How to Become a World-Class Camera Operator and DP Without Waiting Your Whole Life

Credit: Melissa Scribner
If you’ve seen a major movie in the past decade, you’ve probably seen Meg Kettell at work in the camera department.

The Dark Knight Rises? Kettell was there as second assistant camera. The Handmaid’s Tale? B-camera operator for the Washington D.C. unit. HBO Max's drama Seneca? Director of photography. 

But her path is not necessarily what she recommends today.

Kettell spoke with No Film School to share everything from how to be a go-to camera operator, using autofocus for the first time on the Sony FX9, and why the digital revolution means today you can buck the old-school route to becoming a DP.

Learning the skills to be AC, operator, or DP

Even as an eighth-grader, Kettell was developing 35mm photographs. When she started paying attention to the credits of movies, she saw the role of "cinematographer." Her journey took her from NYU to some of the highest-profile sets in America. (Think I Am Legend, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Succession, to name a few.)

No Film School: You have so many impressive, varied credits as operator or assistant. How did you learn to work at this high level?

Meg Kettell: First, I had my very low budget, scrappy film school basics. Then I joined the Camera Union here in New York in 2005, about a year after I graduated from film school. I met some people, one job led to the next job. That’s what always happens. I ended up AC’ing as a 2nd AC on really giant movies in New York back before there was really TV in New York.

I was making a really good living as a 2nd AC on big union movies for many years. I learned, I got to work that way with just some of the best DPs in the world. It was the opposite of scrappy film school, where you do whatever for no money. Instead I learned, "This is how you would do it on a union movie or TV." Then you get to use the big cranes and all the big toys. That's how I learned this weird combination of things that I have in my toolkit to this day.

How to become a camera operator today? Forget formality, just shoot a documentary

As Kettell describes, the camera operator coordinates the set up of each shot and operates the camera, working closely with the DP, ACs, and dolly grip. To learn, she started out shooting a lot of documentary projects.

NFS: How do you become a camera operator today

Kettell: The Industry has really changed a lot. When I went to film school, everything was 35mm and 16mm. Ever since the ARRI Alexa came out, all high-end stuff shifted digital. Before, it was very cost-prohibitive to shoot anything on film. You would never own your own camera. You couldn't just roll up and know how to load at 35mm mag. You couldn't put your hands on it until you were trained, because you might break it or expose the day's work.

Meg Kettell gets her hands on the first Sony FX9 camera to reach the United States.Credit: Melissa Scribner

Now, I mean, my iPhone shoots 4K.

Today, you can go out and do it on the weekends, go out and shoot and operate. So much of operating is just adding the muscle memory and the experience. It’s the intuition of, what the actor is going to do? Or the subject in documentary. I really recommend documentary work because there's no take two. You have to learn to be so tuned in to what the subject is doing that you can anticipate what your subject will do. That really hones your skills.

I would just say to anybody new coming up, you don't really need to do any of that old stuff. Go and learn by doing.

Why the best way to support the DP sometimes means being quiet

For Kettell, being a good camera operator means using the power of observation. And please, put down your phone!

NFS: Say you’ve been shooting and learning to be an operator, when you get your first professional gig. What do you need to know?

Kettell: I think as a camera operator, you are there to serve the DP. You want to be totally tuned in to what he or she is thinking and trying to do. The DP has a million more things on their plate than just the camera operator has. If you can take any of those items off their plate and put them onto your plate, or do silently the things that need to be done without being in a way or making a big deal of it, that is it. That's the best thing you can do for your DP.

You want to be totally, totally, totally present, not on your phone. You want to be paying attention, reading the sides, reading the script, knowing the material, knowing what the goal of the scene is. And then you want to just be totally tuned into your DP and what that person needs and is looking for and your actors. The operator and the actors have a beautiful, usually a beautiful symbiotic relationship where you're looking out for each other. Sometimes they're looking to you to see like, "Oh, was I good? Did I hit my mark?"

So stay quiet but actively observant, show your team you're paying attention and involved and interacting and being as creative as possible.

Meg Kettell operating the Sony FX9 for 'Free Range' test footage.Credit: Sony

NFS: Is there anything you need to go over with the DP before the shoot?

Kettell: It depends on what it is, TV show, movie, if it's union, non-union. I would say a majority of the time, I get operating work because I know the DP, and the DP has worked with me before and is hiring me because they thought of me for that project, that day, that shot or whatever. So if you have an established relationship with the DP, you usually wouldn't have to maybe have any conversations ahead of time, except for maybe a text the night before, "Do you need me to bring anything? Is there anything I can do for you?"

If you have any questions, you can touch base. It’s best to be very present and aware, but not by taking up too much of their time. You want to learn to be a presence that's not too loud or distracting.

Up close with the Sony FX9 during the test shoot 'Free Range.'Credit: Sony

Why the most important job on set (focus) is the most thankless

As the first assistant camera, you are in charge of the most crucial element of storytelling. No pressure!

Kettell: Pulling focus is such a thankless job. But it's the most important job. Everyone notices when you've messed up or something isn't in focus. Nobody really knows all the work that you're doing to keep things in focus, but they know the minute that you've messed up. Because it's like such a key component of filmmaking that things are in focus and you choose to put focus, the revealing things and telling the story by what you're putting in focus and what's out of focus. And what you're revealing and what you're racking to. And so it can be creative, even though people think of it as super technical. Being a 1st AC, the worst part is everybody knows when you've messed up. But when everything is crystal clear and looks great, nobody's thinking about it!

Why the first time Kettell used autofocus was with the FX9

Auto what?

NFS: You were one of the first people to use the Sony FX9.

Kettell: We were the first ones in America to use that camera. It was so fun.

NFS: What are your impressions of the FX9?

Kettell: This camera is amazing. It's really incredible, gives you all these tools right out of the box. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever used autofocus, or autoexposure on a camera before. I don't usually do any auto function. I'm always manual. And so, it was fun to have engineers there and to have my focus puller play around with all the settings.

We were in Colorado filming this family that has a sustainable farming operation, raising chickens and grass-fed cows. So we used the autofocus for filming a lot of the animals. I think the one that made it into the finished video was some chicken flying out of the coop. One perched right in front of the camera and the other ones flew away. We used autofocus for that. My focus puller was there, but she would never anticipate where a chicken's going to go!

And we used it for some horses running around where it would be impossible to follow. With that kind of focus, in manual it is a guess and you're not sure that you're going to get it right. Instead we were using the autofocus.

As for autoexposure, auto ND and dual ISO are my two favorite functions on the FX9. The Auto ND was great when doing all the time-lapse sunrise and sunset shots!

Meg Kettell tests the new Sony FX9 Autofocus on some unpredictable chickens.Credit: Melissa Scribner

NFS: How do you see the FX9 fitting into your production life?

Kettell: In my world, it definitely fits into my doc and doc-style shootings. Sometimes I do branded content, and they'll oftentimes want it vérité or "doc-style" filmed. And the FX9 would be great for that. It would honestly be amazing for any kind of documentary work, or certainly one-man-band, when you're by yourself with no other crew and you need everything at the tip of your fingers. The FX9 is the perfect camera.

Here is the sample footage from the shoot Free Range where Kettell got a chance to test out the FX9 for the first time.

Will autofocus ever make its way to big-budget productions?

NFS: If this Sony autofocus technology continues to advance, do you foresee autofocus being used in the future?

Kettell: It would depend on what budget level of what you're shooting. In the smaller budget world, I think that there could definitely be a push, like on unscripted TV or where operators that don't have a focus puller, and are doing their own focus and zooming. In the doc space, it's amazing. To be able to free your hands of trying to do focus and exposure at the same time. and also pay attention to your subject and move the camera is really freeing in the documentary space.

On a bigger level production, on a union movie or something, I think the focus puller would probably still be setting the focus and at the very least checking that the focus is in the right place. I think the technology is incredible, and it's only getting better and better by the day. The focus pullers would still always be there to guide technology to make sure that it's focusing on the right instead of the center or things like that.

It’s only going to get better and better, and they're only going to tweak it and more intuitive and more creative.

Meg Kettell DP using the Sony FX9 for the first time in America.
Credit: Sony

Why putting engineers and DPs together is the best way to make cameras

Kettell: When I first tried the FX9, it was a prototype. You had to pick your settings in advance of the shoot. And I was talking to one of the engineers about being able to change those settings instead of having to go into the menus. I suggested changing it so you can access some of those focus features on the side of the camera or buttons on the front of the camera to be able to toggle them on or off, or left or right.

NFS: It must have been pretty fun to have engineers there for that kind of feedback.

Kettell: It was a dream. We had three or four engineers [from Japan]. In the BTS video, you can see them working with us, literally in the field, with me, my focus puller, and Rob. We would just give immediate feedback right there. For example, Rob [Scribner] was like, "Oh, I keep accidentally hitting, brushing this button. Maybe we could put a cap on it?"

Take a look at the behind-the-scenes video of the FX9 shoot Kettell is talking about.

Kettell: The engineers were seeing us use the cameras in two different ways: me with the focus puller and Rob as a one-man-band shooting the BTS documentary. So they were watching how people would use that camera in different ways.

You always, on every camera, have immediate feedback of like, “I love this, I hate this.” And we actually were able to look the engineers in the face over dinner and say, "I love this, I hate this." They were taking scrupulous notes on everything. I thought, "Oh my God, maybe I can do something that makes this camera better for my fellow DPs in their field."

They were hardcore dedicated, taking notes and photos and videos of us running around filming cows and stuff. One of the engineers had his birthday during the shoot, so we had a cake for him after dinner. And he said, "This is the best birthday of my life." He was amazing. Everyone just cared so much about the product and the camera and having feedback and getting it right. It was an honor to be a part of it.

Meg Kettell on set in Colorado for 'Free Range' the first American test shoot with the Sony FX9.Credit: Sony

The secret on transitioning to a DP? Don’t transition!

As a DP, Kettell recognizes that you don’t really need to “start out” as anything anymore. Don’t start out, stand out.

NFS: Did starting out as a camera operator or assistant camera make you a good DP? Is that a path you recommend?

Kettell: It was probably the right path for me because I thought I had to master each skill set as I worked my way up. So doing that was right for me. But in the context of this digital revolution of filmmaking, I don't know that it's really necessary anymore.

Whatever you want to do, if it's operating or DPing or lighting or color-correcting, or whatever it is, just do as much of that as possible. Because really it's just about experience and having done it and learning every day on set, doing that job.

Twenty years ago when I started, it was expected that you would be a loader, and then a second AC, and then a first AC, and then an operator. And then when you're 65, you become a DP. That was like the accepted everybody path! It’s not that world at all anymore. And it's great.

So many of the younger DPs that I love and admire skirted that old-school system. They just went out and did stuff with their friends that got attention. They put up really great Instagram accounts. And they got work—and it's incredible. You also have so many tools in your toolbox today at your disposal, it's really just for you to stand out from the crowd. If you can do that, I think you'll do great.     


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2 Comments

I'll sum it up, be a white man or woman lol... don't want to dismiss her hard work completely, I'm sure she put in a great deal of work especially on those long brutal union shows, but if there is anything that is shockingly true in this industry is that if you are a white man or woman you already have a leg up and you are going to be treated better by colleagues on set. You are also most likely going to get the job compared to being a member of a minority group. It's not just this country either, if you go to china and you are a white DP, you will be respected more and sought out. It's insane but real. Being a 2nd AC on big shows is already a no easy feat, most ACs I know get in because: 1. a family member helped, 2. they're white, or 3. a gross one but I have seen it, quid pro quo.

April 8, 2021 at 1:37PM, Edited April 8, 1:49PM

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100% on point.

April 12, 2021 at 2:48PM

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