I once heard the saying, “you’ll never get hit by a bus if you don’t play in traffic.”
In the idiom, the bus represents opportunity. Opportunity can’t find and hit you if you don’t go looking for it. The momentum that builds when you go out into the world and do something that pushes you forward is tangible. It builds quickly, and it sends you hurtling off in a direction you may not expect. For instance, I wouldn’t be a steadicam operator now if not for one specific day in 2017.
I didn’t have any plans to be a steadicam operator, I actually remember not wanting to do it at all. I knew that I wanted to be a camera operator, though, so I used one of my days off to go to Panavision and practice operating. Specifically, I wanted to try out a piece of equipment called a gear head. It’s a camera mount that uses two different wheels, one for pan and one for tilt, to control the camera motion. It works remarkably like the anti-aircraft guns you see on WWII-era battleships. They’re nearly impossible to use if you haven’t practiced, so I wanted to be ready to use one if I ever got called up to operate. I was a camera assistant at the time, and nowhere near the position to be behind a camera. In fact, me going to Panavision at all that day was more of an exercise in convincing myself that, someday, somebody would want me to operate a camera.
Looking back, I probably looked a bit overeager. I’ve seen young film professionals with the same attitude I had back then: optimistic to a fault. Regardless of how it looked, I was still there practicing. I was probably only there for 30 minutes before Zo, the head tech on the floor, mentioned that there was an operator giving operating lessons in a room down the hall, and told me I should introduce myself.
That was how I met Greg Smith. He’s a former camera operator with 30 years experience. I think the last movie he did before retiring was John Wick. I introduced myself to him that day, and he became my operating mentor. I learned the craft of steadicam and camera operation from him. I began sitting in on his lessons, eventually taking steadicam classes and immersing myself in steadicam. On my days off from assisting, I would go over to Greg’s house to learn more about camera operating and see if I could get in the rig and stumble through a few shots. After learning for a year, I bought my own steadicam rig and began taking operating jobs on the side. I can trace all of my progress as an operator to that one day I decided to drive to Panavision. Where would I be now if I had stayed home?
You never know when an important opportunity will cross your path. You can’t control when an opportunity comes along, but you can take actions that increase your likelihood of meeting that opportunity. What is it that you ultimately want to do in this industry? Whatever your ultimate goal, get creative and find ways to put yourself in the orbit of that goal. For me, it was practicing with gear and being around other camera people. What can you do to get hit by your bus?