“I think it’s important to take pride in your work and to be conscious of how things like a sloppily built camera represent you as a technician. If your camera build isn’t balanced properly or has cables dangling in every direction, how is your operator supposed to do their best work?” - Joshua Cote, 1st AC based in Los Angeles.
As all camera operators and 1st ACs know, finding the elusive “perfect” camera setup is a never-ending pursuit, and every setup is going to be different in some way. A studio shoot demands something completely different from a run-and-gun outdoor shoot, so 1st ACs will typically design a setup catering to the needs of the day’s production.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t tips & tricks when it comes to building a camera rig for specific setups. Joshua Cote, who has worked with major brands like Samsung, Spotify, and most recently Logic’s “Contra” music video, shares his best practices for ACs and his pursuit of rigging perfection.
“My career in the film industry, and as a 1st AC, can be boiled down to a handful of amazing mentors and friends giving me opportunities and teaching me the ropes. When I wanted to drop out of the mediocre university film program I was attending to begin pursuing a real career in movies and television, my parents and girlfriend (Jenn) were very supportive and gave me the courage (and the occasional tank of gas) to get through that first year of unpaid short films and reality TV day-playing PA gigs.”
“When I began working in the Camera Department in Michigan, I was taken under the wing of a couple of really generous and knowledgeable guys in the industry there. Early on, I was hired onto a Christian feature film as the B Camera 2nd AC, and was forced upon the 1st AC & Operator. I was a slow and clumsy 2nd, and the show we were on was challenging to say the least. The B Camera Operator realized I was green quickly, and giddily spent the next 6 weeks using me as a stress-relieving punching bag. The B Camera 1st AC (Lance Mokma) could see that, despite my inexperience, I was driven and eager to learn. Instead of taking the same approach as the Operator, Lance worked hard to catch me up and mold me into an efficient 2nd. And when the film was finished, he decided to continue hiring and training me in the years that followed. Cheers to him for instilling my love of clean builds and pushing me to always be better on the next job. When I started pursuing work as a 1st AC, a Detroit-based DP (Adam Rock) gave me a lot of great opportunities to hone my focus pulling skills. He’s a big fan of Diopters.”
“Then in the Spring of 2017, when my girlfriend and I were beginning to plan our move to Los Angeles, Lance brought me on as a 2nd AC on a branded content car spot in Detroit. The DP from Los Angeles, Paul Theodoroff, was really impressed with Lance and I as a team and the shoot went quite well. Paul hinted that both Lance and I would do well in L.A., and that he would love to work with us again. Three weeks later, I was in L.A. searching for apartments. When Jenn and I did move in August, I was convinced that I would have a very slow first few months. But Paul truly went above and beyond for me. Not only did he start hiring me nearly as soon as I arrived in town, but he also introduced me to other great DPs like Mike Reyes, Oren Soffer and Matt Ballard. And now we’ve assembled a really tight family of film people that talk every day, building each other up and sharing our recent experiences.”
“Without that one small car spot in Detroit, I wouldn’t have met Paul and wouldn’t have been introduced to this talented group of DPs and Directors. And without this group, I wouldn’t have had nearly as much success as I’ve had here in L.A. I owe them a lot!”
Cables & Balancing
“Cable management is a big deal for me, and I know my regular DPs appreciate it. I use things like Nite Ize Gear Ties and Panavision’s new Cable Clips to keep all of my cables cleanly run along the build. When I know that I’ll need to adjust the build on the day, and that some accessories may need to be removed or positioned elsewhere on the build, I group the cables and clip them to the build according to the accessory they are for.”
“I run the cables for accessories I know will remain in place for the entire shoot below those that may need to be repositioned to go elsewhere on the build. I’ve even gone as far as color coordinating the cables so I know which ones are for which accessories and which build they work on. It’s difficult for me to explain exactly how my cable system works, but it all comes down to keeping things clean and making build changes quick and efficient. Find a system that works for you, and don’t get lazy with your builds.”
“For the camera build, I use accessories like the Teradek Bolt 3000, the MDR, and other accessories to shift the center of gravity around on the build until I get it as close as I can to the sensor plane. If you’re mounting the camera to a Steadicam, you want the sensor plane to line up directly with the post, and you want to avoid having any weight shift the build to the left or right. If your Operator will be shoulder mounting the camera, you want the center of gravity and the sensor plane to line up right on their shoulder. Doing so makes for easier operating and more precise control of the frame.”
Working on Logic’s “Contra” music video production, Cote needed a versatile setup that could capture the fast-paced intensity of most modern hip hop music videos. This included shots from a Russian Arm, handheld, hood-mounted and Steadicam. With just a single day to shoot, preparation was key.
“I spend extra time at camera prep finessing the build for each of my shoots, even if the shoot is one day (which many of mine are). This attention to detail should extend to all of the gear that your department is handling.”
Here’s the camera setup:
- ARRI Alexa Mini
- AWZ Zoom & G Series Anamorphics
- Teradek Bolt 3000
- Teradek COLR
- Preston FIZ3
- Ward Sniper MK3
“We chose the Alexa Mini with a Panavision cage because it allows for quick camera build changes, it balances well with the G Series Anamorphics on Steadicam, and for us it has become the standard. 99% of my shoots are on Alexa Mini. Mike and I love the Panavision G Series Anamorphics, they are some of the greatest lenses in the world. They are a perfect blend of the character of the C Series and the sharpness of the T Series. We chose a Preston so that I could control focus with the HU3 while our DIT adjusted exposure via a Preston Single Channel. We don't really use anything but the Bolt 3000 and COLR right now because it is the most reliable wireless option available to us.”
Every setup involved tons of movement, either on the car or on Steadicam dancing around Logic. But to get the right footage for “Contra”, DP Mike Reyes still needed a way to see the shot. That’s why they relied on the Teradek Bolt 3000.
Cote’s Bolt 3000 had a 1:3 setup, sending video to Cote’s focus station, DIT for live color grading and Video Assist. From the Video Assist, the video was further distributed to the Director, DP and client.
Wireless video was also critical to Cote’s other recent project Land of the Strays - a documentary on the Costa Rica haven with hundreds of stray dogs. Unlike the Logic music video production, this shoot required the camera crew to be 100% mobile, filming through buildings and climbing hills.
For this, Cote used his custom-built handheld monitor/follow focus kit for remote lens control:
- ARRI WCU-4
- Teradek Bolt 3000
- TVLogic 058W 5” Monitor
- Cleans Camera Support Follow Focus to Monitor Mounting Bracket
- MediaBlackOut LogicBlock
“I spent nearly every hour of our 10 days in Costa Rica muscling our Alexa Mini with Cooke Anamorphics up and down the mountain, or dumping footage on a laptop in the back seat of our van. If I didn’t have a compact and reliable way to control focus and camera settings hanging around my neck, I would have been in really bad shape.”
The Importance of Wireless for 1st ACs
So on top of keeping rigs organized, clean and balanced, Bolt 3000 is essential to every part of Cote’s workflow. From on-set productions to outdoor shoots, wireless video makes it possible to pull focus remotely and allow camera ops to capture the best shots possible.
“Not only is it crucial for DPs and Directors to see what they are getting out of camera, but I wouldn’t be able to do my job at all without being able to wirelessly monitor the image. I can’t imagine trying to chase around a Steadicam Operator with a BNC cable running to the various monitors on set.”
“When I’m building a camera for a shoot, how it will be operated on the day obviously plays a major role in how I put it all together. The end goal is a compact, clean, and balanced camera that will inspire even the most veteran DPs to snap a build shot for the Gram.”
Check out more of Joshua Cote’s work as a 1st AC at www.cote.camera.
Check out his Instagram @cote_cam