HOW I WAS PAID TO TRAVEL THE WORLD FOR A YEAR
This isn’t a Five steps to cracking the TV industry, just as much as I don’t claim to have cracked anything other than Virgin Frequent Flyer Gold status and the top of one too many overpriced minibar Heinekens. This is simply my story of how I worked my way up to a phenomenal year of travel as a junior cinematographer.
My intention, to inspire others to do the same.
1) I’VE ALWAYS KNOWN WHAT I WANT TO DO
What do I want to do? I want to shoot epic snowboarding documentaries… but I haven’t done it yet.
Cine:ma:tog:rapher – Fancy word for man who stands with a camera as close as he dares to people who do fun/dangerous/important/boring – but important/ interesting shit.
The first day I worked (for free) on a reality sports star TV shoot it hit me like man-flu at 2pm on a Monday afternoon, I wanted to be a cinematographer. The camera guys (Camos) on this shoot were getting paid to hang out of helicopters, ride jet skis, scuba dive, and strap themselves in the tray of speeding trucks – anything for the shots, right?
At the end of my first day of barely managing to lug around the legendary late Drew’s ridiculously heavy camera tripod, (Stix) lights, (Kinos and a Flec’ bro) and even occasionally the camera itself, (Digi) I knew two things: I wanted to be a Cinematographer and I needed to hit the gym. (That was six years ago… I’m still piss weak.) By the end of day 4 I had a permanent grin stapled to my mug and that’s when I met Camo Gav.
Gav hit me up on the last day and said, ‘You really love this don’t you?’
‘Yep!’ I sad.
‘Well if you really want it you should move to Sydney where the work is and start from the start. Get a job, make coffees, be a runner – do whatever comes up and start there.’ Is all he needed to say.
He gave me his card, and the contact of a production manager in Sydney and four days later I ditched my teaching career and drove to Sydney. To this day I can link every person who’s employed me to Gav, and every day I shoot, I use techniques he taught me – and he wanted to help me because I knew what I wanted to do, and showed I was committed to it.
That doesn’t mean I started wearing Panavision shirts and telling everyone ‘I’m the next Peter Jackson.’ In fact, I don’t tell anyone what I want to do unless they ask.
A few years ago I took a job in Darwin for a History Channel series, as a crew driver. I had already shot news, and a few second camera jobs on ABC documentaries and initially thought the job was below me. But, as I came to terms with it, ‘below me’ turned into, ‘What the hell, I’m going to meet people who work for History Channel.’
The US executive producer figured out soon enough that I could hold a camera steady and I spent 6 weeks in Darwin as a second camera operator for the History channel, and the friendships and experiences that stemmed from taking that job as a ‘driver’ are invaluable to me now.
2) I KNOW MY SHIT, BUT I DON’T KNOW SHIT.
– There’s a difference between knowing your shit, and not knowing you’re shit.
When I assisted the likes of Gav and Rhino on and off for a few years, they (literally) made sure I earned a place at the table. Instead of a lunch break, I’d be handed the Digibeta Cam and a ‘practice’ news overlay assignment with a riveting theme.
‘I want 10 shots for: Betty Grew a Flower, or The fantastic expansion of the Chermside RSL carpark.’ Gav would say. The tape would be reviewed, and my hot, (over-exposed) soft, (out of focus) erratic vision would be deconstructed and examined like a dropped pie.
But I wanted to be good so I’d set lights for interviews and I’d watch monitors. And when Gav said to me at 2am in a the kitchen of our Gold Coast accomodation, ‘Mate, if you really want to be a Camo you’ve got to go shoot news somewhere. It’s the best training. I mean shit, when I was your age I’d already covered two wars, met a few kings, and been to god knows how many countries.
So with Gav and Rhino’s help I hooked up a job shooting news in Townsville, and I did what they told me to do. I got the camera and company truck and on weekends I sat and chased car number plates to practice holding focus.
The first news story I shot was a Christmas in July presentation at a local primary school. Santa’s white beard was blue, and all the kids’ faces were 3 stops under (very, very dark) It was as my mates would say, FOUL.
A year later, I took a job in Cairns as a fixer (whatever the hell that was) for a Discovery Channel program Biggest and Baddest – and met Peter von Puttkammer – a legendary Canadian director and producer. I drove the crew around for two weeks in awe of the places they’d been and projects they’d worked on.
And then one afternoon in the Daintree rainforest we got lucky, happening across a mother Cassowary with her two chicks. Peter thrust an EX1 (Handicam on steroids) into my hands and Todd, (Director of Photography) Niall (host) and I (Just Me) tore off into the forest after them. I helped Todd cover the scene and jagged a shot that managed to find its way into the titles for the series.
When the opportunity arose I knew what I was doing, but never once did I assume I had earned the right to do it.
This year they have kindly added me to their principal team as an additional cinematographer and I’ve shot for Peter, alongside my now good friends Todd and Andy, in Uganda, Venezuela and Louisiana.
3) I MADE MISTAKES AT THE RIGHT TIME
‘Oh, Shit… I wasn’t rolling.’
– Every single camera operator at some stage in their career.
This is a paradox, really. There’s never a right time to make a mistake, and hell I have made a few. But I guess the point is, the likes of Gav and Rhino knew I needed to make my mistakes when the stakes were low, and learn from them so I didn’t make them again. The fact is, it didn’t really matter that Santa’s beard was blue, or that my tape contained ten quality minutes of the ‘ground’ and cuts out just as the journalist fixes her last bit of hair, with the top mic picking up my voice as I say, ‘set.’
Sure, the news director of Townsville was pissed, and the journo’ wouldn’t work with me for a week because she had to get herself made up again, and stagger out into the 38-degree sun for another take, but they were my mistakes and I had to own them.
The other thing I learned by making mistakes is how to, ‘not panic’ (or flat spin, as the guys say) It’s natural for your heart to race, and your mind to fluster when you’re in the shit – but somehow, you get used to it.
I remember panicking when a Quoll took at a swipe at me while shooting for Totally Wild. I lost the shot and nearly took the presenter’s head off with the camera as I lunged out of the way.
Since then I’ve been chased through a car park in the Northern Territory by a pissed 12ft crocodile at 2am, charged by a gorilla, had countless deadly snake encounters, been cut off from the presenter and guide by a grizzly bear in Alaska, fallen through a floating reed bed while relocating a Nile crocodile in Uganda, and bolted when a lion sprung to life at my feet as it defied the anesthetic reversal agent.
My initial reaction is always, get out of jail free – but the camera is still rolling and always aimed in the general direction of the action. In every case the shots have made it to air, and getting myself in the shit has even become the story
I’m not saying one Quoll taught me how to ‘not panic’ but the feeling of ‘missing something rad’ never left me, and I learned from that.
4) I MADE FRIENDS
I’ve found that people like working with people they like.
Most people who work in film and television are freelancers, and freelance industries are driven by word of mouth.
Everyone has work friends, no matter what profession you’re in – but it’s not that common to share a van for three weeks as you trek Spain together, or bunk hammock to hammock for 5 days without a shower in the forest with your colleagues. Most people who work in film and television are freelancers, and freelance industries are driven by word of mouth.
Irrespective of the length of a gig, the crew is like family. We spend so much time immersed in a project, working long hours on little sleep, and often unwinding with a few late nights and some existential banter together. In this process, I’ve come to make life long friends.
This line of work attracts a certain personality type – and it just so happens that I get on really well with these people. That being said, people that know me often say I’m a high-energy person – and while it helps to get the job done well, I’m sure it can be over bearing at times. For this reason, I make my own mind up about people, irrespective of what others think of them. I hear it all the time, ‘It’s a small industry.’ And it is, but it’s filled with big people.
Whether it’s been a three person crew hitting all the major cities in the world in a matter of weeks, a 50 crew reality show that stomps across the nation for three months, eight stinky boys in mud huts in the jungle, a home made tent for 20 Indonesians and myself in the forest of West Papua, or a five star posh documentary with the likes of Sam Neill in Europe and Turkey – it’s been all the more fun because the people I’m surrounded by are intriguing, and I love that.
5) I LOVE WHAT I DO
‘Insert clichéd saying that parallels work happiness to life happiness’
I know it’s lame – but it’s true. Julian Mather wrote a book called, ‘The second best job in the world – The extraordinary adventures of an ABC cameraman.’ And it is true. Wherever I go, it’s unique access to the most interesting and exciting people, places, activities and animals; it desensitises my perception of what is exciting in day-to-day life.
I’m learning quickly that there is no room in the industry for complacency, there’s always going to be someone younger, more talented and more driven that would kill for my position – and this is what pushes me on. The day I don’t pick up the camera and want to make something look better than yesterday will be the day I buy a coffee shop.
I think you have to love this job. For every sixty seconds I spend pinching myself, thinking, ‘Holy shit, I must be dreaming – this is insane.’ There are days and days of lugging, sweating, waiting, rashes, rain, waiting some more, bug bights that drive you insane, hundreds of early, long-haul economy flights, straight into cramped crew vans for just as long, up before the sun – working into the night, eating from a can for days, working through the worst case of diarrhea you could imagine – because there’s no time for a sick day, and so on. It’s just the reality of it, and I’m sure my work mates of 20-30 years have far worse horror stories than I do. (But don’t worry; with the free alcohol at a wrap party every few months, it’s easy to forget the particulars.)
It’s not a glamorous job but it’s a glorious, rewarding job – and from the first day I walked onto a set I knew there was only one job I could do for the rest of my career.