On a macro level, the creative force behind the visual look of a film falls in the hands of the director and director of photography. However, there is only one person on set responsible for what falls within the four lines of the frame — the camera operator. What is a camera operator in filmmaking? The camera operator is not only responsible for what falls in frame, but also what they leave out. They have various responsibilities that help ensure that they get the shot. We’ll dive into those responsibilities and more in this article.

What is a Camera Operator

What does a camera operator do?

Within the camera department, there are quite a few players. Cinematographers, grips, best boys, and gaffers can leave you confused wondering what each might be. Before we discuss their responsibilities, let’s first define the camera operator.

CAMERA OPERATOR DEFINITION

What is a camera operator in film?

A camera operator is responsible for setting up and capturing the shot of a film, show, or other production. The camera operator handles the camera during the shoot and achieves the desired composition that tells the story in the best way possible. For this reason, they must know every specification of the camera. Camera ops are responsible for assembling, setting up, and breaking down the camera. 

Key camera operator skills:

  • Attention to detail
  • Knowledge of camera systems
  • Multitasking
  • Collaborative

Camera Operator Job Description

Camera operator vs. Cinematographer

A cinematographer, also known as a director of photography, is responsible for creating the visual look and style of a film. Cinematographers work closely with directors creating shot lists and storyboards to plan the visuals of a film.

A camera operator’s job is to achieve this look and style as dictated by the director of photography. Operators achieve this by handling and moving the camera to achieve the desired composition a specific shot. 

A camera op must be both technically and creatively savvy. They are responsible for what falls within the four lines of the frame.

Check out this interview with three of cinema’s best operators as they discuss the importance of their job.

Roundtable: The Art of the Hollywood Camera Operator

Operators collaborate with a set’s gaffer and lighting crew to achieve the predetermined shots. Some of the best cinematographers prefer to be their own operator to achieve their precise vision.

What Does a Camera Operator Do in Film?

Create the frame

The most fundamental responsibility of an operator is to look through the viewfinder during a take and create the frame of a shot. This is typically achieved through camera movement and composition.Without a camera operator, a shot would be very compromised. Let’s take a look at how the lack of an operator can completely change a scene.

What Happens to a Movie Without a Camera Operator?

You can see how impactful the actions of a camera operator are to a single shot. They help a film by using and handling the camera to serve the film’s story. Operators are often assisted by a crew of 1st and 2nd ACs who help pull focus. Grips also assist in moving rigs such as dollies during a take.

Although many shots are often shot listed by the DP and director, operators still have to have innate creative judgment for every shot.

What is a Camera Operator Responsible For?

Creative judgment

During a take, things may occur that the director and director of photography did not plan for. When actors improvise performances, camera operators must use their judgment in getting the shot. This is where anyone in the role must have a sense of creativity that achieves the director’s vision.

For example, in Joker, director Todd Phillips had Joaquin Phoenix improvise the entire bathroom dance scene. 

Joker  •  Anatomy of a Scene

When recalling this scene, cinematographer Lawrence Sher says, “I operated one of the cameras along with my “A” camera/Steadicam operator, Geoff Haley... and both of us prefer to shoot without knowing anything about what Joaquin has planned. You are actually dancing with a partner that’s leading all the time, so it was really exciting and spontaneous for us to find moments organically within the take.”

Camera Operator Job Description

Handling the camera system

Camera operators are not only responsible for handling the camera during a take, but before and after a take as well. When a day of production begins, the operator must ensure proper assembly of the camera. This means they must be able to delegate tasks.

Camera operators often delegate 1st and 2nd ACs to assemble and break down the camera. After the day wraps, the operator is responsible for making sure the camera is properly broken down and stored.

These responsibilities entail the camera operator to have a thorough understanding of the camera system’s specifications and functions. They must also be organized and prepared with whatever rigs or lenses are needed.

Check out this video of two experienced operators talking about how their day on set begins.

What is a Camera Operator Responsible For?

Being an operator means being a key player in the production of a film. They are on the front lines and in the trenches shot to shot. They must deal with the pressure of a moment with composure and use their judgment to get the shot and they are often the unsung heroes that few sets can live without.

How Much Do Camera Operators Make

How to Get Started and Salary

Getting started as an operator takes a bit of getting your foot in the door of the industry and experience working in the camera department. The best way to get your foot in the door is to network. Take on entry level roles in a camera department. This might be a camera PA who is responsible for more basic responsibilities like charging batteries, camera logs, etc. 

Working your way into the camera department can help you climb the ladder into a 2nd camera assistant, 1st camera assistant, and so on until you’re approached with an opportunity to work as an operator.

Some resources to consider when looking for camera operator jobs are Craigslist, Indeed, and Glassdoor to find camera department jobs. 

Once you start working as an operator, the average camera operator salary according to Salary.com is $86,000. Keep in mind, a starting salary can be lower when first starting. This is also a gig-to-gig role which will also affect an operator's typical salary.

Up Next

What Does a Cinematographer Do?

Next up in the chain of command on set is the cinematographer. Cinematographers are largely responsible for how a film looks. How do they achieve this and what do they consider when creating a film? Find out in our next article.

Up Next: Cinematographers Explained →
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  • Kyle DeGuzman graduated from San Diego State University with a Bachelor of Science in Television, Film, & New Media. He currently resides in Denver, Colorado spending his time writing, filmmaking, and traveling.

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