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CAMERA DEPARTMENT - Job Title: First Assistant Cameraman, Assistant Cameraman, Or First Assistant 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

“The first assistant cameraman is in charge of running the department in terms of ordering cameras and equipment needed, checking in the equipment, setting it up, and making sure it is running properly, threading the camera, and maintaining it,” says first assistant Anthony Cappello. “But our primary function is to pull focus.”

“Pulling focus” is the act of focusing the camera lens. The first assistant works closely with the camera operator, ensuring that each shot is in focus. “They are in charge of setting the aperture on the lens, the zoom, or focus—the person who is actually touching and operating the focus during the shot,” explains assistant cameraman Mark Walpole. They also oversee the second assistant camera operator and film loader. On small shoots, where there is only one assistant, they perform the duties of both assistants and the loader.

Special Skills

The first camera assistant must have a well-rounded knowledge of cameras, lenses, and light-meter readings. Additionally, Coppello credits his passion for the job as being an important part of his success. “You have to have a good attitude; you have to be passionate about what you're doing.”

“I think the best thing about my education at NYU was that all the other schools pamper their students. At NYU, the first thing they said to you was, ‘Why are you going to film school? There are no jobs out there. Everything is going to video. You guys are ridiculous.’ I thought, ‘I'm paying you $10,000 a year; aren't you supposed to teach me?’ But it made you very independent and very resilient. You had to fight to get the classes you wanted; you had to sleep overnight to register for the classes. I didn't understand it then, but it taught me some of the persistence that this business requires. You're going to get turned down a lot. It's not an easy business to get in and there is a lot of rejection, but if you stick it out, the people that work in this business, work in this business.”

Advice for Someone Seeking This Job

“Ninety percent of the people in this business start out as production assistants,” says Cappello. “Basically, you are a gofer and you do whatever you have to do: get coffee, wrangle chairs, whatever they need you to do. All shows have them and all shows need them. You get paid a flat salary. You meet a lot of people. That's how you start.”

Working as a PA affords an opportunity to see what each person's role on set is and to better determine what career path you want to follow. “PA to see how the whole process works. Watch and figure out what you want to do.”

Another inroad to the camera department can be through working at an equipment rental house. “Go in and offer to help them on preps—which are the two-week period before a feature—that's where you learn what we need.

“If you want to be in camera, learn about it. Get books. Read. Understand it. Get set experience—you get set experience by working as a PA.”

Professional Profile: A. Anthony Cappello, First Assistant Camera

“I got into the business because I love motion pictures,” states Anthony Cappello. “I think movies have a lot to say. It's a great way to communicate to a large audience.”

Cappello also had a love for still photography. The New York native attended Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), possibly the best still photography school in the country. Pressured by his parents to take business classes, he changed his emphasis to motion picture photography and enrolled in film school at New York University (NYU). “I thought it was more specialized and less competitive—silly me.”

Before graduating in 1984, he served an internship at Silvercup Studios. Through the internship he made contacts that led to becoming a production assistant and then a location assistant. With no relatives in the business and no contacts within the camera union, he realized early on that it would be difficult to become a cinematographer. Initially, he told no one he wanted to work in the camera department and instead used the opportunity to be on set to watch and learn.

When The Equalizer television series began crewing up, a producer offered Cappello the job of location manager, with the promise of making him the production manager by mid-season. “It was an unbelievable offer.” Knowing this might lead him further away from his goal of getting into the camera department, Cappello turned down the job, confessing that he had been trying for four years to get into the camera union. Then he asked if he could work as a camera production assistant instead. The producer sent him to the first camera assistant for approval.

“I went to the first assistant and said, ‘I know nobody in this business. I can't get in the union. This is my break. If you let me, I won't touch anything. I'll get you coffee; whatever you want.” The assistant agreed and Cappello was hired as the camera PA, earning $300 a week. “That was my big break. For six months, I touched no equipment. I watched and basically got them food. And, I was happy to do it.” Eventually he was allowed to slate camera reports and fetch lenses.

When he went for his third interview with the union just to get an application, cinematographer Geoffrey Erb called and told them to give Cappello an application. After passing the written and practical tests, and paying a $4,000 entrance fee, he was admitted into the union in 1987.

An added benefit to his season on The Equalizer was making contacts that lead to future jobs. The show often used multiple cameras and rotated the multiple assistants weekly. Consequently, Cappello met numerous potential future employers. He used the opportunity to demonstrate his dependability and willingness to work hard. “Once I was in the union, I let those people know and I started getting hired.”

His first union feature was Running on Empty, directed by Sidney Lumet. “I couldn't believe I was doing a show with the guy who directed Dog Day Afternoon and a thousand other wonderful films.” He continued to work as a second assistant on features such as Cadillac Man, Married to the Mob, and Jacob's Ladder.

What do you like least about your job?

“My least favorite things are egos and politics in the business.”Anthony Cappello

What do you love most about your job?

“I like that it's different all the time,” says Cappello. He also loves that the job affords him an opportunity to experience a variety of careers. “We work in a library sometimes, so I get to see what a librarian does. We work in a law office and I get to see what the lawyers do. We work in a hospital and you learn about the medical profession. You get a little taste of everyone's job.”Anthony Cappello

A friend recommended Cappello for a commercial job working for cinematographer John Schwartzman. Cappello mentioned his growing desire to relocate west, and Schwartzman told him to call if he came out. The summer before moving, Cappello went out to L.A. and worked on several commercials and music videos with Schwartzman. While there, he networked into an offer to work as first assistant on the pilot for Beverly Hills 90210. “I didn't take it because it was a nonunion gig for a flat rate. That show went on for seven years. That opportunity would never have happened in New York. So I realized I had to come out.”

In 1992, he relocated to Los Angeles and found work immediately. Hooking up with cinematographer Mac Ahlberg, he worked on three features: Innocent Blood, My Boyfriend's Back, and Striking Distance. Ahlberg promoted him to first assistant for the television movie The Late Shift, followed by the feature A Very Brady Sequel.

Volcano was the next big break for Cappello. “It was my first big budget feature. A DP I had never worked with, Theo van de Sande, gave me an opportunity to first. He is the director of photography that I have worked with the longest. I've done eight features with Theo.” Those credits include: Blade, Cruel Intentions, Double Take, High Crimes, and the television film Tuesdays with Morrie.

In between, Cappello worked on three Barry Levinson films: Disclosure, Liberty Heights, and Bandits, and the television series pilot Birds of Prey. He is currently working on the Adam Sandler picture Anger Management.


* “You have to channel what you want to do early on in your career because you get pigeon-holed very easily … You start in an area, you do a good job, people like you, and you get rehired in that positionyou get hired, and you get hired, and you get hired. It's a bigger show and a bigger director and a bigger actor. You just keep getting better jobs, and before you know it, time flies and it's seven years, and you're in a profession that you never wanted. You've got to channel yourself in the direction you want to be: If you want to do feature films, get into feature films; if you want to do commercials, do commercials; if you want to do TV, do TV; and if you want to do camerawork, try to get your way into camera early on.”Anthony Cappello

* “While you're working as a production assistant, befriend everybody. Never have attitudenever have attitude and you'll never piss anybody off. Everyone will like you and when you need a break, when you need a favorwhich everyone doessomeone will give it to you.”Anthony Cappello

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