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How Professionals Assess Their Mistakes

One of the most important lessons I learned during my camera department crash course in Atlanta was to keep my mouth shut. I don’t mean this advice to come across in the holier-than-thou, “respect your superiors and only speak when spoken to” way. I learned to keep my mouth shut as a method of prolonging my career. I can think of several times I could have been fired if I had opened my mouth and said the wrong thing. This next story is about the first one of those times.

Toward the middle of the movie, we shot our biggest stunt of the entire film. During a chase scene, a pickup truck chasing our hero car was supposed to run off the highway, break through a guardrail, and cartwheel down an embankment. The cinematographer wanted to get cameras as close to the action as possible so he had gotten us three small Sony AS7 handheld cameras to use as crash-cams. One of the assistants and I were in charge of getting these small cameras inside their armored crash housings, managing all the settings, putting the cameras in place, rolling them, and sprinting away to safety before the cars came barreling toward us. The set was as safe as could be expected, but there was still an element of danger involved in our job. Running down the embankment, away from the highway, I remember the distinct feeling of unpredictability. We hoped the stunt went well; we hoped the truck flipped the right way and we hoped the cameras caught all the action perfectly.

Seconds later, the vehicles came roaring down the road at highway speed. At the predetermined point near the off-ramp, the trucks came together with a loud *crunch* bounced off each other. The hero car drifted back into the middle of the road, and the pickup truck careened through the guardrail at exactly the correct spot. All four wheels were airborne for a moment as the ground fell away under the truck then slammed back onto the grassy embankment. I watched open-mouthed as the driver cut the wheel violently to the left and the truck started flipping. Plastic panels came off the body and flew into the air around the truck, mixing with torn up patches of dirt and grass. The truck rolled four times before finally coming to a stop at the bottom of the embankment. The first AD yelled “Cut!” through his megaphone and the stunt team rushed in to make sure the driver was alright. After looking in and flashing a thumbs-up back to us, the set erupted in cheers. We nailed it.

With the set clear, I walked back up the embankment to retrieve my crash camera from its position. Reaching the armored black Pelican case at the top of the hill, I bent down and used the remote wired into the case to cut the camera and save the clip we had just shot. I picked up the case and started walking to video village, undoing the snaps on the rim and removing the handheld Sony. I wanted to review the footage before I showed the DP so I pressed the playback button on the back of the camera to bring up the most recent clip. Nothing happened. I pressed it again. Nothing. Starting to panic, I pressed a third time, harder. I was still looking at a black screen. The camera had run out of battery. “Fuck.” I hadn’t broken stride and was quickly nearing video village. Not wanting to draw attention to myself, I calmly averted my path away from the DP and around to the camera carts where we kept the extra batteries. I didn’t know at what point the camera had died, so I was praying it had captured the action and saved it to a clip automatically before shutting off. Pulling a fresh battery off the cart and switching it with the dead one in the A7S, I booted the camera back up and looked through the saved clips. My heart sank. There was nothing on the card. My camera had missed the big stunt. I was screwed.

What could I do? The DP was still excitedly watching playback from the other cameras, but he was going to want to see my footage pretty soon. I had absolutely nothing to show him. And what could I say? “Sorry, sir, my camera ran out of battery, we’re going to have to set this enormous stunt up again.” That wasn’t going to fly. Mentally, I had already packed my bags and was on the flight home. I had blown my huge chance. Oh well, can’t change it, might as well get it over with.

Quietly, I walked up to the DP with my camera. Smiling, he turned away from his playback monitor to face me.

“So,” he said, “what did we get?”

For a moment that stretched far too long, I said nothing. I looked at him and had nothing to say. I was silently wracking my brain, trying to come up with the perfect combination of groveling and explaining. I knew I was about to be fired, but why not at least try to talk my boss into letting me stay?

What happened next forever changed the way I approached problems like this one. The DP, reading what he thought was indecision in my expression, filled in the silence with an assumption.

“Nothing of value, huh?”

He had thrown me a lifeline, and I grabbed it like a lost sailor grabbing at a flotation ring.

“Nope, not really.”

Instead of demanding to see the footage, the DP trusted my judgement and moved on. I learned a valuable lesson: until you give people a reason to think otherwise, they assume you’ve done your job. There was nothing I could’ve done to change what happened, and we weren’t setting up the shot again. Correcting the DP’s assumption that the shot was simply not very good instead of nonexistent would’ve done nothing but erode his confidence in my abilities. He was happy with the other angles, and those were good enough. We moved on to the next scene, and I kept my job.

Everyone makes mistakes. I’ve learned to make fewer as I’ve grown in my career, but I still make mistakes from time to time. Learning to assess the severity of a mistake is an incredibly valuable skill for you. Not only will it help you produce higher quality work, you’ll be able to protect your reputation as well.

I’ll give you an example: from time to time, focus pullers miss their shot. Maybe the actor overstepped his mark, maybe the camera operator pushed in too far, maybe the focus puller overpulled. Whatever the reason, if the mistake is large enough, the actor in frame will be out of focus for a moment before the focus puller is able to correct the mistake. We refer to this as “buzzing the shot.” More often than not, the focus puller will call for another take as soon as a cut is called. He’s acknowledging his mistake and saying that, for the good of the project, we need to do the shot again. The problem is easy to fix and by fixing it, he’s upping both the quality of the film and his reputation as a good focus puller.

If you find yourself in a situation where correcting a mistake is easy, you should speak up and correct it. If your mistake is unfixable, like mine with the crash camera, keeping quiet can be the best course of action. Exercise your own best judgement, but don’t sell yourself up the river unnecessarily just because you feel bad. Besides, stretching the truth on set is a time-tested method of career preservation. Even when you haven’t made a mistake, telling the truth isn’t always in your best interest. Years later, when I was starting out on my first steadicam projects, people would often ask how long I had been operating. Even as soon as a month after buying my steadicam rig, my answer was, “two years.” I was still new but I didn’t want directors and cinematographers thinking of me as a novice operator and hovering over my shoulder, waiting for me to make a mistake. As long as I had the skill to execute the shot, who cared how long I had been operating?

The time I spent in Atlanta was a young filmmaker’s dream. To this day, some of my favorite memories in the industry are from the time I spent there on my first movie. I loved the work and I loved the people. The city will always hold a special place in my heart and I was sad to leave when the movie ended. Georgia is beautiful, especially in the spring. It was early March now and the trees, barren and brown when I arrived in February, had exploded in a melody of green leaves and yellow and white flowers. It rained often and, after every storm, the air was light with a fresh, cool crispness that gave me energy and called me to stay. The local camera crewmembers had even extended me an invitation. They said that, if I stayed, they’d hire me as a utility on their next movie. The town was extraordinarily busy, and they said I’d never stop working. Still though, I felt in my gut that I needed to continue my career in LA. I trusted that instinct and, after an incredible adventure in Atlanta, I headed home.

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