picture of the booksmall picture of the bookIn preparation for my AC job on Rain in the Mountains, I’ve been reading The Camera Assistant’s Manual, Fourth Edition by David E. Elkins S.O.C. It’s loaded so full of info that it can be overwhelming at times, but that’s what earns it this site’s highest recommendation.

Of course, if you have no interest in the cinematography side of things, I certainly don’t recommend it. But if you are curious about the technical aspects of lenses and filters, camera operation (even HD camerawork is covered in this 2005 edition), or movie production then you ought to give it a skim. Anyone who wants to be a director, producer or cinematographer should know and appreciate the importance and skill required for camera crew work, work this book lays out clearly and concisely from cover to cover. Anyone with ambitions of getting regular work on a camera crew will certainly benefit the most from this title, especially the very practical chapter on finding and interviewing for gigs.

What It Is & Isn’t

This book knows exactly what it is. It covers the basics of cinematography, all of the technical aspects that a D.P., Camera Operator, 1st AC, 2nd AC and Loader need to know, and is amply illustrated with diagrams and charts. While most cinematography books emphasize aesthetics, this book gives the hard cold facts on the tools of the trade, and also gives solid advice for getting work on a camera crew and working your way up to D.P.

 

Making the Movie Tip
David Elkins talks a lot about being a professional on a shoot, including being adult enough to let people know right away if you screw up. When he accidently flashed (allowed light to hit) a fresh (unexposed) roll of film, he immediately informed the D.P. of the film. The D.P. was understanding, and appreciated the professionalism. God help you if you flash an exposed roll of film on a shoot — that means the whole production might have to reshoot what’s on the roll. Still, as Elkins says, you have to be a professional — hiding it will likely cost you working with the production manager, d.p. and director ever again.

 

The writing is straight-forward and the book is well-sectioned so that it can be used as a reference or studied as a textbook.

Hereare the topics covered. The back third of the book is Appendices and a Glossary. It should be noted that this book doesn’t contain depth-of-field charts, something available as its own book, or on PDA software. The book also confines itself to camerawork and thus has very little on lighting. The book has a companion website at www.cameraassistantmanual.com with electronic versions of all the forms and lists.

Drawbacks

I learned the hard way on the set of Rain in the Mountains that the book did not prepare me for the intricacies of calculating focus. The explanation of “circle of confusion” was itself confusing. A walk-through of some example focus calculations using the hyperfocal distance would have been useful.

 

Making the Movie Tip
Here are some expendables that David Elkins recommend every A.C. carry in his or her “ditty bag”:

  • 1″ camera tape
  • 2″ gaffer tape
  • 1/2″ or 1″ paper tape
  • 1/8″ or 1/4″ chart tape
  • transfer tape (also called snot tape)
  • lens tissue
  • lens cleaner
  • Pancro lens cleaner
  • orangewood sticks
  • eyepiece covers
  • permanent felt-tipped markers (Sharpies)
  • red, black and blue Magic Markers
  • ballpoint pens
  • grease pencils (Stabilo)
  • Vis-a-Vis erasable felt-tipped markers
  • slate marker
  • make-up powder puff (for erasing marker from the slate)
  • chalk for actors’ marks
  • camera wedges
  • stick-on letters (for putting production info on the slate)
  • compressed air with nozzle
  • cotton swabs or foam-tip swabs (Q-tip)
  • Kimwipes–large and small
  • silicone spray
  • lighter fluid (to remove glue or sticky residue)
  • Koday Wratten gels (85, 85N3, 85N6, 85N9, ND3, ND6, ND9, 80A)
  • spare batteries (AAA, AA, C, D, 9-volt)
  • spare Mini Mag Lite bulbs
  • small plastic storage bags
  • trash bags
  • spray cleaner
  • rags/paper towels

He goes into greater detail on what all of these can be used for on a shoot. The point is, like a Boy Scout, the good A.C. is always prepared.

 

The book jacket says Mr. Elkins has been working on camera crews for more than 20 years, including on t.v. shows The Wonder Years and Star Trek: The Next Generation. He drops no names in the book. Even when he tells an anecdote, he keeps the detail to a minimum. I wish he would throw in an aside about how to film Patrick Stewart’s bald spot. A bit of humor would’ve gotten me through the book faster. The book jacket also says that he teaches at the North Carolina School of the Arts School of Filmmaking. Clearly he’s spent some time working in L.A. The question is, has he fallen out of the loop teaching in North Carolina? He admits in the book that all of his digital video and HD information comes second hand. But I believe that he has recognized this weakness and worked extra hard on those sections. It’s an area of the biz that’s changing quickly, so much of the information will probably be moot in a few years anyway.

Conclusion

I’m going to be testing all summer how well this book has trained me — and I’ll be letting you know. The best way to learn is, of course, to go out an do it. But if this book saves me learning something the hard way once, it’ll certainly be worth it. The last thing I want to do is flash a roll and waste everyone’s time and money.

Compared to other film books I’ve read, this one is not shy about actually going into depth on the technical aspects. This may frighten some casual readers, but it is absolutely essential knowledge for those who want to work on a camera crew. The prose does a good job of explaining the technical aspects — of lenses and filters, f-stops versus t-stops etc. — and that is why I award it 5/5 stars.

Yes, I do get a cut from Amazon if you end up buying the book through this link. It goes to help pay for this site. I honestly believe this is a useful book. If I just wanted to make money, I’d recommend this one, which costs twice as much.

I hope to be reviewing a lot more books on this site in the coming months. Look for Robert Rodriguez’ Rebel without a Crew and a side-by-side comparison of The Filmmaker’s Handbook and Independent Feature Film Production. If you’re a publisher or author with a book related to movie making, especially the independent variety, contact makingthemovie AT-SIGN gmail DOT com to arrange a review.