The Importance of a Thorough Camera Prep with 1st AC Joshua Cote

Wed, Oct 17, 2018

“I always enjoyed tinkering as a kid: Legos, rockets, K’Nex, old electronics, etc. I was also the kind of gamer that spent as much time fiddling with his loadout and assembling an arsenal as he did on the battlefield. Now I get paid to tinker with world class state-of-the-art camera tech for a living, preparing for a different kind of battle. How cool is that? There’s no denying that I’m a nerd, but at least I’m a happy nerd.” - Joshua Cote, 1st AC.

When people think about filmmaking, not many consider the arduous planning and prep that goes into making shoot day a success. Prep is the one chance for productions to gather all of the necessary gear, build and test to ensure that everything is working when shoot day comes around. From cameras to monitors to every single cable. You could say it’s even more important than the shoot itself!

Prepping varies from person to person, project to project, and company to company, so there’s no cookie-cutter way to do it. But there are better ways, and 1st AC Joshua Cote shares with us his approach.

Joshua, who we featured in How To Design the Optimal Camera Setup, typically preps for projects at Panavision in LA. If you follow him on social media, you know that he strives to keep all of his setups clean, efficient and most importantly optimized for the production, no matter how big or small.

Check out more of his work on his Instagram @cote_cam

The First Phone Call

“A truly thorough prep begins during that initial call regarding the job. I try to ask a lot of questions and obtain a lot of details before even showing up at camera prep. Ideally, I know exactly what we're shooting, as well as where and how we're shooting it. I make sure to be involved in the discussion regarding the camera package order between production and the rental house.”

“It would be great if you always got a chance to browse the treatment, to speak with post-production and VFX, and to have a quick chat with the Sound Mixer to see what he or she might need from you. But once in a while, you aren't given those opportunities. Before I arrive the morning of prep, I also push hard to obtain a detailed list of camera specs. You don't want to be prepping at the wrong resolution, only to find you're vignetting on the day.”

My Prep Day

“On the day(s) of camera prep, I bring my entire kit and lay out my most used tools like I’d imagine a watchmaker or carpenter does. I run through the package order and start to get an idea of which items I still need. I request a detailed list of camera accessories, brackets, and cables of specific lengths from my prep tech. The sooner I get my hands on everything we will be using during production, the easier it is for me to test it all, troubleshoot, and organize.”

“I put all batteries on charge, and then I start piecing together the camera package. I also always instinctively start the day by factory resetting the camera. I believe this habit started for me after I heard Austin Lewis explain why it’s a critical step of any camera prep on an episode of Cinematographer’s Insight. Resetting the camera back to factory settings gives you a chance to wipe away any unusual tweaks the previous users might have made, and forces you to go through nearly every submenu to fine-tune the camera to fit the specific needs of the shoot and preferences of the DP.”

“I test the Teradek Bolts and monitors, setup my Preston or WCU-4, and make sure the matte box, filters and lenses all play nice together. Side note: If you’re using a clip-on mattebox, always ask for one with a tray catch. It’ll spare you the embarrassment of shattering a filter one day. If your 2nd AC, DIT, and VTR are there at prep with you, they will assist you in many of these tasks. The monitors will be tested for color accuracy, LUTs will be loaded, the cards will be evaluated, and cases will be thoroughly organized and labelled. If you’re manning the prep alone, you’ll need to do all of this yourself, prioritizing what is most important. Each lens needs to be mounted to the camera, tested to make sure it is working properly and that the barrel marking are accurate, and mapped into your wireless follow focus system. It’s also great when you’re able to get some test frames or footage to show your DP.”

“I spend time at my preps obsessively fiddling with the camera build to make sure it’s clean, that cables aren’t hanging in the way of the operator, and that its balanced and comfortable to operate. Ideally, the camera sensor is sitting directly in the middle of the build’s center of mass. Since I often work on fast-paced commercial and music video shoots where the Camera Department is rarely given significant downtime to adjust for future setups and scenes, I tend to build my cameras in a way that allows all planned operating styles to occur without needing to rebuild. Last week I worked on a shoot that had the camera switching between handheld and Steadicam, in and out of a Hydroflex splash bag, and between lightweight Primes lenses and heavy Zooms. Piecing together a build at the prep that allows you to make those dramatic transitions in a few short minutes can be quite challenging.”

Why You Should Always Prep Thoroughly

There are so many moving pieces to a kit, it’s hard to keep track of everything. At the same time, you don’t want to stall the production because a seemingly small piece of equipment is missing or not working.

“If something doesn't work on set and you didn't test it at prep, the failure is entirely your own. If you make a planned switch to your camera build - say from primes to a zoom - and find that all the pieces don't fit together, you didn't prep the camera package well enough. If you forget to bring a crucial adapter ring for your mattebox, or didn't take the filters out of their pouches to make sure you've got the right ones - the blame should not be put on the rental house. With a full cinema camera package, there can often be thousands of cables, brackets, bolts, bits and bobs. Every one of them is your responsibility.”

“The production can often make your life even more difficult by making major decisions about the creative or the camera package during or even late into your prep day. Or they'll ask you to prep multiple camera packages alone when there really should be a handful of people prepping as a team. Or they'll deny you a prep day altogether. In those types of situations, you do your best and vocalize your concerns if need be.  You can only work with what you've given. Hopefully your DP understands the situation and supports you if issues arise.”

“Everyone forgets something once in a while, especially if you work exclusively on commercials or short form projects. You can prep up to a dozen times in one month, switching between different rental houses, cameras, and crews. These shoots and preps can easily blend together and eventually, you're going to miss something. An experienced AC can recover from their mistake, hopefully before it becomes an issue or before any of the bosses take notice. You've either got to makeshift a solution right there on the spot, tap another department to see if they've got something that can save you, or quickly source the missing or replacement piece from the rental house or a nearby friend. Just don't lose your cool, and make sure you're entire department is aware of the issue and is working together on fixing it.”

“At one of my camera preps last year, I was alone, had too much to do and not enough time to do it, and was scrambling. I ended up forgetting to pair one of the wireless video receivers. Early the next morning, we had limited time to get set up and the pressure was on to begin shooting. My 2nd AC, Loren Azlein, quickly assembled a 17” monitor for video village and discovered my oversight with the receiver. Pairing it caused a delay and made us both look sloppy. She hasn’t let me live it down yet!”

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