TV & FILM CAMERA OPERATOR - ROGER PEARCE
Roger is an award winning camera operator with a career spanning over three decades in the film and television industry, and one that has seen him work with some of the biggest names in the business.
He has extensive experience in feature films and television dramas, including “Casino Royale”, “The Mask of Zorro”, “Maleficent” and “Game of Thrones”.
HOW DID YOU GET IN TO THE INDUSTRY?
I was lucky to leave school aged 16 in July of that year and by the end of August I managed to get a job with a company making corporate films, which at the time were called ‘Industrial films’. I got a job helping out a model maker on a toy campaign which involved making jet aircraft and cars and from there they offered me a job with the in-house cameraman being his assistant. I joined there for four years, before I left to join HTV, which is now ITV Wales. This was my first experience working in TV and I was shooting documentaries and News. I was there for three years before I moved to Bristol in 1970 and HTV Bristol were about to launch a series of co-productions with the Americans. They were shooting TV movies and different types of series and it was then I became a camera operator in 1971. I was working on the News as well as shooting dramas and the other cameramen that were there preferred not to cross over and work for each other in other departments. I didn’t mind, so I took that chance to do all types of jobs. Between the drama jobs, I was a News cameraman and then went right back to drama and therefore I was always working. This was all on 16mm standard film too and then Super 16mm. I didn’t go to film school, so my training was all hands on, learning on the floor. I was very lucky.
WHAT ONE SKILL OR PERSONAL ATTRIBUTE WOULD YOU CONSIDER TO BE THE BIGGEST FACTOR AS TO WHY YOU GOT TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?
Not so much tenacity but certainly diplomacy is important whatever you’re doing. As a camera assistant don’t be afraid to ask questions as you’re in a learning situation. I even do it now and I’ve been operating for donkey’s years. I might be working with a DP and I ask what’s the reason they’re doing it that way or whatever it might be, so as an assistant or trainee don’t be afraid to ask. Be diplomatic, be efficient, be quiet, be early and prep as much as you can to aid your team.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A CV/EMAIL FROM STUDENTS TRYING TO BREAK IN TO THE BUSINESS?
It’s always good to see what you’ve done. Until you meet someone and are on the floor it’s difficult to measure who they are. Anyone can list work saying they’ve done ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Robin Hood’ or whatever when all they’ve done is only a day or half a day. Be truthful, if you’ve only done a few days, say it was only a few days. If you were an assistant to someone say who that was, and how long the attachment was. On set, I look for someone who is alert and helpful. Be aware of the artist and keep out of their eye-line around the camera too. If you are in their eye-line and can’t move, keep still and quiet and avoid looking at them. So, be sensible and aware ...
WHAT MISTAKES DO YOU SEE STUDENTS MAKING THAT ARE COMING UP IN YOUR AREA?
On short films, visually, the dreaded zoom is my pet hate. In the business we refer to them as multi-focal length lenses but we all know it’s zoom. It’s quite lazy to do several shots from one position. Get what you want then try and walk around and look for another angle to cover the scene. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a profile or ¾ profile. That might work in some instances but it’s much more interesting to move the camera six feet one way or another and get some depth. Also don’t be afraid of going closer to an actor on a wider lens so you’ve got the depth behind and to one side, rather than on a long lens and just getting a head and shoulder of your subject. As long as you’re telling the story with pictures that should be the main stay of everything. Pretend you don’t have sound and if it comes across visually you’re half way there. Ask is this as visually interesting as it might be?
On set, you need to be quiet and efficient, so the red flags would be leaping about or speaking out of turn. There are people above you that are there to answer questions, if they ask you for your opinion or a suggestion then that’s another thing but don’t volunteer the information, as it can be taken the wrong way and seen as a bit presumptuous. Generally be there on whatever duty you have, cleanliness with kit and working for the focus puller as they’re in charge of the camera. It’s a question of getting ready and knowing your cables, batteries, cases, lenses, and monitors and know where they are at all times and that they will work when you need them. So when turn over is called, no one is asking why something is not working or why haven’t we got this or that.
WHAT IS YOUR ATTITUDE AND OUTLOOK ON THE CURRENT STATE OF THE INDUSTRY? ALSO, HOW HAVE THINGS CHANGED FROM WHEN YOU BEGAN AND HOW HAS THIS IMPACTED ON YOUR WORK?
With digital equipment, things have got smaller and it’s much easier in many respects; digital has opened up a whole new world. You can see what you’re getting with all the monitors you have on set, you shouldn’t have any issues with exposure because you can see what you have on the monitor. You can play with the ISO and speeds too, on film we had to change stocks to change speed. It’s so much easier now.
With regards to procedure, nothing has really changed. There’s more electronics involved admittedly but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, it is much the same job. It’s a little more complicated for the focus puller with all the more batteries and devices but from a procedure point of view, it’s much the same for me.
ON SET/IN YOUR WORKING ENVIRONMENT:
CAN YOU OFFER ANY ON SET/PRACTICAL HINTS AND TIPS?
From my point of view, it helps to be prepared. I always have a series of tripod heads standing by. If you know you’re doing a shot where you’re shooting three or four inches off the ground next, then you know your kit is close by. It’s about thinking one step ahead to rig something to achieve the shot. You do this with the DP or director discussing what they want it to be. It could be that a tower is required for a high shot next, so you make sure the grip knows about that too so they can be ready.
AFTER FILMING TWO JAMES BOND FILMS, HOW DO YOU APPROACH SHOOTING ACTION SCENES? IS THERE ANYTHING THAT YOU’RE ALWAYS TRYING TO DO OR ADD IN TO THE MIX?
Well I would always start by getting a clear idea of what the director wants from beginning to end, then we decide on what technique we’re going to use – is it on tracks, handheld etc. We look at how much ground the scene will cover, is it possible to cover it all in a master or do we take in different rooms that require it be broken into smaller sections… these sorts of things.
Other than that, I just try to keep it fluid, keep the camera moving as this enhances the action, keep the frame busy, so have the characters and their movements fill the frame – but also make sure when it comes to particular effects gags you’re keeping the camera wide so the audience can follow what’s happening.
HOW DO YOU KEEP THE SHOTS AND SCENES CINEMATIC? WHAT TECHNIQUES DO YOU LIKE TO EMPLOY?
I like to go wide if I can – a lot today tends to be done in close-up which isn’t necessarily as dynamic or as cinematic as it could be, and of course if it’s over-used you end up losing the impact when you do want to cut to the close up for a story beat.
Otherwise it’s just looking at each shot and seeing if there’s a way you can make it more interesting – does a low angle work? Can we shift perspective, move one side or another to maybe look down this corridor or through a door in the background, as opposed to just shooting against a flat wall. If you can’t get that, is there some foreground you can shoot through? So it’s finding ways to make the frame as interesting as possible, but also in a way that serves the story or purpose of the scene.
Also, don’t be afraid to use wide lenses when you’re in close, it can give you a greater depth, and also keep the camera moving if possible, particularly for action stuff. Finally, just think about your coverage, again you don’t necessarily need to cover each moment from all these different angles – does it play in the wide? If there’s a lot going on, this will often be the more interesting frame.
WHAT “DO’S AND DON’TS” WOULD YOU SUGGEST? MAYBE WORKING WITH OTHERS OR SOMETHING YOU LIKE TO DO ON SET TO MAKE THINGS EASIER?
Once the camera is turning you should keep quiet and not move. You can be fired it’s that important, Know your place and be professional.
WHEN YOU ARE FIRST BROUGHT ON TO A PROJECT, WHAT ARE YOUR IMMEDIATE THOUGHTS AND PROCESSES?
From my point of view the DP would break down the script with the director so that would be their job, but I like to discuss shots, kit, cranes, day hire and what’s required. If you can share suggestions then that’s good. Go through the schedule and get an idea of what’s required but always working as a team with DP and director.
ADVICE AND MISTAKES:
WHAT WAS THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN?
Lots of advice over the years but maybe “Do your best to make every shot dynamic.”
WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU COULD GIVE?
Be prepared for everything and know your duties. Get ready, be on time.
WHAT WAS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE BLUNDER?
Easy one. Back in the days of film we had a dark room and you would get in the habit of unloading film and you do it almost robotically. What I did was open the lid of a 400’ magazine and there was exposed film in there. It was open for half a second and I shut it again immediately after realising what I had done. It was my error. It wasn’t bright in that room but I had to own up to what I had done. I put it away and told the DP and he was kind enough to put me at ease and reminded me how much light we needed on the shoot to get an exposure, and where the can was opened was very dark. I had a sleepless night as I had to wait 24 hours to find out if it was okay, which it was. But the lesson was to own up as you will be found out!