Whether it’s filming a major musical number or epic action sequence, camera operators are responsible for the media audiences consume.
Camera operator Mitch Dubin’s 17th film with director Steven Spielberg is the upcoming “West Side Story.” The musical presented Dubin with opportunities to harness new techniques, such as wearing an earpiece to listen to the score while filming.
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“Normally, you take your cues visually, but in a dance film like [this] if I wait for the visuals of a dancer leaping in the air, I would be late,” explains Dubin. “I had to have the music to understand exactly when [to move and focus].”
Dubin, who has been recognized as Camera Operator of the Year and a Lifetime Achievement Award winner by the Society of Camera Operators, says the job requires “being in sync with the actors, understanding the emotional content of every lens [and] the storytelling perspective of every position.”
Camera operators are typically given the first and final positions of a take, but everything in between is up to them. “It’s making intuitive decisions, 24 frames a second,” Dubin notes. “It’s me during that shot, and it’s my decisions, instinct and intuition that create those frames.”
Geoffrey Haley, also a SOC Camera Operator of the Year award winner, harnesses those same skills in the niche field of steadicam operator.
The Tom Holland starrer “Cherry” presented Haley with the challenge of creating one continuous shot in a scene with a Humvee convoy that covered over a mile of ground.
Haley worked with a drone operator to fashion a solution. He was costumed for the scene and embedded with the actors. As a drone flew a specified path, when the camera needed to be closer, the pilot would power down the rotors and Haley would “grab the drone [from midair] and push it within a foot or two of the actors to play out the scene, moving it around as if it were a steadicam.”
Then, Haley would release the drone and the pilot would regain control so the uninterrupted shot is actually a series of smooth catch and release movements.
“The decision to do the shot like that was born out of us showing up on the day thinking [about] how can we show this massive scale and then go into some very emotional private moments, all in the same shot,” explains Haley.
Haley also utilized the same technique on the upcoming “Fast 9”.
Though the drone has gyro stabilization gear, it’s Haley’s technique and skill that allowed for the shots, similar to when he wears the steadicam rig. Haley notes that it’s a matter of learning to use the rig in conjunction with your own body mechanics that creates the perfect framing, not the equipment alone.
There’s no union rate for steadicam operators, yet the skill is so specialized that top crew can earn double the camera operators’ scale.
Of course, without the cameras and the talent behind them, there would be nothing to watch. Says Dubin, “that moment of creation is happening right where you are.”
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