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Old November 12th, 2005, 06:09 PM   #1
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resume value of formal steadicam training/career paths/IATSE Local 600

I've finally truly nearly had it with my freelance computer work career (which I've been doing successfully for 6 or 7 years now).

I want to get a camera job here in LA, but I feel like I can't deal with the normal path of being an assistant for several years. I just can't deal with the politics of the entertainment industry. I know how to set a frame (in all humility, I have an "eye"), and I genuinely love operating.

I would like to chart a career path where I can make enough money to be able to work on my own projects as well. From what I understand, steadicam operating is specialized and difficult; having a hard skill that cannot be trumped by politics is extremely attractive to me.

My question is, is there any steadicam training that seems to have direct career value? What about the role of the union in all of this? Everything I have heard about the union makes me feel very suspicious--suspicious that, as with the larger entertainment industry, politics can (and regularly do) trump merit. Because I wasn't particularly blessed with the politics gene, I am trying to chart a course where I can leapfrog the usual promotion path and begin operating immediately (instead of being a 2nd assistant for a year, something which would burn me out and I simply wouldn't be successful at it--based on my experiences so far).

I'm trying to do searches on steadicam training and so on, but I'm not making much headway.
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Old November 12th, 2005, 06:31 PM   #2
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Hey Steve, I can’t comment for the American way of doing things, but there is a reason why you become an assistant. You have to learn the craft; you will find it very hard to just start operating successfully without any previous experience in the industry.
You may think you know how to "set a frame" but there is much more to it than that.
I think you would be naive if you thought you could just jump into the job with a quick training course.

Operators tend to have experience as assistants and regular camera ops before they progress onto Steadicam and there is a reason for this...
It may seem like a good idea, but I would be surprised if it worked out for you.


But to answer your question:

Tiffen do training courses, so do Pro, and there are a few other people doing them.

Check over at www.steadicamforum.com under training courses. None will give you a “fast track” route to success.

-Rick.
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Old November 13th, 2005, 12:42 AM   #3
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That's good advice from Richard, and I'll second it. But I'd also like to add that you sound like you have some anger issues, Steve. Maybe not, but that's the way you come across to me. Sorry to be the bringer of bad news, but communication skills are part of the job.

That said, if you are some kind of brilliant operator, then you won't have any trouble getting work once people see your reel. You do have a reel don't you? No? Oh. Well anyway, there is a lot of non-union work in Los Angeles (and elsewhere), so the union business will take care of itself when it's time. You can make a good living doing non-union work, and you will meet a lot of people. The secret of this business? Networking.

In the meantime, you can check out the Steadicam classes offered in Rockport, Maine. Not a suggestion, just passing info. There are already a LOT of Steadicam operators out there. Not a warning, just passing info.

Wayne Orr, SOC
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Old November 13th, 2005, 03:02 AM   #4
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Steve, to expand on what the others said:

I'm unclear on why you think that being a Steadicam operator is an apolitical job? There are plenty of politics involved. All of the successful operators I know are political beings to a certain degree. It's not a dirty word, it's just what makes sense--to be asked back, you have to be more than just talented, you have to make your bosses look good too. Any DP will look for the basics when hiring a Steadicam operator: they need to show up, have functional gear and can configure it quickly (and troubleshoot it in case it goes down), get the shot done quickly and efficiently and make it all look easy. Beyond that, some DP's like an operator who just keeps their mouth shut and works tirelessely; others prefer a collaborator who might have great ideas to bring to the table and can orchestrate the move with the actors, the extras and the rest of the crew.

Any time that your job requires you to interact with actors who are at a certain level, it's all about politics like you wouldn't believe. Some are really easy, others require very careful handling. Here's two stories that illustrate the role of politics in A-list Steadicam operating, one that worked out and one that didn't (neither of them happened to me, incidentally!)

The scene involved a pretty hefty Steadicam move and a significant page count. During the scene the lead actress had an emotional monologue which led to a crying outburst at the end. The director opted not to rehearse the scene to keep the performances fresh. The operator took the actress aside and told her, "it'll probably be a few takes before I get the move down, so you might want to save the crying part for a useable take". The actress went straight to the producer and told him "the f**ing Steadicam operator is telling me how to act". Guess who got sent home at lunch. The operator had the best of intentions, wanting to help out the actress, but he approached it in the wrong way and paid the price.

On another show, the shot required backing up through several doorways. As each take progressed, the actor started picking up speed and at a certain point the operator felt he wouldn't be able to keep enough distance between them. He approached the actor and said "listen, I wonder if you can help me figure this out--jeez, I just don't know how to solve this. I just can't seem to get through these doors fast enough." The actor grinned and said "hey, no problem, that's an easy fix. I'll just slow down!" And so he did. Now, if the operator had taken the approach of the other guy in the previous story, he might have said "can you slow down coming through the doors?" and that same actor may well have said "I'll be coming at whatever speed I come at, you're just gonna have to keep up with me".

For better or worse, that's the way it is--they are the ones making the $20 million paycheck, and you have to keep them happy to keep your job.


As far as skipping the assisting route, what I can tell you about that from the perspective of someone who spent very little time assisting and starting operating at an early age is that it can indeed be done, but you had better keep your eyes and ears open to learn all about the responsibilities of everyone in the department--you don't have to be able to jump in and do their jobs, but you MUST understand what they do and why they do it or you will have a really hard time fitting in and gaining the respect of the assistants. Realize that the first assistant in particular is likely to have a long relationship with the DP, and even though they are nominally working under you, they can very efficiently bury you with the DP if you cross them (more politics, babe!). That can be as simple as enthusiastically selling a shot to the director or DP that is extraordinarily difficult to pull focus on, or rushing them through a reload, or in particular blaming them in front of everyone if something goes wrong (one infamous operator who doesn't work that much any more is legendary for spinning the wheel of blame around the department whenever he screws up). Again, the best way to avoid this is to spend as much time on set as possible paying attention to everyone else's job.

So hopefully I've illustrate how the job can absolutely be trumped by politics. As far as what the union has to do with it, not really much in a lot of ways. If you have a card, you can work on union shows and get union benefits. In most circumstances, that's about it. Unfortunately Local 600 never added the Steadicam rate bump to their contracts, so it continues to diminish as years go by (my first union A camera/Steadicam job on a series 9 years ago paid more than any subsequent series job since). Chances are that if you started now, by the time you got into 600 and got on a show there may not be any Steadicam bump any more...it's getting sort of ugly.

In the meantime, I should point out that there are at any given time perhaps a dozen fairly new Steadicam operators with full-on equipment packages (i.e. $100,000+ investment) vying with each other for $300/day student films and ultra low budget features, trying to figure out how they will possibly pay off their loans.

However, as Wayne said it's not about scaring anyone off from getting into it. If you have an absolute passion for it, you should definitely go for it. The Tiffen workshop is a good one, generally Jerry Holway is teaching those and he's a solid teacher; usually Garrett is around and hearing his lectures is invaluable.
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Old November 13th, 2005, 05:23 PM   #5
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Thanks for a sincere and helpful response.
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Old November 13th, 2005, 07:36 PM   #6
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Something I think you may have been asking in your post which I didn't address was whether a particular workshop might have more impact on your resume over another one. I would have to say that unless the person who is hiring you is familiar with the rather obscure world of Steadicam workshops (not necessarily out of the question--a number of DP's have done the training in their past!), it will be pretty immaterial to them that you have even taken a workshop at all. The benefit comes in the fact that you have been given a solid grounding in the techniques of operating and exposed to a lot of great information. Virtually every working operator out there started at a workshop, and I never hear of anyone regretting the experience.
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Old November 14th, 2005, 11:16 AM   #7
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That was precisely my sense, ultimately. Thank you. The other thing I was interested in hearing about was the competitiveness of the field: it seems to me a lot of people can attach a camera to a tripod (or mount a camera to their shoulder, or what have you) and call themselves cameramen; because of this, it seems to me that the number of people competing for entry level camera jobs must be pretty substantial.

I'd imagine that, similar to being able to execute effective dolly and crane moves, being a competent steadicam operator has got to put you in a competitive environment where a lot of the dabblers have been winnowed from the field. (I am reasoning by analogy based on my experience with computers--certain technical skills are more difficult and in demand than others, and having or not having such skills modifies your value in the marketplace.)

What I don't know, however, is how in demand steadicam operators are, as in: given a handheld DV camera job, say there are maybe ultimately 25 operators in competition for it. How different is it in terms of the steadicam jobs that appear? Do they appear relatively frequently, and are they highly sought after?

Finally, to return to the assistant question, but as it relates specifically to steadicam: I've had no exposure to film cameras. Does it become more complicated once a film camera is put into the mix? The focus pulling issue at the very least has to be a real challenge. But as I understand it, the 1st assistant/2nd assistant structure falls away in this instance, right?
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Old November 14th, 2005, 12:23 PM   #8
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Hi Steve,

I have around 20 years programming experience and I am interested to know why you want to switch to a field significantly different to your previous experience.

Just curious ;-)

Regards
Leigh
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Old November 14th, 2005, 12:54 PM   #9
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I never meant to be a programmer, really. I went to art school and didn't know anything about computers until the last year of it. When I got started, the internet boom had all the hallmarks of a youth movement to me: idealism, ambition, creativity, energy, etc. When the suits took over after the collapse, I lost interest. My interest in technology marketing led me to recognize/have an "aha" moment when Apple acquired Logic--I realized then that they were executing on a tried and true marketing tactic which involves the creation of broad user bases through bundling (similar to how Microsoft rose to power thru W95 & office). When I realized that all the technology to create films would be available to me via a mac, I became interested. I thought being an editor would be a good path to me, but didn't follow through because editing shares many of the same drawbacks as programming--too much time spent alone with a computer.
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Old November 14th, 2005, 01:06 PM   #10
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there are a good many of us who want to transition out from behind desks and Help lines and knowledge bases and code and planning meetings and ... :)
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Old November 14th, 2005, 06:34 PM   #11
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I honestly don't know what the demand is for a dedicated Steadicam operator in the DV world--with the explosion of low-cost rigs (ranging from serious devices such as the Flyer to homemade pipe rig assemblies) I can imagine that it doesn't command much of a premium.

Regarding the film world: I guess there is a certain level of "complication" particularly compared to DV. Many in those working in 35mm at this point consider HD to be the more complicated of the formats as it is not as mature and thus is constantly evolving and bringing plenty of problems to solve and headaches. Regardless, in the film world the assistant setup is pretty well standardized; a 1st AC who pulls focus, loads the camera and manages the department; the 2nd AC who slates, records footage and does most of the "shlepping" of gear; and a loader who reloads the mags and takes care of the paperwork (camera reports, inventory etc).

One thing to consider: the current vogue of 35mm lens adaptors with DV has brought a new requirement of sophistication to Steadicam for that market. Where once focus was virtually "set-and-forget", now depth of field has been reduced to mere inches, requiring wireless focus systems every bit as sophisticated as those used for 35mm productions (which only makes sense, because the optical considerations are identical). Not only will a DV Steadicam operator now have to contend with heavier camera packages (the Mini35, for instance, elevates the working weight of a DVX100a from 4 lbs to 15 lbs) and thus beefier rigs, he will also need to be able to offer functional lens controls, which are a significant additional investment. Not to mention a camera assistant who has the skill to pull focus on moving shots at wide-open apertures as is common with these types of system, which is no joke at all...
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Old November 14th, 2005, 06:41 PM   #12
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Charles, are you seeing 35mm adapters on real shoots? Strictly mini35?

- To clarify, are you saying 1st assistants pull focus on a camera attached to a moving steadicam op? The op doesn't pull him/herself?

Finally, don't you consider full rigs to be in an entirely different category from handheld devices?
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Old November 14th, 2005, 07:08 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Steve Watnet
Charles, are you seeing 35mm adapters on real shoots? Strictly mini35?
See my article here.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Steve Watnet
To clarify, are you saying 1st assistants pull focus on a camera attached to a moving steadicam op? The op doesn't pull him/herself?
Never on a 35mm shoot--and again, regardless of whether there is emulsion or electronics behind the lens, the focus demands are identical. Some guys pull their own focus on multi-camera jobs like concerts/sporting events with 2/3" cameras, but that's an issue of debate. You've got both hands full with a Steadicam, there isn't really room in either the brain or the fingers to devote to focus pulling.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Steve Watnet
Finally, don't you consider full rigs to be in an entirely different category from handheld devices?
Well, yes, but what then of the Flyer? It's a complete rig with a sophisticated arm and is capable of making shots that the equal of its big brothers, but it's a fraction of the cost and of course can't carry the full load. However it is possible to mount an ultralight The lines are all blurry these days.

For instance, the Flyer would be my rig of choice to fly an ultra-lightweight 35mm package for stunt shots like running up stairs in a chase scene. I brought my 5 lb SL Cine camera to a workshop 5 years ago and we put it on the Steadicam Mini (predecessor of the Flyer) and it worked beautifully. Here are some pictures of the funky looking rig. Garrett had actually brought his prototype arm for the Flyer which is visible in the picture in the middle of the page (on the tall gent next to the not-tall young lady!) which was the ultimate lightweight package.

However, what if there was a high-speed running shot in a feature being shot with an HVX-200? I would consider a Merlin as I would likely be able to run flat out with that device, and the resultant images could easily end up on the big screen--that would be another blurring of the lines.

Interesting times, aren't they?
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Old November 14th, 2005, 07:15 PM   #14
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Yes. Since you mention weight, and running, how athletic do you consider the discipline of operating steadicam to be? Do you consider yourself to be something of an athlete?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Charles Papert
I honestly don't know what the demand is for a dedicated Steadicam operator in the DV world--with the explosion of low-cost rigs (ranging from serious devices such as the Flyer to homemade pipe rig assemblies) I can imagine that it doesn't command much of a premium.
Don't the athletic and physical demands make it a specialized skill? Even if the gear is more readily available, doesn't the fact that training is genuinely valuable indicate that the demand for steadicam ops is significantly a question of the scarcity (or availability) of the skill, as well as a question of the availability of the equipment?
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Old November 14th, 2005, 07:23 PM   #15
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Some guys are ripped, some look like librarians--the thing is, you can actually never tell who is going to be the better operator or have the most stamina.

My athlete days are kinda behind me (used to play Ultimate pretty competitively), especially now that I've been off work for 6 months nursing a broken ankle (!) so I'd put myself in the librarian class at this point!

It does require good coordination, balance, and legs and lower trunk (core) strength to manage the physical side of things.

Here's one of our better specimens in action .
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