Seven Tips for Maintaining a Cam Op’s Most Valuable Asset

Those who work in production are conditioned to promote themselves as invincible in ordered to be a desirable pick for any crew. We scoff in the face of an eight hour work day, demanding a minimum of 12. We live off of La Croix and Gummies, and we combine arduous manual labor with the creation of art in the name of storytelling. With all of that as our baseline, we are led to believe that should we slip up, there is a host of 20-something former AAA athletes waiting to take our places, who will do our jobs better and faster.

There is a consistent pressure to perform above and beyond, and we respond with a desire to push ourselves beyond our limits. However, that push can have long lasting side effects on one’s health and could in some cases, even end a career.  Unlike many other creative professions, crew members, especially those who work in the camera and G&E departments, truly have one essential and irreplaceable asset: a healthy body.

©Graham Sheldon 2019

As a Director of Photography, I’m not always necessarily operating, but like many, I still get a lot of joy out of pressing my own face against an eyepiece, and I’ve spent years wielding a camera for myself and others. There is an unmatchable connection to the capture of subject and story that can be found nowhere outside the viewfinder. At the beginning of my career, the thrill of that connection often distracted me from taking care of myself.  When I was shooting in places like Chernobyl, Mongolia, and the deserts of Peru, I care way too much about the shot and way too little about hydration. Now that my body is a little older (and admittedly a little less agile), I’ve found that taking care of my health and giving my all to a project are not mutually exclusive, but rather intrinsically interlinked. I’m not a doctor, but here is a bit of advice from years spent roughing it in the field.

1) Self Awareness & Prevention of Fatigue

This one seems obvious, but give me a riveting subject or a jam-packed schedule, and I can quickly forget to check in with how my body is holding up. Deep focus is an attractive quality in a crew member, but sometimes you’re so focused on making a gorgeous image, you’re doing damage that you won’t feel until you hear “Cut! Print.”

Stay aware and check in.  What have you been ignoring?  Did you feel a little tweak in your shoulder?  Adjust your position. How often are you drinking water? Don’t wait until a headache hits to hydrate. Ask an AC or a PA to hand you a bottle of water in between takes. You’ll automatically take a drink, and this will help stave off fatigue. (It doesn’t hurt to pay this forward whenever you can.) When was the last time you sat down? Can you have the conversation you’re having while sitting on an applebox?  Do that. It doesn’t make you tough to muscle through and refuse rest; it makes you a liability. Have you done 6 takes and feel a bit tight? Take 10 seconds and stretch out your chest or your quad or whatever might be talking to you and then get back in the game. 12 hour days are not made for sprinters.

©Graham Sheldon 2019

2) Physical Conditioning

Listen, I like cake. I’m not about to tell you to develop an addiction to crossfit, but it’s a simple fact that this is a physical job. Your health affects your ability to do it well.  In the past, I have been all too guilty of letting fitness go during long shoots. I’ve always justified that choice with the amount of movement required to do the work.  “My apple watch says I took 20,000 steps today, so I’m good.” As I mentioned before, this job is a combination of manual labor and artistry. If you can’t get the composition you want because of muscle fatigue, then your lack of physical conditioning is an obstacle to your artistic growth. If you don’t like it, switch to a less physical department. Good luck finding one; maybe they need some help in accounting.

This isn’t to say you need to be some kind of Xena or Spartacus to do this job, but you should try to be at your personal best. Fitness is a shield against injury and makes you a more reliable coworker. Cardio builds stamina, so don’t neglect it, and strength train to support the lifting aspect of the work. Most importantly: sleep, sleep, sleep.

In addition, recognize where you may need to create balance when you’re not on the clock. You may operate camera on your right shoulder, but you need to train both sides to stay balanced and safe. You may need to even overcompensate on the side you don’t use.  I’ll say this again in a moment, but this is where a trainer really is a key player. Even if it’s just a once a month  consult to get advice for what you should be doing on your own.

3) Form

Just like weight lifting or any physical movement, there is good form and bad form.  Not sure what good form in camera operation looks like? Seek out advice from someone who has studied kinesiology or at least a personal trainer. Show them the kind of movement you do on a regular basis, and ask for help. You may have to relearn a lot of what you think you know, but you’ll be preventing injury, and extending the shelf life of your career.

If your assistants, PAs, or interns are occasionally taking BTS photos of your department, take stock of your form, and use that information to stay on top of your best practices. If your posture is horrendous, fix it.

You may even consider taking an intensive (such as a week long submersive course) at the basic level in some sort of physical discipline. Seek out programs in weight lifting, yoga, or martial arts, and you will be surprised at how learning more about how your physiology works can assist and improve your operation at work. As a general rule, keep your tummy tight and your joints at 90 degree angles or greater.

©Graham Sheldon 2019

4) Intelligent Rigging

TLDR: Rig your gear to support your form.

One side effect of the DSLR revolution is that we went from having well-balanced shoulder cameras to having stills cameras rigged like cinema cameras in less than ergonomic shapes.  Fast forward a few years and we enter the camera body cubist period (looking at you RED/Alexa Mini)– fantastic flexibility to be configured any way the heart desires. However, a lot of those hearts desire something familiar, an evolution of their less than ergonomic DSLR cluster-rig. In other words, much of this tech-boom freedom has led to poor rigging or operating habits that are unhealthy.

Personally, I have a tendency to hunch my back, rolling my shoulders forward, so that my elbow rests on my mid to low torso, which takes some of the weight of the camera out of my arms.  This is incredibly unhealthy and something I am still trying to train out of my body.

Rig-wise, I fix this by extending my grips or by adding counterweight to the rear of the camera. If you have a great AC, you can recruit their help, as well. A masterful rigger can even configure your cable management in a way that contributes to your optimum balance.

5) Support Equipment

Vests and Rigs

Depending on the weight of your rig, you may find that a support vest or rig is a worthwhile investment.  Many do. However, the mindset that goes into this purchase or this rental should not be that this is a “cure-all.” If you buy a support system, it shouldn’t replace or reduce the measures you take to be at your physical best. A note on the Easyrig: I personally feel a little disconnected from the camera when I use the Easyrig, and since I stand at 6ft 2inches I have trouble moving quickly through doorways while shooting with that system. However, in instances where I am not limited by space, I appreciate the ability to transfer the camera weight from my back to my waist. There’s also no rule that says if you have one that you have to use it all the time.  Spend a few extra dollars ($150 or so) to trick out your Easyrig with a quick release.

©Graham Sheldon 2019

Shoulder Pads

Everyone needs to have a certain level of padding on their shoulder while shooting, and most shoulder rigs don’t have enough in my opinion. I prefer a great deal of padding to cushion the camera against my bony shoulders. Alan Gordon makes a wonderful shoulder pad called the “Alan Gordon Enterprises Camera Comfort Cushion” with two included pads for $59.95. I go with the thicker shoulder pad. You may take a few jabs from the rest of the camera team when you wear this “comfort cushion,” but once they try it out, they’ll shut up and ask you where you got it.

Letus35 also makes a subtler shoulder pad that attaches directly to your camera shoulder rig by using velcro or you can simply double bongo tie the pad in place and it stays put for the most part. This is a more expensive solution at $159.95, but it feels like you have a little memory foam pillow on your shoulder. For days when I’m handheld a majority of the time, I tend to go with Alan Gordon, but for short scenes in between lots of tripod operating, I keep the Letus35 attached to my rig. Both options are great, and they’ve eliminated the shoulder pain I used to experience at the end of a long day.

6) Viewfinder Placement

This is an extension/combination of rigging and form. Occasionally when I’m using an electronic viewfinder, I crane my neck to move my head towards the EVF. This is a result of my moving quickly and not taking the time to switch up my camera build to maintain ergonomically friendly operation. Repercussion? Sore neck and headaches. After enough abuse at my own hand,  I spent the time and money to get the correct accessories, so the EVF (or monitor) is in the right place for me.

To get it in the right position for you: remember you want your eyes and head resting at neutral, so your spine is in optimal alignment. Look up the dangers of anterior head carriage, and it will scare you into making the necessary effort to put your viewfinder in the right place.

For even the strangest body style cameras, brands like Wooden Camera, Zacuto, ARRI and Redrock Micro have a solution to get your monitor to the perfect spot. Go to a large retailer and test different build configurations. As a luxurious bonus, buy a soft eyecup cover for your EVF. They are infinitely more comfortable and easier to clean then the stock plastic eye cups that come with the camera body.

©Graham Sheldon 2019

7) Conserve Energy

This tip regards your time between setups.

Move with purpose. There is almost never a case when running on a set is a good idea. That doesn’t mean to saunter about.  (I definitely wouldn’t hire you if you do.) However, you can have a pep in your step when grabbing batteries without creating a frenzy, trying to show us all how much time you’re saving. You’re actually just causing stress to your own body and definitely to the rest of us who have to be around you. This is also a good time to mention:  keep deodorant in your bag, okay?  Again, it’s for the rest of us who have to be around you.

One of my favorite grips of all time repeatedly calls out, “Put it on wheels!” in any given day. I’ve internalized that advice to encompass,”Work smarter, not harder,” and I encourage you to let it be a personal motto.  How can you figuratively, but also literally, put it on wheels?  Any case on set that doesn’t have built-in wheels should always be transported on a cart. Don’t waste energy when you don’t have to.  If you see someone going back and forth with peli-cases, do them a favor and direct them toward some wheels.  If you don’t own one already, get yourself a multi-cart to have just in case. Even if you just loan it to a PA to transport backpacks, you’ll make some fast friends.  Look out for the health of your fellow crew, and you will find that accountability for self care is contagious.

Local 600 has some great resources available HERE. What I don’t see out there are resources for maintaining long-term personal safety and job security.  There’s more we can do to prevent onset injury than “just lifting with our legs.” No disrespect intended, but your producers, pm’s, department heads, etc, aren’t going to take or encourage these measures for you. They’ll simply replace you when you don’t take them for yourself. Maybe they’ll send you a get well text or a gift certificate to some IV bar.

If I ever decide I don’t want to shoot anymore, I want that choice to come from honest desire and not from physical limitation.  Hopefully, staying true to these 7 tips will keep me hefting those 30+ pound rigs for as many decades as I choose.

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