6 minute read

CAMERA DEPARTMENT - Job Title: Camera Operator

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareers in Film and TelevisionCAMERA DEPARTMENT - Job Title: Cinematographer Or Director Of Photography (dp), Job Title: Camera Operator, Job Title: Steadicam Operator


Job Overview

Under the direction of the director of photography, the camera operator composes and frames the shot, and operates the motion picture camera. On smaller productions and commercials, it is not uncommon for the director of photography to also operate the camera.

Special Skills

Knowledge of cameras and lenses, light-meter readings, staging, lighting, composition, optics, and special effects is a must. Art or film schools are good preparation for anyone desiring to become a camera operator or cinematographer. Practical experience may be gained working at a motion picture camera rental company. Communication skills are also important.

Advice for Someone Seeking This Job

Serving as a production assistant is one way to gain some practical set experience and make contacts for future work. Another way to break into the business is by working for a motion picture camera rental company, where you will have an opportunity to learn about the equipment and meet camera crew members currently working on productions. Volunteer to work for free on student films and nonunion productions, music videos or commercials. In the beginning, do whatever you can to get on set where you can learn more about cameras and make contacts.

Professional Profile: Daniel L. Turrett, Camera Operator and Cinematographer

Growing up near New York City afforded Daniel Turrett an opportunity to be exposed to rich artistic achievements. From an early age, his parents took him to museums, the ballet, and other dance events, the symphony, theater, and movies. The film Citizen Kane made a lasting impression on the future filmmaker.

“I remember the first time I saw Citizen Kane: I was home sick with the measles … I was so taken by it, by the cinematography. That was the first time I realized how powerful movies could be. That interesting stories could be told.” A few years later, in a high school humanities class, Turrett was again exposed to the film, and from that point on he began to view “cinema as an art,” and began considering it as a career.

He majored in fine arts at Long Island University and learned the basic craft of filmmaking. Summers were spent working summer stock at different theaters across the country, where he built sets, was involved in lighting, and learned the craft of production design, at one point considering it as a career. Working at The Brunswick Music Theater afforded him an opportunity to work alongside actors and craftsmen from Yale University Repertory Company and Drama School. Through the experience, he gained a better understanding of how to use lighting to create moods and help tell a story, an important skill he would later apply to filmmaking.

Studying filmmaking masters like Bernardo Bertolucci and Jean-Luc Godard, and other French and Italian directors, was a motivating factor in his decision to become a filmmaker. The work of avant-garde filmmakers Stan Brakhage, Ed Emshwiller, Michael Snow, and others further solidified his desire.

“Hallelujah the Hills, Relativity, Dance, Branches—I saw these movies and I was so taken by them. The movement of avant-garde filmmaking just drove me toward wanting to be a filmmaker.”

Having made the decision to become a cameraman, after graduation he began the arduous task of finding a job, committing himself to only taking work in the film industry. “I spent a whole summer jobless, going into New York City daily and walking around with a guidebook to help me locate production companies that made TV commercials, films, and such.” Having no experience to list on a résumé, he instead left each with a letter of introduction. His diligence eventually paid off and he landed a job at The Camera Mart, one of the largest motion picture camera and equipment rental companies in New York at that time.

Working as a technician, Turrett learned about the equipment while preparing it for production companies to rent. After two years, he received a job offer from prominent photographer and commercial DP Amir Hamid to work as a staff camera assistant at his production company, Focus Films. There, Turrett had an opportunity to work with a number of illustrious commercial directors/DPs including Fred Peterman, Henry Sandbank, and Alan Dennis, to name a few. It proved an excellent training for the future cameraman. A year and a half later, he felt prepared to go out on his own as a freelance camera assistant.

What do you like least about your job?

“I hate the politics, the political stuff that has nothing to do with making movies.”Daniel Turrett

What do you love most about your job?

“I love the creative momentbeing in the moment on the set.”Daniel Turrett

To supplement his income, he taught filmmaking courses at the School of Visual Arts, initially as a substitute and eventually moving into a full time staff position for a year. Not only was it an opportunity for him to give back to the industry he was becoming part of, the preparation for teaching broadened his knowledge and further solidified his burgeoning passion for filmmaking.

For the next few years he worked on small films and numerous television commercials with directors from New York, Los Angeles, and London, most notably Elbert Budin. Best known for developing lighting styles and techniques used to photograph food, Budin was a major influence on many top cinematographers, including Turrett.

Over time, he found work as a director of photography, filming television spots for political campaigns, while continuing to serve as an assistant on feature films.

His next major career break was working with famous English cinematographer Brian West, first as an assistant, and later promoted to camera operator, on several films including Jackknife and 84 Charing Cross Road. West became and remains a mentor.

“Brian and I have been close a lot of my career. Even though he's retired, I still talk to him. He was a big influence on my career, teaching me not only about cinematography, but about the business of filmmaking, and about life in general.”

After a decade on the East Coast, Turrett relocated to Los Angeles. Almost immediately, he landed work as a camera operator on several commercials. Another break came when well-respected filmmaker Vic Armstrong (best known for his work on action films such as Gangs of New York, Charlie's Angels, The World Is Not Enough, and Tomorrow Never Dies) was sufficiently impressed by Turrett's experience with West to hire him as second unit director of photography for Universal Soldier.

“I went to Arizona for a month and photographed the second unit—amazing action footage. Vic and I became friends on that film. He has been very helpful and a big influence on my career.” Later, when Armstrong prepared to direct Joshua Tree, he again hired Turrett as cinematographer. The pair worked together a third time on Starship Troopers with Armstrong serving as second unit director and Turrett as second unit director of photography.

Over the past decade, Turrett has worked as a camera operator or cinematographer on numerous feature films, including American Buffalo, American Pie, Bad Girls, Volcano, and The X-Files, and made for television movies And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story, The Late Shift, and Running Delilah.

He also served as second unit director of photography for the critically acclaimed television series The Fugitive, which was principally shot in Seattle. Turrett was charged with filming all the location photography in places like New York, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, New Orleans, Phoenix, and San Francisco. When the series ended, he worked on a television movie for Disney, was immediately hired as second unit director of photography for the series That's Life, and went on to work on the pilot for Birds of Prey.


* “Anybody who thinks they want to become a cameraman ought to be very sure of it and focused. It's very, very competitive, so you need to be serious about it. Seize all opportunities to go to seminars and shoot on their own. Get a video camera, an old Super-8, or a camera of any kind, and go out and shoot film.”Daniel Turrett

* “Be prepared: study films and know film history, as well as knowing lenses. I'm always disturbed when I meet young kids who want to be filmmakers and they have no film history background. It's disarming to mention classic movies that we all know, and they have never heard of them. It is an important part of the process to know the history of film and to be familiar with the work of other filmmakers.”Daniel Turrett

Additional topics