Tag Archives: Society of Camera Operators

Q&A: Camera Operators

By Randi Altman

Camera operators might not always get the glory, but they certainly do get the job done. Working hand in hand with DPs and directors, these artists make sure the camera is in the right place for the right shot, and so much more. As one of the ops we spoke to says, “The camera operator is the “protector of the frame.”

We reached out to three different camera operators, all of whom are members of the Society of Camera Operators (SOC), to find out more about their craft and how their job differs from some of the others on set.

Lisa Stacilauskas

Lisa Stacilauskas, SOC
What is the role of the camera operator? What is the camera operator accountable for on set?
The role of the camera operator varies quite a bit depending on the format. I work primarily in scripted television on “single camera” comedies. Don’t let the name “single camera” fool you. It’s meant to differentiate the shooting format from multicam, but these days most single camera shows shoot with two or three cameras. The show I work on, American Housewife, uses three cameras. I am the C camera operator.

In the most basic sense, the camera operator is responsible for the movement of the camera and the inclusion or exclusion of what is in frame. It takes a team of craftspeople to accomplish this. My immediate team includes a 1st and 2nd camera assistant and a dolly grip. Together we get the camera where it needs to be to get the shots and to tell the story as efficiently as possible.

In a larger sense, the camera operator is a storyteller. It is my responsibility to know the story we are trying to tell and assist the director in attaining their vision of that story. As C camera operator, I think about how the scene will come together in editing so I know which pieces of coverage to get.

Another big part of my job is keeping lighting equipment and abandoned water bottles out of my shot. The camera operator is the “protector of the frame”!

How do you typically work with the DP?
The DP is the head of the camera department. Each DP has nuances in the way they work with their operators. Some DPs tell you exactly where to put your camera and what focal length your lenses should be. Others give you an approximate position and an indication of the size (wide, medium, close-up) and let you work it out with the actors or stand-ins.

American Housewife

How does the role of the camera operator and a DP differ?
The DP is in charge of camera and lighting. Officially, I have no responsibility for lighting. However, it’s very important for a camera operator to think like a DP; to know and pay attention to the lighting. Additionally, especially when shooting digitally, once the blocking is determined, camera operators stay on set, working with all the other departments to prepare a shot while the DP is at the monitors evaluating the lighting and/or discussing set ups with the director.

What is the relationship between the operator and the director?
The relationship between the operator and director can vary depending on the director and the DP. Some directors funnel all instructions through the DP and only come to you with minor requests once the shots have already been determined.

If the director comes to me directly without going through the DP, it is my responsibility to let the DP know of the requested shot, especially if she/he hasn’t lit for it! Sometimes you are a mediator between the two and hopefully steer them closer to being on the same page. It can be a tough spot to be in if the DP and director have different visions.

Can you talk about recent projects you’ve worked on?
I’m currently working on Season 3 of American Housewife. The C camera position was a day-playing position at the beginning of Season 1, but DP Andrew Rawson loves to work with three cameras, and really knows how to use all three efficiently. Once production saw how much time we saved them, they brought us on full time. Shooting quickly and efficiently is especially important on American Housewife because three of our five principal actors are minors, whose hours on set are restricted by law.

During a recent hiatus, I operated B camera on a commercial with the DP operating A camera. It seemed like the DP appreciated the “extra set of eyes.”

Prior to American Housewife, I worked on several comedies operating the B camera, including Crazy Ex- Girlfriend (Season 1), Teachers (Season 1) and Playing House (Season 2).

Stephen Campanelli, SOC
What is the role of the camera operator? What is the camera operator accountable for on set?
The role of the camera operator on the set is to physically move the camera around to tell the story. The camera operator is accountable for what the director and the director of photography interpret to be the story that needs to be told visually by the camera.

Stephen Campanelli (center) on the set of American Sniper.

As a camera operator, you listen to their input, and sometimes have your own input and opinion to make the shot better or to convey the story point from a different view. It is the best job on set in my opinion, as you get to physically move the camera to tell great stories and work with amazing actors who give you their heart and soul right in front of you!

How do you typically work with the DP?
I have been very fortunate in my career to have worked with some very collaborative DPs. After 24 years of working with Clint Eastwood, I have absorbed so much of his directing style and visual nature that working closely with the DP we have created the Eastwood-style of filmmaking. When I am doing other films with other DPs we always talk about conveying the story in the truest, most visual way without letting the camera get in the way of a good story. That is one of the most important things to remember: A camera operator is not to bring attention to the camera, but bring attention to the story!

How does the role of the camera operator and a DP differ?
A DP usually is in charge of the lighting and the look of the entire motion picture. Some DPs also operate the camera, but that is a lot of work on both sides. A camera operator is very essential, as he or she can rehearse with the actors or stand-ins while the director of photography can concentrate solely on the lighting.

What is the relationship between the operator and the director?
As I mentioned earlier, my relationship with Clint Eastwood has been a very close one, as he works closely with the camera operator rather than the director of photography. We have an incredible bond where very few words are spoken, but we each know how to tell the story once we read the script. On some films, the director and the DP are the ones that work together closely to cohesively set the tone for the movie and to tell the story, and the camera operator interprets that and physically moves the camera with the collaboration of both the director and director of photography.

Can you talk about recent projects you’ve worked on?
I recently just wrapped my 22nd movie with Clint Eastwood as his camera operator, it is called The Mule. We filmed in Atlanta, New Mexico and Colorado. It is a very good script and Clint is back in front of the camera again, acting in it. It also stars Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne and Michael Pena. [Editor’s note: He recently worked on A Star is Born, also with Bradley Cooper.]

Recently, I moved up to directing. In 2015, I directed a movie called Momentum, and this year I directed an award-winning film called Indian Horse that was a big hit in Canada and will soon be released in the United States.

Jamie Hitchcock

Jamie Hitchcock, SOC
What is the role of the camera operator? What is the camera operator accountable for on set?
The role of a camera operator is to compose an assigned shot and physically move the camera if necessary to perform that shot or series of shots as many times as needed to achieve the final take. The camera operator is responsible for maintaining the composition of the shot while also scanning the frame for anything that shouldn’t be there. The camera operator is responsible for communicating to all departments about elements that should or should not be in the frame.

How do you typically work with the DP?
The way a camera operator works with a director of photography varies depending on the type of project they are working on. On a feature film, episodic or commercial, the director of photography is very involved. The DP will set each shot and the operator then repeats it as many times as necessary. On a variety show, live show or soap opera, the DP is usually a lighting designer/director, and the director works with the camera operators to set the shots. On multi-camera sitcoms, the shots are usually set by the director… with the camera operator. When the production requires a complicated scene or location, the DP will become more actively involved with the selection of the shots.

How does the role of the camera operator and a DP differ?
The role of the DP and operator are quite different yet the goal is the same. The DP is involved with the pre-production process, lighting, running the set, managing the crew and the post process. The operator is involved on set working shot by shot. Ultimately, both the DP and operator are responsible for the final image the viewing audience will see.

What is the relationship between the operator and the director?
The relationship between the operator and the director, like that of the operator and DP, varies depending on the type of project. On a feature-type project, the director may be only using one camera. On a sports or variety program the director might be looking at 15 or more cameras. In all cases, the director is counting on the operators to perform their assigned shots each time. Ultimately, when a shot or take is complete, the director is the person who decides to move on or do it again, and they trust the operator to tell them if the shot was good or not.

CBS’s Mom

Can you talk about recent projects you’ve worked on?
I am currently working on The Big Bang Theory and Mom for CBS. Both are produced by Chuck Lorre Productions and Warner Bros. Television. Steven V. Silver, ASC, is the DP for both shows. Both shows use four cameras and are taped in front of a studio audience. We work in what I like to call the “Desilu-type” format because all four cameras are on a J.L. Fisher dolly with a 1st assistant working the lens and a dolly grip physically moving the camera. This format was perfected by Desi Arnez for I Love Lucy and still works well for this format.

The working relationship with the DP and director on our shows falls somewhere in the middle. Mark Cendroski and Jamie Widdoes direct almost all of our shows, and they work directly with the four operators to set the required shots. They have a lot of trust in us to know what elements are needed in the frame, and sometimes the only direction we receive is the type of shot they want. I work on a center camera, which is commonly referred to as a “master” camera, however it’s not uncommon to have a master, close-up and two or three shots all in the same scene. Each scene is shot beginning to end with all the coverage set, and a final edit is done in post. We do have someone cutting a live edit that feeds to the audience so they can follow along.

Our process is very fast, and our DP usually only sees the lighting when we start blocking shots with stand-ins. Steve spends a lot of time at the monitor and constantly switches between all four cameras — he’s looking at composition and lighting, and setting the final look with our video controller. Generally, when the actors are on set we roll the cameras. It’s a pretty high-pressure way to work for a product that will potentially be seen by millions of people around the world, but I love it and can’t imagine doing anything else.

Main Image Caption: Stephen Campanelli


The SOC, which celebrates 40 years in 2019, is an international organization that aims to bring together camera operators and crew. The Society also hosts an annual Lifetime Achievement Awards show, publishes the magazine Camera Operator and has a charitable commitment to The Vision Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.