Jon Woods on the changes in kit and its impact on quality

We’re going to talk about kit. What was it like in the old days and what’s it like today?

It couldn’t be more chalk and cheese – talk about steam-generated television! In the era of film, everything was bigger, heavier, more awkward to use. A typical film cameraman’s kit would be a camera body – Arriflex, Éclair, Arton – with three 400ft magazines to put your film into, a box of lenses – prime lenses, a couple of zoom lenses – a tripod in a big polycarbonate case, you would then have a sound recordist with a Nagra reel to reel tape recorder, a Nagra 4.2, box of microphones, gun mics, short gun mics, boom pole, boxes and boxes of film Kodak stock, some slow stock, 64 ASA, 7247 I think it was, Eastman colour 7237. Daylight it was 64 ASA, tungsten it was 100 ASA, boxes of filters, lights, redheads, blondes, battery lights, handbashers. So if you were going off to shoot a documentary with one camera body, you basically had eight or nine boxes of kit to carry around. Yourself, a sound recordist, a boom swinger, a camera assistant and possibly a spark, more than likely you would have a spark. So the kit itself could fill an estate car quite easily.

With all this kit, you needed the extra personnel to carry it.

Nowadays, with instant change of media cards, when one runs out you can change to another one instantly. Of course, in the days of film, you used to have someone loading your film – taking out the exposed film, so what the camera assistant used to do was sit down with a black bag, which is like a portable dark room, a metre squared black bad, double-skinned with elasticated arms and Velcro and a zip front. You put the magazine in of the exposed film, you take the tape off a new roll of film, you put it inside the can, you seal it all up, you take the film can out, take the old, exposed film out, put it into the black bag inside – there’s a black paper bag inside the tin – put it down and hold that closed, put the new film in the magazine and lace it into whatever mechanism it was lacing into, seal it closed, open up the black bag, put tape around the exposed tin, put a label on it, and put tape around the lock of the magazine.

Paperwork in those days for a camera assistant was quite a challenge, because not only did you have to keep the cameraman supplied with batteries, film, pulling focus, you also had to carry all this kit that he wasn’t using, the tripod, the magazines, the extra film, but also on the back of the clapper board, you had to put the clapper board onto fine sync, so we used clapper boards to synchronise the pictures and sound. On the back of the clapperboard was what we used to call mag cards, and the camera assistant would write down what roll it is, what the slate numbers were, a brief description of what it was, what the filters were, whether it’s interior or exterior, so that bit of information was then used by the camera assistant to fill out lab sheets. Four carbon copies went to costing to be charged for the film, went into the edit suite to tell the editor what they’ve got, to the laboratory, and a copy was kept for the cameraman so he knew what he had shot. So the poor camera assistant probably had an hour’s work every night, cleaning the gear, reloading the magazines, labelling up everything and filling out all these camera lab sheets. Whereas today, in the modern digital medium, where we use compact flashcards or quite similar solid state recording medium, you know, a 32GB compact flashcard can hold 82 minutes of HD 1920, 1080, 25p or 50i film on a card that you could put 100 of them in a matchbox, almost.

It is ridiculous how small the cameras have become, but also what has changed, for the worst, I believe, is that so much of it now is single man shooting, so you are responsible for being a director, a cameraman, a sound recordist and a lighting engineer, so yes, we have much lighter kit, the cameras are smaller, the tripods are lighter – thought not necessarily better – the sound kit – radio mics, gun mics – aren’t what they used to be, but it all works through the camera – you can have a little mixer but generally most of it is attached straight to the camera, and lights are usually 1×1 panels now, running off a battery so you’ve got no mains power to worry about at all. It’s lighter, but it’s still cumbersome – it’s still a handful for one person.

Do you think that quality has suffered because of that?

Yes, I think nobody… I think I am fairly experienced after 43 years in the industry, and I have had the luxury of being both a film cameraman and a director/producer, so I think I’ve probably got a lot of the skills you need to do both – and I find it a handful quite a lot of the time. Not necessarily… being a cameraman is a bit like riding a bike. I can frame shots quite quickly, and exposure and colour are second nature. That sort of thing is quite easy. Sound is a bit more complicated because you can’t be reactive to sound, you have to try and keep an eye and try and second guess sounds, because you can only react to it after it happens. Lighting is a skill I’ve got, so I can light, and with more lightweight lights nowadays it’s easier. But trying to put all those three technical things together with being a producer, and asking the right questions, and seeing what’s happening, can be quite a handful. It’s a shame for the younger generation who that’s what it is. That’s the only option. They’re given a Canon 305, a couple of cards, a couple of microphones, a couple of LED lights and told, “Off you go and make a film.”

Do you think programmes have suffered in terms of quality?

Quality in terms of content, certainly. Quality in terms of camera technique, in terms of being a camera operator, making it look good, steady, smooth, well-framed, in focus, has certainly gone. Similarly with sound, it’s not quite as crisp and as good. The hardest thing, I think, what we’ve lost, is really the ability to be a producer/director whilst doing these other things. You can do it if you have time and you’re not too rushed.

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