Assistant Roundtable: Camera & Editing Build Bridge Between Production & Post

by Stephanie Argy

Collaboration between camera and editorial can be essential to the success of a film or television project. Yet all too often, a relationship that should be based on shared craftsmanship and common goals breaks down due to lack of communication. Because much of the interaction takes place between assistants, and because they will be the next generation of editors and cinematographers, it is particularly important that they understand one another. In this interview, two assistant editors, James Andrykowski and Peter Mergus, and two camera assistants, David Dechant and Thomas Vandermillen, discuss what they know about one another’s jobs, what they wish their counterparts in camera or editorial knew about them, and issues that both must address, such as career advancement, technological developments and the future of the industry as they see it.

James Andrykowski: It’s a shame that assistant editors and camera assistants don’t get together more often. You’ll brush shoulders in dailies, but that’s about it.

David Dechant: In my whole career, I don’t think I’ve spoken to an assistant editor. If I ever hear from them, it’s always just a message: “This is something you should have done.”

Thomas Vandermillen: At the start of our careers, when we’re clapper/loaders, the feedback from editorial tends to be negative. But as you ascend through the ranks, the communication becomes better.

Dechant: When I’ve gotten notes from the editors, it’s usually stuff that I feel was beyond our control. We’re hanging off a cliff, trying to get a slate in front of the lens, and we get notes like, “Slate not in frame.” Or we’ll be doing golden-hour shots, and they’ll say “Why no slates?” It’s our job to get slates, and we know if we don’t, we’re going to hear about it. But sometimes, the director or cameraman says, “Get that goddamn slate out of my lens!”

Vandermillen: But we have to set a precedent. I try not to let the DP say no. That slate’s important.

Peter Mergus: In the amount of time it takes a DP to say, “No. Don’t slate it,” just clap your hands. Has there ever been anything that you’ve needed from an assistant editor?

“From what I’m hearing, printing film and showing it at dailies is rapidly disappearing. Only serious auteur directors are getting sit-down film dailies.” – Peter Mergus

Dechant: No.

Mergus: So assistant editors need information from camera assistants, but not vice versa.

Andrykowski: I actually did camera for a while, non-union, in Denver. It’s not an easy job, so I have a lot of respect for camera. But while I don’t mean to sound harsh, I wish the camera department knew how much we clean up their mistakes.

Vandermillen: What are the main mistakes that you encounter?

Andrykowski: Uncircled takes, or not talking with the script supervisor about what should be printed. Not giving us information about what to do with tests. In the morning, if we don’t have the script supervisor’s editorial log, we use the camera reports. We build everything, and then we find out we’re missing one scene completely — it was mis-slated or not circled. It can be very frustrating.

Mergus: You guys are so busy, I know. But mis-slating is a huge problem for us. On big features, assistant editors create a computer database by hand on a laptop, and if there’s one character wrong, it can create a big nightmare. If we’re not printing film, the synching gets done in telecine by a guy who has no association with the film. He’s working at a lab at one in the morning, and if he has to spend more than ten seconds synching something, he’s going to leave it MOS, and we have to put it together manually in the Avid.

Dechant: We know there’s no assistant editor synching this stuff — and we know who’s watching the film. Most of the notes that I make on the camera report are, “Print it this way.” And it seems like that never happens. I don’t think they’re looking at the camera report.

In the camera realm, they often say that moving from first assistant to operator is the hardest transition to make. They warn a person to save at least a year’s salary to make that move. – Thomas Vandermillen

Mergus: All departments suffer from the fact that people not affiliated with the show have a great deal to do with what the product looks like by the time it gets to dailies. Sound can suffer from this more than anything else.

Dechant: Wouldn’t it be better if you got back to synching dailies like you used to?

Mergus: It depends on the budget. And it’s not just synching, it’s database management. All those slate numbers and time codes and footages get pumped into a machine. The editing gets done with them, and then the numbers get spit out and the film is cut manually. Eight, nine months after you’ve wrapped production, you start discovering problems with how something was logged. I think every assistant editor would like to control that process.

Andrykowski: I agree, but I don’t see that in the near future.

Mergus: In television, it’s so easy to use a Smart Slate and put picture and sound together in telecine. And from what I’m hearing, printing film and showing it at dailies is rapidly disappearing. Only serious auteur directors are getting sit-down film dailies. On smaller films, it’s gone.

Dechant: But if there’s no assistant editor at telecine, is the telecine person watching for focus? Because you get a much-degraded version of what he saw, so you can’t really judge.

Andrykowski: Doesn’t the DP or his first assistant call the lab every day, making sure everything was cool?

Dechant: In television, where I work, no one’s calling.

 “I think assistant editors and camera assistants suffer from a common ailment, which is that DPs and editors never retire” –  Peter Mergus

Vandermillen: It depends on the DP. You can get somebody who’s very calm and confident, or you have people that are calling the lab constantly. I had a problem with a lab recently, where they said half of the screen was out of focus. The DP was pulling his hair out. And as it turned out, the lab had the screen keystoned.

Andrykowski: That’s another important thing: When you have communication between editorial and camera, you put the fires out before the news gets to the big boys.

Dechant: If you were to find a major camera problem, don’t you, as an assistant editor, still need to call the producer?

Andrykowski: Yes. But we call the DP first, so it doesn’t come out of left field.

Dechant: One day on a sitcom, the production manager came down, terrified. He said, “Every camera was completely out of focus the whole day!” I said, “How can four cameras be out of focus all day long?” Ultimately, a couple of slates were out of focus. Slates, not scenes.

Andrykowski: That’s because of the lack of communication between editorial and camera. I think people wait for the other person to make the first phone call. Normally, at the start of a project, I contact camera and ask, “Is it cool for me to call you?” Then at the first day of dailies, I make an effort to do the old meet-and-greet. Meet the loader — at times, the lower-ranked people are more important.

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Vandermillen: Going through the loader or second is very smart. A lot of times, firsts don’t have the personality to communicate.

Andrykowski: And the firsts are on the set, so their cell phones are off. But if you get to the loader and say “Can you get word to the first and the DP that this film doesn’t look right,” believe me, the first calls you.

“Assistant editors have become this hub, and the Avid is this central machine that everything goes into and out of.” – Peter Mergus

Building a Career

Mergus: What’s the hierarchy in camera? How do you progress through the department?

Vandermillen: We begin as a clapper/loader, moving up to second assistant, moving up to first assistant. The first assistant tends to be the key, meaning that he runs the department for the DP. Then comes operator and then DP. But there’s no particular order in which you start or enter. I’ve worked with guys who’ve gotten out of college and gone straight to DP, and I’ve worked with people who have worked their way up.

Dechant: There’s almost no progression that I see as far as moving up the ranks. And it is monumentally slow — ten, twenty, thirty years. You can move up a notch — but it’s hard to go all the way from loader to DP.

Mergus: Isn’t it possible to make aggressive moves? Let’s say you’re a second assistant camera guy on $100-million-dollar features, and you get a chance to shoot some low-budget thing.

Dechant: Of course. But you need to make money. If I could hang out and not make money for five or ten years, I’d be a DP. But I have to make money; I can’t wait.

Mergus: It’s a young person’s gambit. It’s a lot easier to do those things if you don’t have a family.

Vandermillen: In the camera realm, they often say that moving from first assistant to operator is the hardest transition to make. They warn a person to save at least a year’s salary to make that move.

Dechant: I’ve made two moves to operator, and two retreats from operator. So I know it’s hard. And our union makes it doubly hard. Once you have made the transition to operator and you have a certain number of days worked at the level, then you have committed to it for a year. You have to wait a year before you can re-rate to assistant.

They’ll hire you without any [digital] experience, because no one has any experience.” – David Dechant 

Vandermillen: I used to compete with a very good second assistant for jobs. She went to AFI and jumped to DP, and now she’s very successful.

Dechant: That’s what I think the model is. If you want to be a DP, start as a DP.

Mergus: I think assistant editors and camera assistants suffer from a common ailment, which is that DPs and editors never retire — and apparently never die. I’m being facetious, but I know world-famous editors with closets full of Academy Awards, and they always want to work. It’s tightened up dramatically over the last decade, because of the technological shift. There are more people than there are positions available, and it’s getting worse. The key is finding an editor who will let you cut a little bit, because you have to learn your craft. In the old days, when you were dealing with film, you were much more hands on. The editor was at his KEM, your head was over his shoulder. And even if they never spoke, the assistant was learning. I got in too late as a first assistant to see that. Now we’re in another room, and if you only have one Avid, you and the editor work completely different shifts. The mentor relationship between editor and assistant has broken down. And I fear the same thing is going to happen in camera. It’s going to become more difficult for loaders and assistants. You guys are going to find yourselves blacking and coding tapes in the back of a truck.

Dechant: I think our local is showing a big lack of leadership in defining what the HD job positions are. HD has totally changed our jobs — the titles no longer fit what we’re doing. You’ll go on the set and the digital imaging technician, the DIT, will tell you, “Don’t touch the camera from the lens backwards. That’s my thing.” I don’t load the tape into the camera. That’s the camera utility job. And the rates are screwed up. The camera utility, who’s holding the cable, is making much more an hour than the first assistants.

Andrykowski: You actually do less now?

Dechant: Vastly less.

Mergus: Are fewer people getting hired?

Vandermillen: What we lose in assistants, we gain in video technicians. So the crew is not actually diminishing — it’s enlarging in many cases. There’s a massive array of video technicians now.

Dechant: I wonder how this changes things for editorial, because between takes, they don’t cut.

“We might be in the rain. Or shooting underwater. Or in the snow. For you guys — maybe the air conditioning’s a little too cold.”- Thomas Vandermillen

Mergus: That’s the worst possible scenario, and it is happening. I did an HD project for TV recently, and it was a nightmare. With HD, communication between camera and editorial at the beginning becomes much more important because, for a lot of people in both camera and editorial, it’s their first time, and more mistakes get made.

Andrykowski: I started my career at the time Peter said he wished he could have, when there was a large team of film assistants, and everybody was close. That large team is gone, which is sad. You guys are just starting to go through the same process now, with the digital cameras, and I think your large camera family is going to be destroyed, too.

Vandermillen: Not really destroyed — just shifting. There is still the same amount of people. They just take on different jobs.

Andrykowski: You won’t need a loader.

Dechant: Correct.

Andrykowski: And a second?

Dechant: The second’s gone, I think.

Vandermillen: You sound like production.

Andrykowski: Exactly. That’s what happened to editorial. “Why do you need this guy?” On the last movie, we had a crew of five to seven people. Now there are two. We’ve had to cut these guys loose, and it’s horrible.

Mergus: They’ll say you can bring in two assistants to synch dailies and when you conform, bring them back for another three weeks. It’s like being on set, where the B-camera operator doesn’t have to be there on days when there’s no B-camera.

There are a lot of Avid assistants in the Guild, but work is getting hard to find. The amount of people we see dropping off resumés every day is incredible.” – James Andrykowski

Changing Responsibilities

Dechant: I think when film goes away, my responsibilities will be diminished. Did digital technology also take your responsibilities away in editorial? I guess there used to be hell to pay if you lost a piece of film. That’s not going to happen anymore.

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Mergus: No, but now you’re responsible for that database and there are more mistakes and worse mistakes that can be made there. Assistant editors have become this hub, and the Avid is this central machine that everything goes into and out of.

Andrykowski: The responsibilities have increased and it’s all on the first — you don’t have anyone to back you up. This is my first movie where I’ve had my own Avid, because I saw the Avid person as nothing but a techie, a transfer person, trying to keep the editor happy and make tapes for everybody. I thought that had nothing to do with the art. First assistants in editorial are becoming coordinators — and it will probably be the same thing for camera.

Dechant: As we go into HD, aren’t you just getting tapes from us? I think the labs are going to be gone.

Andrykowski: They’re changing — holding our negatives, doing transfers, synching sound. But you really don’t know which way this is going to go. For the longest time, people were saying that film people were going to be extinct in editorial, and Avid people would run the world. But now, at Sony, all of the media for our show, and for one other, are kept in a central station, and they want to do that with more shows in the future.

On one film, I kept a sleeping bag in my trunk. I never knew when I might need it.” – Peter Mergus

Mergus: That’s scary.

Andrykowski: It’s hard to tell which way editorial is headed. Eventually, maybe editorial will get a DVD from you guys and a Deva disk from sound, and we’ll synch it up ourselves again.

Mergus: Will there be timing?

Andrykowski: Who knows? You might be able to time it in the cameras.

Vandermillen: With the last 24P show I worked on, an umbilical cord connected to the cameras went into a control room where the digital image technician would set the filtration and the stop and the look. But it was a nightmare in terms of trying to move the camera around with this cable connected to it. And of course in the end, they always want it to look like film.

Mergus: I’ve heard it’s easier to light HD shows than film shows.

Vandermillen: The problem is night work. In a recent car commercial I did, stuff looked great during the day, but when the sun went down, there was no latitude.

Mergus: Are there DPs resisting the HD thing? And are there are guys saying, “I’m a specialist in HD”?

Vandermillen: Absolutely. There are people who jump on the technology bandwagon, and I’ve also worked with DPs who refuse to do digital jobs — film purists. It’s not just loading the magazines and hitting the sticks anymore. You’re interfacing with computers now, and you have to set aside time to learn the process — and actually go out and do it, too.

“There’s almost no progression that I see as far as moving up the ranks. And it is monumentally slow — ten, twenty, thirty years. You can move up a notch — but it’s hard to go all the way from loader to DP.” – David Dechant

Dechant: The best training’s on the job.

Andrykowski: But how do you get the job if you don’t have the experience?

Dechant: They’ll hire you without any experience, because no one has any experience.

Relationships

Mergus: Most of the assistants I know work with very small groups of people. I’ve worked for the same editor for about two years now.

Dechant: If I have an established relationship with a DP, then they’ll call me. But jobs with someone new usually come through another assistant. They can’t do a job, so they send me on it. Jobs on sitcoms can come from anywhere, and it’s a power struggle. The producers, DPs, production managers and directors all want to hire. Whoever has the most juice is going to do it, so knowing the DP doesn’t always get you the job.

Vandermillen: You’ll get on a roll with one DP, and he’ll have a relationship with you for ten years. Then maybe he can’t take you to Canada, so you’ll hook up with somebody else for a year. Once that ends, you communicate with other assistants. And you can day play or you can go out and do B-camera on other shows.

Andrykowski: I think it’s a good idea, at least when you’re starting out, if you spread yourself around. I know assistants who’ve worked with only one person — then when the editor takes a year off, they’re out of business. I’ve been very lucky not having any time off, partially because of the number of people I know.

Mergus: I’ve done all types of projects, from features to TV dramas to mini-series to movies-of-the-week. You have to be versatile. Most of the good crews are like that — everybody knows everything. It’s a little scary that a lot of Avid assistants coming up have never handled film. They come out of college knowing the Avid because they did their student films on it. And they only have this vague concept of what footage is.

Andrykowski: It’s a negative cutter’s nightmare to deal with someone who doesn’t have film experience.

“I don’t think I would ever work overtime for free. I don’t know too many people who do, fortunately. We rely on our editors to protect us if the post supervisor complains.” – Peter Mergus

Mergus: A lot of people want the Guild to offer classes in film. It’s still around, and you’ve got to know it.

Andrykowski: There are a lot of Avid assistants in the Guild, but work is getting hard to find. The amount of people we see dropping off resumés every day is incredible.

Mergus: And dropping out of the business.

Dechant: A few are dropping out of camera. I wouldn’t say a whole lot.

Mergus: Because you really haven’t hit the digital thing yet.

Unemployment and Overtime

Vandermillen: The whole Canada thing forced a lot of people out. I worked on a feature called The Rules Of Attraction late last year when the town was dead, but it was frightening how many people were looking for work.

Mergus: I was lucky to work all the way through that de facto strike. Not only were things tight, but there was also this shift in people’s thinking. I think technology had a lot to do with it, but it’s also the industry contracting.

Dechant: I think new people should still come into this industry. If you’re good, you’re going to last, and you’ll enjoy your job, and there will be jobs for you. And if you’re burned out and you say, “All the work’s in Canada,” then it’s all in Canada.

Andrykowski: So is it like an earthquake? It’s good because all the people who can’t handle it leave?

“For the longest time, people were saying that film people were going to be extinct in editorial, and Avid people would run the world.” – James Andrykowski

Vandermillen: Yeah, it cleans everything out. When I have down time, I relish it.

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Mergus: But for you guys, free time is a different concept than for us. Almost every assistant editor has suffered through multi-month blocks of time off. When I’m out of work, I enjoy the first two weeks, and then I get incredibly antsy.

Dechant: All my film school friends became assistant editors, and I was always envious of their jobs that lasted so long.

Mergus: And their long periods of unemployment and their pasty skin. But with the new schedules, you can get very tired. I was on a movie-of-the-week where we worked every day for about a month — Saturdays and Sundays and a couple of 26-hour days, where you come in at nine one morning and leave eleven the next. You’re just a zombie — all you want is sleep.

Dechant: When I was leaving school and trying to pick my career, I saw the editors, and I thought, “They can just get victimized in that room by themselves.”

Mergus: Sometimes we force it on ourselves. Our job is to do what we need to do to get the film done. If we need to work overtime to do that, we’ll generally work it. But I don’t think I would ever work overtime for free. I don’t know too many people who do, fortunately. We rely on our editors to protect us. And then if the post supervisor complains, we explain what needs to be done. Either bring on more people or there’s going to be a delay in the schedule.

Dechant: When I did low-budget features, I worked a lot of unpaid overtime. But sitcoms are very regimented, and they don’t shoot much overtime — which makes them incredibly attractive.

Vandermillen: What kind of hours do you guys shoot?

“First assistants in editorial are becoming coordinators — and it will probably be the same thing for camera.” – James Andrykowski

Dechant: Usually the first day is nine to ten hours and the second day is 12 hours.

Mergus: Just two days?

Dechant: The camera crew is on for two days. So you try to have two sitcoms a week.

Vandermillen: I’ve done some sitcoms where you go 15 hours. But I get cranky after 12. You don’t get a lot accomplished in your fourteenth or sixteenth hour. The crew becomes mind dead.

Mergus: But you guys don’t have what we have, which is, “The film has to be at the theater for the preview by 7 o’clock tonight.” You can’t say, ‘I’m not as efficient in my sixteenth hour as I could be.”

Dechant: No, but they tell us, “We’re never coming back to this location, so if we don’t get it now, that’s it. We’re going to go as long as it takes.”

Mergus: On one film, I kept a sleeping bag in my trunk. I never knew when I might need it.

Andrykowski: The toughest for me was Outbreak, with Neil Travis. It was eight weeks from the last day of shooting to the release date — with one day off. We would get there eight in the morning, and we would go home around three or four in the morning. And if we had a preview, we wouldn’t go home. But to me that was fun. I would much rather spend 12 to 16 hours in the cutting room than on the set. We have a room we go to every day. Whether it’s location or not, you guys are just popping all over the place.

Vandermillen: We might be in the rain. Or shooting underwater. Or in the snow. For you guys — maybe the air conditioning’s a little too cold.

“I wonder if there could be a paid day where we’re supposed to go visit the editors and talk to them. It should be part of the prep period.” – David Dechant

Andrykowski: You make me feel so prissy! Sometimes it is a little too cold! That’s why I have my sweater there.

Mergus: Camera has always been a heroic job. Camera assistants are like the Marines of the set..

Andrykowski: You guys are the macho cool dudes, and we’re looked at like nerds.

Vandermillen: Then where does the term “camera geek” come from?

Dechant: Yeah. The grips make fun of us all the time.

Communication

Mergus: I think our Guild is great. It’s strong and getting stronger. I had ambivalent feelings about the massive expansion over the last couple of years, but people are settling in.

Andrykowski: I agree. My experience with the Editors Guild has been great.

Vandermillen: Our union is very weak. They do things like try to get unemployment raises. I remember reading an article in one of our newsletters, “The Ten Most Important Things To Do When You’re Unemployed,” which talked about which bills to pay first. And I thought, what’s next, “The Ten Easiest Ways to Commit Suicide After You’re Unemployed”? And now they’re concerned about putting up a new building.

Dechant: We have a career counselor at our local, and I hear that her emphasis is getting people redirected to another career.

“If I have an established relationship with a DP, then they’ll call me. But jobs with someone new usually come through another assistant.” – David Dechant

Mergus: Don’t say editorial! It’s full, okay?!

Dechant: I wonder if there could be a paid day where we’re supposed to go visit the editors and talk to them. It should be part of the prep period.

Mergus: It’s a great idea. Producers will never pay for it, but next time you’re on a show and you’re prepping, just come by for a few hours and we’ll say, “Hey, this is an Avid. This is what it does.” And the assistant editors can go over there, and you’ll say, “This is our camera. This is what it does.”

Andrykowski: There’s nothing wrong with having the editor and his crew and the DP and his crew meet and have lunch or dinner and just talk. Then all the communication barriers are broken down. And if the editors and DPs don’t make that effort, then the firsts can get together. What I sometimes do is print t-shirts and give them to the camera guys. Any kind of a crew shirt, they dig it.

Vandermillen: We have to initiate it and make the phone call. During the week when I’m prepping a show, I always try to call the assistant editor and just say hello.

Andrykowski: Phone calls like that make a huge difference. Last year, I worked on Scorpion King with Michael Tronick, and the camera people called and said, “Here’s my cell phone. If you ever need anything, call.” They knew that I wasn’t going to call unless it was really important. It eventually came down to a casual thing at dailies. I’d say, “That looked like it was a bitch to get that slate in there.” And he’d say, “Yeah, it was, but I’m watching your back.” That’s what works really well — when you’re on the same wavelength. You’re fighting the same battle, on the same side, and not fighting each other.

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