There’s only a slight difference in the textbook definition between a cinematographer and a camera operator. Besides the slight variance in responsibilities (a cinematographer/DP can be responsible for several camera operators), there are some additional skills and aptitudes which play into the decision to try to be a cinematographer.
None of this is meant to downplay the skill and experience which make a great camera operator. Knowing your equipment, being able to choose the proper lenses and camera settings, being able to operate that equipment, being able to interpret the direction of both the director and the cinematographer, and being able to hold together a cohesive shot – these are all the hallmarks of a great camera operator.
At a much, much more basic level, there’s an art to cinematography, which transcends the physical manipulations of the equipment involved, and becomes more about creating a sort of separate reality; that of capturing a little slice of time and space, motion and stillness, light and dark, vibrant colors and subtle undertones. That’s the part of this that, to me, offers the most promising creativity and the most fulfilling, yet burdening, tasks.
It’s very easy to get lost in the minutiae of camera settings adjustments, equipment acquisition, troubleshooting and stabilization, among other demons – but the art is the derivative of those functions.
To properly illustrate this, I think of a concert I attended, quite a few years ago. The guitarist, Vernon Reid, was (and still is), an amazing technical instrumentalist. I watched him dance over the semi-circle of effects pedals and boxes, his hands moving, seemingly effortlessly over the six strings on his instrument. It struck me as astounding. We are all, in some way, capable of recognizing genius and immense skill, even if we cannot reproduce it, or explain it in purely quantifiable terms. In that way, the body of his technical skills simply became a foundation for the art which was made by way of them. I wish I could explain it better – I only know that I could recognize it when I saw it. The man himself, whom I had the pleasure of speaking with for a few brief moments, was very humble and very “zen” about his skill and his art.
Due to my particular circumstances, I’ve been able to pick and choose projects, more of late, specifically based on their relative merits to me. As such, I haven’t had much experience acting strictly as a “camera operator”. There may be some hubris, on my part, which would have come out of getting to perform the artistic duties of a cinematographer on the vast majority of the projects on which I’ve been involved. It has given me an affinity for the creative aspects of the job. For as long as I’ve been involved with cinematography, I have always assumed that being a “camera operator” has been a step towards being a cinematographer; a way of honing the technical foundation of the craft, so that the art can come later. It seemed like an “apprenticeship”, much as the old focus pullers became second unit cameramen, to eventually move up to first units, then perhaps aspire to become a cinematographer one day…
The landscape, mostly due to the explosion of low-cost cinematography (fueled primarily by DSLR cinematography), has been shifting away from that old model. Most projects have one, perhaps two camera operators – and the primary camera operator is usually the cinematographer/DP. Many projects don’t even have a second camera operator – it simply isn’t required.
Ultimately, it depends what your plans and/or revenue model is.
- If you want to learn more about how to get your equipment to perform the way you want it to perform, you may do well working as a camera operator with a seasoned cinematographer, rather than holding out for a DP position on a project.
- If you want to make a living behind a camera, you can’t really differentiate between cinematography and camera operator work – at least as long as you want to keep a steady revenue stream up. Even the best cinematographers can moonlight as strict “camera operators” when the pay is right.
- If you want to work in a lower pressure environment, you might want to be a camera operator. Cinematographers are responsible for everything visual which goes on in a project, and it can be a lot of stress.
- If you feel passionate enough about a project to want to be involved at any cost, you might sign on as a camera operator.
Even though there’s a lot of competition for certain spots on certain projects, we’re all on the same team; we all (for the most part) are interested in shooting great footage, and many of us are concerned about creating enduring works of art, wherever possible. We all have great potential for growth, so whatever your career and job choice, good luck!