BAFP Student’s first experience on a Feature Film set

My name is Cristian-Ionut Necula and I am a BA (Hons) Film Production student at the University of Portsmouth. In January I had my first industry experience when I went out to Morocco for 3 weeks, on the set of a feature film that our Cinematography lecturer Ben Hodgson was shooting.

The role I applied for was Camera Assistant/Data Wrangler, and until we got to the set I was still unsure what duties I would take on. This film was shot with two units: because Ben is the cinematographer he operated camera A, and Mark Moreve, the 2nd Unit DoP was in charge of camera B.  Each of them had a pair of camera assistants, a Focus Puller and a Clapper-Loader. With that being said, my place in the hierarchy would be at the bottom of the camera department, as a Trainee.

Director David Batty (R) discusses a scene with Director of Photography Ben Hodgson (L)

On the first day we got there, Ben went on a tech recce with the producers and the director, while Mark and I, along with the Moroccan ACs were tasked with testing two Sony F55s with Zeiss Super Speed primes, kitted with Tilta Nucleus-M and Teradek wireless systems. In addition, we had some smaller cameras which could be used as ‘crash-cams’, or on rigs that couldn’t support as much weight: a Sony FS5, a Sony A7SII and a Z-Cam E2. The tests involved shooting colour charts with every combination of the A and B camera and the primes and setting up the additional cameras on gimbals.

What followed on Monday was the start of three intense weeks (we only had Sundays off), with long days shooting from sunrise to sunset. In the beginning, the idea seemed a bit daunting, but I quickly got used to waking up at 6am and returning to the hotel in the evening after 12h workdays. Something I couldn’t have predicted, though, was how I would cope with the weather – the mornings and the evenings were freezing cold, but anytime between 10am-7pm was as hot as the UK gets in the summer (around 25°C).

On set my responsibilities were helping the ACs switch lenses, filters, and batteries, prepping any rigs with the additional cameras, setting up video village and generally helping the camera department with whatever was needed. As far as the data-wrangling side of the job went, that wasn’t as extensive as I had expected because the editor was on set as a DIT (Digtial Imaging Technician). Therefore, I only had to ‘assist’ him by delivering the media from the camera to him and by keeping reports with details on which lens was used on each camera, as well as what card he could find each shot on.

 

Another highlight of this experience was seeing the great collaboration between departments and seeing exactly how Ben works as a cinematographer with help from the gaffer and key grip who have some incredible titles on their portfolio such as Spectre, Game of Thrones, Babel, Black Hawk Down. It was really cool seeing how they lit day-for-night, how they used a 12K HMI as a moonlight and how they even created a sandstorm inside a building, and I particularly liked the use of volumetric light.

The rigs were very interesting, too, especially for how quickly they were able to build a dolly, but I was especially impressed by the combination of the jib and dolly, and how much movement and flexibility that offered. Obviously, these seem like intricate and heavy builds, but nothing stopped the grips from taking them up the rocky hills where we were shooting. And speaking of bulky equipment, the cameras also came with an Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm T2.8 zoom, an amazing lens, which you could, in all honesty, shoot an entire film with that range without needing other glass.

“I love taking Film Students onto a professional set. They get to see how all the departments work together, to experience the sheer pace of professional filmmaking and are thrown in at the deep end being expected to use their initiative and keep their work ethic as well as their sense of humour right from the off. Often it’s not easy, especially with very long days in a harsh environment. Cristian really pitched in and I’m looking forward to him instilling more professionalism into his fellow students when he gets back to University!” – Ben Hodgson

Some days were more difficult than others, for instance when we had to shoot at night or when I went separately with the 2nd Unit for pick-ups. It was never fun being in a car on unpaved roads, but when we actually had to climb over hills carrying the equipment, it was on another level. However, about half of the shoots took place at the Atlas Studios, so it wasn’t always that bad. It was quite impressive seeing all the built sets, how real they seemed, and finding out what films had actually used them before including The Mummy, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven.

 

I definitely learned a lot being on set, especially in such tough environments and weather, even when I was just shadowing the ACs and offering them a hand whenever possible taught me quite a bit about set etiquette, too. The fact that it was a multi-cam shoot was also new for me, so taking part in it and observing the different workflow was very valuable. There were also a few times when Ben was kind enough to let me operate camera A for a few rehearsals while he was behind the monitor watching the feed with the Director.

It was a great experience overall that taught me a lot, opened my eyes about what the industry is like, and further convinced me that I want to pursue filmmaking as a career.

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