Cameramen need lots of experience to shoot cinematic features, and Vince McGahon has that in spades. The northern lad landed a degree in Film and Television from the University of York before going on to shoot with Spielberg on Ready Player One and all kinds of wizardry in the Fantastic Beasts films. So what does it take to be a camera operator in the film business?
That is a subject that Vince McGahon is well placed to answer. After cutting his teeth with a local company on graduation, he went on to reskill as a Steadicam operator and expand his work into TV drama, pop promos, commercials and features. His credits now include both of the Fantastic Beasts films, Ready Player One, 7 Days in Entebbe, The World’s End, The Damned United (about Brian Clough’s disintegration as manager of Leeds United), and Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.
Blockbusters may be Hollywood’s cultural sledgehammer, but the role of the camera operator is a subtle and diplomatic one as they are the focus of pretty much any film scene. McGahon has a pragmatic approach to his craft and urges aspiring shooters to learn their craft inside and out.
So what part does a camera operator have to play on the set, both technically and in terms of creativity?
You are there primarily to interface between the director, the director of photography (DP) and everybody else on the floor. Once you figure out what the shot is going to be you become the focus of everyone’s attention on the floor, because they know that you’re the one who knows what’s going to be seen in each shot. You have to talk to the art department to see if there is a part of the set they need to dress, liaise with the grips [technicians who operate dollies and other equipment for camera movement] and see if any track needs to be laid, and if there are effects elements you need to talk to the effects people.
You become a focus on the set for everyone really and you have to try and answer all their questions, which sometimes you can’t. Before that you have to talk to the director and the DP. Every job is slightly different and everyone has a different opinion on how to do stuff. Hopefully you have a director and a DP who are on the same wavelength. One of your jobs is to get on that wavelength and to contribute as much as you can.
Some people don’t want you to contribute, they simply want you to be there as a camera operator. That’s fine and it can be enjoyable because it takes away a bit of the pressure. Even in those situations you still become the focus of people’s attention.
People want to know what they’re going to see in the shot. That then leads into dealing with the actors. They also know that you’re the one who’s going to see them first doing their performance and they often have questions for you. For example, some actors like to know the shot sizes, while others don’t care. So you’ll have to get on their wavelength as well.
How are you brought onto a project and what process do you go through to prepare?
Most of the time I’m hired by the DP because of a recommendation. Occasionally a director likes you because they’ve worked with you before – if you are familiar with their DP then that really helps them.
For preparation I’d say read the script. I try to learn it but not too well. I probably read the script half a dozen times over the course of a couple of weeks. By the time you have read it the second time it will have revisions. The chances are that by the time you come to shoot on the first day, the script you read six weeks ago has changed a lot.
Preparation time varies on the size of the film. On a larger film you might get two or three weeks, some of that will be equipment prep, some of it will be checking locations, which I think is one of the most interesting parts of preparation.
You go to locations with the set designer, the DP and the director, and you get a better sense of what they want to achieve and what you might have to do on each day in terms of shots and what equipment you might need. But when you start shooting it becomes a day-to-day thing because stuff like scripts change all the time. You have to be ready for that to happen.
For example, the stunt department gets a lot of time to rehearse their complicated fights, which they shoot themselves on their iPhones. They then show you a nice cut of this sequence and they say ‘This is what we’re going to do’. You have your big Alexa or whatever you are shooting with and you have to try to interpret those shots.
Generally I’d say any information you can get in advance is useful.
Tell us a bit about a clip you were involved in shooting – the twins fight scene in Edgar Wright’s The World’s End
The main thing I remember from the World’s End shoot was that it was a cold night in a car park in Letchworth. I remember all of us thinking ‘Why aren’t we in a studio shooting this?’ Apart from the bit where she gets thrown through the fence and you see a little bit out the back, we all thought it could have been shot in a studio – because of the way it was lit too. It wasn’t even a pub car park, it was a car park that was dressed up as a pub.
The part at the beginning where they are sitting at the table was all done on a conventional dolly. When it goes into the fight sequence that was pretty much handheld. It was all broken down into individual shots with a very specific Style that Edgar has developed – lots of whip pans – and broken down into sections.
The two girls were twins and one might have been Edgar’s ex-girlfriend. Their mum appeared later on in the film as well. It was very cleverly coordinated with some good stunt work. There were some dummies involved when their heads were ripped off and various passes for visual effects. It was a lot of fun, but it was a very very cold night.
Are you still shooting film or is it all digital these days?
I haven’t done any film jobs for two years. The last one was Ready Player One and there was some digital shooting in that. I think people always want to consider film as an option. Most say they don’t use it because it comes down to money but I don’t think that’s the only consideration. More and more cinematic shooting is digital. The last job I worked on was Alexa 65 large format. Those larger format and larger resolutions are very popular at the moment.
What can you tell us about Steadicam – what it is, what it does, why you use it and do you have to use it?
It is fairly common these days. Most films and TV dramas will have Steadicam shots in them. Anywhere you can wear it and travel with it, you can use it. The most common thing is to precede two people walking, where you couldn’t lay down a rail – because they’d have to avoid it and you’d see the rail behind. It’s quite a specialised skill and it takes a bit of practice, but you need to do it while filming to get the hang of it.
It’s not always the right tool. People use it as an easy get out. I’ve shot stuff where it is used all day and even used for static shots. It’s a tool that is good for some things and not for others.
Are systems like AR and Trinity helping to develop Steadicam for the next generation of camera operators?
One of the things about Steadicam is that there are two modes. There’s a Normal Mode at eye height and a Low Mode at around gut level. With normal Steadicam you can’t do a shot that goes from eye height to gut level and maintain it. With AR and the newer Trinity system (from Arri) you can rotate the arm and it stays level.
AR has been around quite a long time but it never really took off as a standard tool. Trinity will probably do better because it is a bit more user friendly. That thing of being able to go from a high to a low shot [on a gimbal] is not something you need to do that regularly. If you want to do that then these are the tools to do it. At the moment Trinity is specialised. You used to have to get a specialised Steadicam operator to do it when it first came out. Depending on the space you’ve got you might just use a crane or a short jib arm. It depends on what the overall shot will be whether or not it is the right tool for the job.
You find with the stabilised body-worn kit that you plan out a shot and spend a lot of time doing it, but there is coverage anyway and the footage can be cut. We are wasting a lot of time on a thing we don’t need. You have to think of the bigger picture. I know it helps actors if you are shooting longer takes because it helps them with their performance, but we get bogged down in doing a big master shot for the whole scene and you don’t need to if you are going to provide coverage.
Vince McGahon was speaking as part of the Aesthetica Film Festival masterclass ‘Life Behind the Lens: The Role of the Camera Operator’