What entails being a '1st A.C' in cinema?
In this edition of IN THE FIELD, I take you back to December 2017 during production of the short film, THE PISTOL.
Being a 1st Assistant Camera is an important job, but what actually happens on set is a blend of many different roles. Depending on the type of film, the budget, the director, a 1st. A.C is expected to be razor sharp at all times (pun intended). Wether you are a budding filmmaker, or already working as a professional camera operator, this article will give you insight into a 'day in the life' of a 1st A.C while working on a short film that called for an aesthetic similar to the iconic comedy films of the 1960's.
The following is an article I wrote for the Chicago based camera gear company Zacuto. Enjoy!
Behind the Scenes with the Lumix GH5 – Trial by Fire!
I’ve had my share of production work, but working on The Pistol was my first time as a 1st Assistant Cameraman. By trade, I am a digital artist and over the years I’ve crossed over into cinematography. In October of 2017, my friend and fellow artist Xaque Gruber approached me with a short screenplay he’d written. He wanted to make a comedy about two seventy-something women who move to Florida. Sounds like fun! Let’s go behind the scenes with the Lumix GH5 on set.
Filming in Florida during winter, how terrible!
Every day, Xaque would visit a memory care home in Vero Beach, Florida to see his father and entertain the residents. Sometimes he’d lead a painting workshop, other times he’d sing yesterday’s hits. During one visit, I filmed him performing tunes from the 60s, 70s, and 80s – and the residents loved it. It was this passion that inspired Xaque to make a movie about this amazing and underrepresented demographic.
The Pistol, portrays two strong, independent women who sometimes knit-pick at each other but are loyal friends. The story had heart and I was immediately intrigued. It would be Xaque’s first time directing and he’d be bringing in an experienced Director of Photography from Los Angeles to work with his local crew.
Commiting to the Lumix GH5
I was hired by Xaque to be 1st Assistant Cameraman, which was new to me because I am usually only responsible for my own shoots. The Pistol was indeed going to be a trial by fire.
In the weeks leading up to our shoot, the Director of Photography would phone me from LA and we’d discuss camera options that fit our budget. I quickly suggested my Lumix GH5 although it would take some convincing for the DP to agree. There were concerns that the small camera body and its SD cards would fail when put through the rigors of production. The DP was also concerned that the micro 4/3 frame of the GH5 could not capture Xaque’s artistic vision.
It’s all in the Lens
Xaque had settled on the idea that the film’s aesthetic should resemble the 1960 film The Apartment by Billy Wilder. After some successful screen tests, our DP was convinced that the GH5 would work. We rented one and used mine as a backup.
The Apartment was shot in an anamorphic format. To make up for the loss of frame on the micro 4/3, we decided to use the Metabones XL speedbooster. This gave us the equivalent of a super 35 frame, plus a one and one-third more stop of light.
Our DP was also able to wrangle a set of Carl Zeiss CP lenses, a vintage Nikon 50mm with a custom EF mount, and a very, very rare Iscorama 36 1.5x anamorphic adapter. This set-up essentially gave us a maximum aperture of 1.0. In retrospect, I am grateful that I was spared any major focus-pulling during this production.
Up Next – The GH5 Cage
To prevent anything from coming loose during filming, we used Zacuto’s new Lumix GH5 Cagewhich fit like a super-suit. In fact, once it was on the GH5 we didn’t remove it until production was over. I would highly recommend getting the optional top handle, as we quickly learned having something to grab on a tripod set-up is absolutely necessary.
Monitoring, Recording, and Sound
We were in a pinch for time so we opted for the Angelbird 128gb 300mb/s SD cards. Finding fast enough SD cards was a challenge because Panasonic had just released their new update for the cinema 4K, All-I 400mbs in September 2017.
We took a gamble and shot with only 2 cards the entire duration, filling up one card and dumping footage during filming breaks. On one occasion a card stopped recording after 11 seconds or so, but we were shooting 400mbs V-Log internally on 300mbs rated cards. It was a risk, but it’s the only option we had at the time. My Ninja Flame monitor recorded a backup in UHD pro res 422.
Sound was recorded with a redundancy x3. Our boom operator recorded on his mixer, as well as piped an ALR to a Tascam recorder mounted on the camera rig. Finally, a mini jack from camera to the Tascam recorded a scratch track. In some scenes, Lav mic’s were used for dialog and character foley.
Tripod, Tripod, Tripod!
Production for The Pistol lasted three days in December of 2017 with a crew of around 12. The first location was an exterior on the driveway. We knew we were not going to do much focus pulling or complicated moving shots. It actually worked out better to have the film shot entirely on a tripod. It gave us a vintage look and veered away from the hand-held look we see so often in today’s comedies.
I can still hear my DePaul cinematography teacher Dana Hodgdon shaking his fist and yelling, “use a tripod!” Xaque’s storyboards gave us a head start and we allocated time for improvisation and playing with different camera angles. The first day was a mix of information overflow and chaos, but we quickly adapted under the hot Florida sun.
A blend of Old and New
I was amazed and proud that Xaque, a first-time director, pulled it all together with a such a mixed bag crew. There was such a mix of experience levels between us. What I enjoyed most was that we filled in where we could and we were always encouraged to ask for help.
Luckily, I had an experienced 2nd A.C. Lia Gaitan, who took me under her wing and showed me the ropes. I wish our communication had been better right from the start. There are so many things I could have avoided had we had a simple phone conversation early on! It’s amazing though that by day 3 it all clicked and we worked in unison together.
From an aesthetic standpoint, The Pistol will surely offer a unique glance into classic, noir cinema with a touch of modern technology. With that being said, I have a new respect for the men and women of cinema who’s primary task is to never be noticed: the laborious job of pulling focus.