· Residence: London, United Kingdom
· Pulling focus since: 2008
· Favorite LCS: Preston HU3 with MDR-4
· Left/Right handed: Right
· Favorite cameras: Whatever is right for the look of the job
· Favorite Lenses: Whatever is right for the look of the job
Hey James. Thanks for taking your time for this interview. Before we start asking any questions, please tell us a little something about yourself.
My name is James Hills. I’m a 1st AC working mainly on commercials in the UK.
I got into the camera department via a rather unusual route. I studied languages and film theory at university as an undergraduate. I was hoping to work in the French film industry, which at the time was doing better than the UK industry.
While I was at university I taught myself stills photography, which gave me a basic understanding of exposure, depth of field and composition and shooting on film. It really gave me a head start when I got into the London Film School to do my Masters, where we shot on film a lot.
How did you first learn your skills and what did you do to keep getting better?
I started working on shoots as early as possible. While I was studying I was working on corporate and commercial shoots for a handful of London based DOPs. They were gracious enough to teach me the ropes and throw me in at the deep end, which I think is really important. Making mistakes really early on is important because it teaches you to analyze what you did wrong and to do your homework before a job. The more prep you do the more relaxed you feel on the day. That was something that film school students had no idea about. Learning that while I was studying meant I hit the ground running when I started working.
Mentors are important too. The industry is full of jaded people who will all tell you how difficult it is to have a career in the industry. So when you do meet people who inspire you or can offer useful advice in the job you plan to make your career – hold onto them. They will be your lifeline on jobs where you’re doing something you haven’t done before. I shadowed 1st AC Derrick Peters, who is a mentor and good friend to this day.
I started at a time when sharing information wasn’t the done thing. Everyone was terrified you would steal their jobs. I was lucky enough to meet some focus pullers and 2nd AC’s who were happy to advise on technical questions, but for the most part I had to read camera manuals front to back. So it’s really nice to see that now with something like focuspullersatwork we have a platform to share information and ask questions.
The biggest thing that will help you as an AC will be having the confidence to ask for a camera test. It will help you to figure out how to use any equipment you are new to and the people at the rental house will help you out too. I am always amazed by the number of ACs who don’t prep at all. It makes you messy and disorganized on the day of the shoot.
As my jobs got bigger, the amount of kit we had to keep track of increased. I found it essential to call the DP before the job to talk through the shot list, the storyboard and the treatment. It’s important to read those documents and start thinking about what you need for the job. Then call the DOP again and talk through what kit you will need. Remember the DOP isn’t thinking of all the accessories and brackets that you need to rig the camera. They have so many other things their attention is focused on. So it’s up to you to fill the blanks on any list he creates.
My final piece of advice to starting ACs, is be positive and enthusiastic but also grounded. When I was a 2nd AC I worked for lots of miserable focus pullers. I know it’s a hard job but I didn’t want to be that way. So when I started working as a 1st AC I made a point of being as approachable and amenable as possible. It’s also important to control the urge to rush when people are asking you to work quickly. Be grounded and calm. Rushing leads to accidents. Accidents hurt your reputation.
There are no shortcuts to getting good at something. You have to want to put the hours in.
What was the biggest project you have worked on, or you are most proud of?
The thing that drives me is not really the size of the project. I have always been driven by the energy of the people involved. I like working with positive and motivating DPs and Directors who have found a way to speak through imagery.
I really enjoy live music shoots where you get to capture a performance that is unique. We have done shoots with people like Dua Lipa and Drake and Coldplay. I really enjoyed shooting car commercials too for people like VW, Jaguar, Mclaren, and Ken Block.
Who inspired you the most during your career?
I’m a bit of a film nerd so that is really hard to answer. It all started with me watching thousands of hours of films. In my first two years at university, I watched the entire VHS and DVD library. I started looking up the names of the DOPs who had shot the films I had watched more than once. If you’re watching a film and get lost in it, to the point that you forget you are watching a film, then that’s inspiring to me. Conrad Hall, John Bailey, Dante Spinotti, Douglas Socombe, Sean Bobbit and obviously Roger Deakins. The list is very long. I could go on and on.
At Camerimage you seem to have a unique network not only with the organizers. How are you involved with the Camerimage festival?
I think my first Camerimage was in 2008. So I’ve been going for 12 years. It’s a very personal festival for me because I’m half Polish.
Half of my family are from Lodz, the city where the festival was taking place the first year that I went as a film student. It’s a festival that becomes your home away from home for a week because everyone is there for the same reason: they all want to celebrate each other's cinematography.
Every year that you go you make a few more friends and I think it says a lot about the festival, that people go back every year. It is the one week a year, that they won’t miss. I don’t have any official role at the festival but as someone who speaks Polish, I became a sort of ‘fixer’ for people. Now I run a WhatsApp group for the regulars, which has over 200 members, and we also started a best Camerimage meme competition, that has been insanely popular.
For anyone in the camera department who is thinking of coming to Camerimage, I would encourage them not to hesitate. There is nowhere else in the world where you will be able to meet so many DPs, operators, gaffers, sparks, focus pullers, 2nd ACs, and directors in one place. It’s an easy way to make friends with equipment manufacturers and rentals too. It really is a unique event.
You also came up with the idea of the #cleanbuildchallenge, which people really loved and inspired. What do you think makes a clean-build and how is it beneficial during a shoot? What else do you think 1st and 2nd ACs can learn from each other through such challenges or through the FPAW platform?
As I mentioned earlier, tidiness and organization equate to less stress on the shoot day. The clean builds just came out of being organized and doing the same builds over and over at the rental houses. Trying to make them better each time.
Without social media, we wouldn’t be seeing how others are building cameras and maybe people would care less. But I have a lot of pride in my work and I like to make the camera builds as sleek as I can so they are easy to handle. I think that social media has helped up share ideas about how to rig accessories and how to run cables neatly.
With the jobs nowadays the camera might get rebuilt for steadicam, sticks, gimbal, or crane all in one day so I also think about how to keep track of all the accessories that come off and go back on again.
The best bit of advice I can give to ACs is “put the camera on your shoulder”. Hold it the way an operator would and you will immediately know what needs changing. You’ll feel what is annoying about the build. Maybe it’s the stray cables or the viewfinder is in the wrong position, or maybe it’s heavier than it needs to be. Then just trim the fat.
Which 10 Things are important to you to become a good 1st AC?
1) Always guess the distance before you measure it
2) Be tidy and organized.
3) Speak to your DP before the job.
4) PREP. For every job.
5) Always be able to see your camera operator and actor during a take.
6) Always be polite but stand up for yourself when you need time to do something like measure before a take.
7) Show up early.
8) Listen and watch before you speak: To rehearsals. To directors. To the DOP and operator. To what actor’s have to say after a take. It will make you better on the next take.
9) Delegate. You can’t be good at focus pulling if you want to do all the AC tasks yourself. Delegate to your 2nd AC and trainee. You want them to learn how to run things when you’re pulling focus.
10) Be nice to people you haven’t worked with before. It will help to expand your network. Those are the people that will book you for the next job.