning, that is repetition and patience lead to good results.  Well, I suppose I could just say practice makes perfect… but this is a bit different.   This is letting go, and feeling the scene though the lens and letting your eye, and body make it happen without too much conscious effort.   It boils down the shot to its essence.   From there, you can make your conscious decisions to make it better.

Right now, my main goal is to apply what I learned to all aspects of my work.  Taking the elements of a shot down to their barest forms of story telling.   The lessons I learned from this experience, I think can apply to all aspects of the shot.  Light, frame, color, movement and time.  Light being the most fleeting and difficult to make a broad stroke of emotion.   Lets see where this goes.  Should be interesting.


Until next time.  Thank you for reading.



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