Friday, February 24, 2012

Being a Camera Operator for TV

Today we have a guest post from Samuel McQueen sharing his story about his journey to become a camera operator...

I'm currently a work for hire director/cameraman in Chicago, Illinois, working under my production company Forward Thought Media. I've been in the Television Industry since 1988, where I first worked professionally with Black Entertainment Television as a production assistant. Not completely knowing if television was for me, I quit after a year and decided to go back to school.

Not able to rid myself of that urge to look through a viewfinder, I bought a Canon AE-1 35mm camera and a Canon 814 Super 8mm camera. I began shooting whatever I could with both cameras and became interested in film.

Possessing the tenacity to make looking through a viewfinder my career,  I started producing music videos after transferring to film school at Columbia College in Chicago. My lighting professor at the time, who was a working Director of Photography, took me under his wing and we started working professionally together shortly thereafter. He became my mentor. We were producing real jobs while also shooting student projects. We went from shooting 16mm film with a Bolex to shooting Super 16 with an Arri SRIII 16mm and 35mm film with an Arri BL, PANAVISED ARRI III, and Arriflex 535. The goal was to shoot the best looking footage with a low budget. I shot a lot of low budget music videos using these cameras, shooting 16mm and 35mm film shorts, stealing locations and completing post-production at post-houses after hours.
 


In 1994, I started producing music videos and commercials, but in 95' I decided to go back into television. I worked for Harpo Productions where I became a Tech Assist after many years of being an Audience Producer for The Oprah Winfrey Show. Although I loved being an audience producer, I was still in love with making images. Since I had worked extensively in the industry, I was given the opportunity to shoot local stories for my production team. Once the producers realized I could shoot, I was asked to shoot more projects. I shot lots of behind-the-scenes and pretty much became one of the technical go-to guys on the show.

Shooting the Oprah show

In 2004, the Oprah show began to adopt a new look. We adopted the Cinéma vérité style, which was right up my alley after shooting so many low-budget projects, hand-held to give them a real-life feel. Up to this point, I had never really used a video camera, only film cameras. The shows new look became a hit with the producers and the audience reaction was also great. I believe this look shaped the way daytime television talk shows are shot today, and I was proud to be involved in that process.

During this time, I also shot video for many different outside companies such as Time Magazine, Extra, and Access Hollywood. While all of this was great, working on a documentary piece in Africa is what really changed me. The story profiled an American who traveled to Uganda as a missionary and witnessed homeless, HIV infected children dying on the streets of Kampala Uganda. Haunted by these images, he decided to start an orphanage. We shot 10 days in a challenging environment and created a very powerful piece (you can view the video here). This side project was the project that gave me the confidence to know I could become a Director of Photography.




Since then, I finished up the Oprah Show through the final season, started shooting video work on D-SLR's, and shot some more commercials and other behind the scenes and documentary projects. 

The industry is constantly changing, as is the equipment that we use, and while I started out shooting 8 and 16mm, I now shoot mainly on D-SLR’s or large sensor cameras. A few cameras that I have shot with recently include the Canon 5D Mark II and 7D, Red One, Sony FS-100, and the Sony NEX-5n.

My advice to anyone wanting to become a camera operator or filmmaker is to be passionate and shoot, shoot, shoot. I know it may sound cliché, but it really is about learning. Study movies or TV shows that you like. Figure out how it works. Educate yourself. Shoot like there’s no tomorrow. You should learn something new each time, that’s how you get better. Learn from each experience and keep that passionate fire in your belly and drive to get better each time you look thorough the viewfinder. Remember that it’s better to fail at something you love then to succeed at something you hate. My life is devoted to looking through the lens, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

To see some of Samuel McQueen's videos for Forward Thought Media, check out his Vimeo channel.