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FREELANCER TIPS: Advice to Camera Operators

By September 7, 2012 No Comments
Adam Bennett camera operator with kit

Hello. I’m a producer. I work with talented, reliable video production crew. Part of my job is to look for freelancers I haven’t worked with before, test them with small, paid jobs, and then zealously hire them as my crew for as many productions as I can. Once I’ve found a good egg, I’ll happily pass their details to other producers I work with, because having a good crew is wasted if I can’t be a reliable source for the industry.

As such, I have a good idea of what is required of a freelance camera operator. I’m often asked for advice by guys and gals just starting out, or at a turning point in their careers. I’d like to share some of it with you. I hope it helps.

Get Your Showreel Cut and Get It Out There

This is number one. You’ll come up with a million excuses not to: the shots aren’t good enough, you need to transfer footage off other drives, you need to conform the media, you’re waiting for the director to give you the DVD. None of these reasons are good enough. Put together what you have and get it out NOW! You can update it later, but right now, you’re far less impressive without a reel.

We need it to see what you can do, and even a weak reel is better than no reel at all. I’ve looked at reels that were obviously just the two short films the student did at school – but the camera work showed promise. Without seeing the actual work you do, I have no way of judging where you are in your skill set. Once I’ve seen your reel, a chat will clear up all the other stuff. Your work is most important. Cut it and get it out there!

Spread it Around, You Nasty Thing

You have to promote yourself. That’s probably the hardest thing for you. You’re behind the camera. You like playing with lights and codecs and lenses. You’re Australian. You don’t like big-noting yourself. I get that, but here’s the thing: if I’m in a room with two camera operators, and I need them immediately to shoot something just outside, the one who tells me, “I’m really good,” will get the job, while the one who shuffles his feet stays behind.

It’s the same with the Internet. When producers, directors or agencies are on the prowl, they’ll go through a hot mess of reels and websites. The ones that stand out as being confident tell us that there must be talent behind that confidence. If it’s hollow bravado, that’ll be worked out very quickly anyway.

You might be worried that you’re good, but not good enough. That’s fine too, because if you’re a solid operator put out of your depth, you’ll come out better in the end. So put your damn hand up and say, “I’m a good camera operator.” Own it!

Specialise

There’s nothing less convincing than a business card that reads

Leslie Dixon
DOP, Editor, Director, Lighting, Motion Graphics, Plumber

I’m going to cut to the chase and use a cliche: jack of all trades, master of none. I’m looking for a camera operator to shoot an ad or a TV show or a corporate event. I try to work with the best, so I can provide my clients with the best. The best work gets the best pay. So I need to know you are focused only on cameras. You read about them when you’re on the train. You’re working towards an ACS. You can bamboozle me with the latest camera advances and chip sizes. You specialise in camera operating. One day I won’t be able to afford you because you’re so specialised in camera operating, you’re known as one of the best.

We all start off wearing multiple hats. I did, but at some point, you have to decide to specialise. It might seem wise to offer me both cam op and editor in the same package. Nope. If I want an editor, I’ll go find an editor who specialises in editing, because that person’s going to be better at it than you. Because you’re a camera operator.

Charge Appropriately and Objectively

When you’re about to send a producer your biggest quote to date, you feel nervous. They’re going to reject it! It’s too much! So you change it, reduce costs, take the hit on gear, or work half a day for free.

You dummy!

What to charge can be tough, but there’s a basic rule I learnt from a ring-in teacher when I was at RMIT. Think about your cost of living. Do a rough calculation of your rent, groceries, bills, all your regular expenses for a year. Now, think about how much money you’d reasonably like for fun each week. Add that to your yearly total. Now add 9% (12% now) for superannuation. What do you have? OK, that’s your ideal yearly wage.

Now say you were working four days a week as a camera operator. That’s 208 days. Divide your ideal yearly wage by 208. That’s what you should be earning.

It’s a good start, but I would mix that with research. Look up other camera operator rates online, or ask producer friends how much other operators are charging, roughly (no names!). Now, be as objective about your skill level as you can be and see how you stack up. Note: generally, most people think they’re worse than they really are.

Charge a daily rate and maybe a half day rate for you. Don’t charge half day rates for your gear – once it’s out, it’s out for the day. Stick to these figures and use them first and foremost.

When you send that large quote, stay true to your convictions. If that’s what it will cost, based on your regular rate, then that’s what it will cost. Don’t pre-empt a no. Wait for it. If it doesn’t come, you just made a great sale. If it does, negotiate! If they don’t want to negotiate, you didn’t lose all that much, did you?

Hope That Helped

I hope this is useful to you. Maybe some of it, maybe all of it. If it helps the tiniest bit, then our whole industry is the better for it. Now go shoot something, and send me your reel!

UPDATE: There’s a companion post to this one, HOW A FREELANCER CAN GET WORK WITH THE X GENE. If you found this useful, check it out.

Simon J. Green is the owner of The X Gene and a producer of six years. Before The X Gene, he ran Green Rabbit, whose office in Docklands saw a regular rotation of camera operators he works with to this day. He’s produced TV shows, corporate videos, TVCs and every niche of video in between – always relying on camera ops to do the shooting.