As a camera assistant, most jobs you’ll get will likely start with a prep day. Ideally, but not always. Before this first day of physical work, there will probably be a myriad of phone calls, messages, and emails between yourself and the powers that be about what is expected of the camera and yourself/the camera department on the shoot day(s). Those conversations, with any luck, will culminate in you showing up at the rental house with all the gear you need for the job pulled and ready for testing and assembly. There is really nothing more satisfying that seeing all the equipment you detailed needing printed on the gear list and lined up ready for prep at the rental house.
In many cases however, circumstances prior to prep are not ideal, and the people you need to speak to are unavailable, or not yet hired. Decisions you need made are still being debated, locations still being scouted, and shot lists still being imagined. Sometimes a rental house might give up a job or lose it to a competitor last minute. You will have to show up, having not gotten to talk to your rental agent, with a partial or base package pulled. You don’t always get the ideal jobs- and often you will find yourself in front of a less than adequate package trying to decide how to best prep the job vs just prepping the gear waiting for you at the rental house in the prep bay.
The best example I can give of the difference between prepping the job and prepping the bay comes from the day I learned that lesson on set- the hard way. If you’re lucky in this business, all your jobs will have a prep day. If you’re very lucky, you’ll have so many jobs you won’t be able to make it to all your prep days and you’ll need to send a trusted colleague in your stead.
This is what happened to me on this occasion. I was working a show that ran Monday through Friday and I picked up a weekend gig that prepped the Friday before. The DP was a good friend of mine, we had done many such projects before so he was fine with me missing prep and just turning up for the shoot. These jobs were almost exclusively handheld, on ez-rig, with uncoated vintage lenses that opened to a 1.3. They required wireless lens control as well as wireless video for the operator to have full range of motion for the floating effect the director was building his “look” on. The director would need a wireless handheld monitor and there was also a strange stock of filters the DP used to create the look he and the director had used in the past that they were trying to emulate again on this project.
I had been in contact with the rental agent. He had done our previous jobs and had a basic package to pull. I cc’d the person replacing me at prep as well as my 2nd on all these emails so they would know what to expect at prep. I also called and spoke to my replacement on the phone. This person had worked with me in a b camera capacity in the past several times and knew how I worked and had seen enough of my camera builds to know what I’d be doing on the shoot day.
Friday rolled around and I felt good, the last quote seemed to have everything on it save a few odds and ends that I emailed my replacement about to make sure they knew to double check they got added. During the prep the DP called my replacement to add another lens, a studio zoom, because some product shots had been added that needed a cleaner look and to save time he wanted a zoom over a second set of primes. My replacement added the lens and a 6x6 matte box to cover it. They called to tell me about the late addition, and said everything went well and they were done and headed home.
Saturday I arrived to the set and found a fully built studio camera, 4 on board batteries, 4 blocks, a 1:1 wireless video system and a very large and bulky Preston build on the oddly balanced camera. I figured my replacement ended on the studio zoom build and sent my 2nd to look for the rest of the batteries, and hand-held accessories while I began shearing weight from the build. He returned empty handed.
I called the person who covered me at prep and asked where the batteries were, the shark fin and spider grips? They said “none of that stuff was in the bay when I got there so I figured you didn’t need it.” Though I had said multiple times on the phone and in email it was an all handheld show and to make sure there was a solid handheld build. Luckily the ez-rig had been in the bay when they got there so we still had that.
While the bizarre filters did make it to set, they only came in 4x5 and there were no step-down trays for the 6x6 matte box so when we went to use the studio zoom even adding NDs was an arts and crafts project. When I texted to ask if there was a set of 6x6 filters I just didn’t see (as things had been packed in a way I found confusing and inefficient, how it had been brought to the prep bay by the prep tech) they said “they weren’t on the order and none came with the zoom so they figured you didn’t need them with that lens.” Needless to say, there were countless other “little things” wrong with the order. We were able to muddle through our weekend job but it made me look bad, and more importantly, slowed us down- making the DP and our whole department look bad.
Ultimately, I knew that I had no one to blame but myself. It was my job, and my prep and I should have been there. The experience really hammered home the importance of physically being there myself or, if that was impossible, finding someone who understood the importance of “prepping the job” (getting and testing all the gear for what the actual shoot situation and shots needed) and not merely “prepping the bay” (prepping only the equipment that showed up in the bay the day of prep no questions asked).
Of course, this concept isn’t just for when you are prepping a job for someone else, or having someone cover you. It also serves as a good mantra for your own jobs, especially the difficult ones where the people who you’re supposed to be supporting aren’t very forthcoming with information. We’ve all had that job where they’re scouting the same day you’re prepping, so no one has any answers for you all day but they definitely need to know when you’ll be ready for the truck to get there. In those situations, it can be easy to just save everyone the money and yourself some time, and take the base package that lands in the bay. However, you might be able to save yourself from looking the fool, and possibly the DPs ass, if you exercise this mantra and add a few things that give you more flexibility for whatever the job might throw at you.
Often explaining to production how little information you have, and the various situations you’re trying to be prepared for, that you are, in fact, trying to prep for a job of unknowns, can soften the blow of the overages on the quoted package.
I’ve been called a hoarder by some of my 2nds. That’s ordinarily at the prep day during season 1 of the first longer run project they do with me. Usually by prep of season 2 I’m the one talking them down from taking 3 cases of “just in case” gear. I’ll often build a camera that on the surface is not ideal for any one configuration and they question it. The first time we have to go from handheld on a prime to a full studio zoom on tripod in the time it takes a cam to slate they realize I prepped for speed between configurations. So my build might not be the best studio build or the best handheld build, but the job needs us to be able to go from the handheld shot the DP thought he wanted while we were rehearsing to the studio zoom shot the director “thought we were doing” without the ADs noticing we were completely rebuilding the camera or stopping the roll because everyone's on thin ice this episode because we’re massively over budget.
Knowing what the job is, what the job needs, and prepping for it is what will bring you back season after season.