TV DOCUMENTARY CAMERAMAN - JOHNNY ROGERS
Johnny Rogers is a Natural History, documentary and underwater cameraman. He has filmed shows such as Lost land of the Jaguar, Human Planet, Deadly 60, and BBC Sharks.
Johnny is an IRATA qualified rope access technician, experienced filming in physically demanding and skilled access areas. He regularly films underground, on the cliff face and in all extreme weather and working conditions including the Arctic, Antarctica, jungle, desert and in the open ocean.
He is also an HSE Commercial Diver having filmed many of the worlds ocean predators, from the sharks, including great whites, to the gentle giants like the Sperm whales, Humpbacks and Blue Whales.
HOW DID YOU GET IN TO THE INDUSTRY, AND DID YOU GO TO FILM SCHOOL?
I knew what I wanted to do very young. I knew I wanted to work in TV but didn’t think I could actually get a job in it. My brother suggested, when I couldn’t get on a science course, that I do media studies because you get to sit around and watch TV all day and I thought, happy days you know? So I did a course straight out of school which was a National Diploma in media production and when I was doing that, in the very first month, I met a cameraman who asked me to be his camera assistant for a day. I worked my ass off as you do and he hired me again sporadically through my course and I built up a relationship with him to the point where I would be the first call when he got a job. Slowly throughout the rest of the course I began working with him in the industry and moved on from there.
WHAT ONE SKILL OR PERSONAL ATTRIBUTE WOULD YOU CONSIDER TO BE THE BIGGEST FACTOR AS TO WHY YOU GOT TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?
I would definitely say people skills and not necessarily in the sense that you’re a people person that everyone talks about. I would rather work with someone I can sit and have a pint and a laugh with than someone who is stressed and too career oriented. Sometimes you can chat to people and you get the sense they’re only here to gain something. I get that to a certain extent, but if you can have a laugh and talk about the industry as well, I would rather give someone like that a shot rather than someone who is just fishing [for work].
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A CV/EMAIL FROM STUDENTS TRYING TO BREAK IN TO THE BUSINESS?
I tend not to look at CVs. When someone sends me a CV I wouldn’t go through it like an employer would, because I’m not an employer and I would just be recommending that person to an employer. So when the BBC says we’re looking for a camera assistant, is there anyone you recommend, I would recommend someone off the back of a conversation I had with them in a pub ... there’s a theme here, (laughs) not off their CV. I would always meet the person and judge them on who they are rather than a list of skills which anyone can write and anyone can invent..
WHAT MISTAKES DO YOU SEE STUDENTS MAKING THAT ARE COMING UP IN YOUR FIELD? EITHER IN COMMUNICATIONS OR IN THEIR WORK.
It’s not necessarily a mistake, but what makes people shine, is being able to think ahead. So instead of me asking, could you box up that camera or change that lens, they would have thought ahead knowing it needs to be done, and have done it already. People like that stand out as they’re ahead of the game and predicting what’s going on. The mistake is standing around, even if you’ve got nothing to do, look busy. That might sound ridiculous but tidy kit boxes, make coffee for the team, anything, On location, there is always something to do.
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?
The industry is constantly changing, you almost need to create jobs for yourself especially if you’re a camera assistant or in roles like that. You have to be multi-skilled, you need to get as much experience in as many different areas as possible. It’s all very well saying you’re a Natural History camera assistant, but you really need to be skilled in all aspects of that industry. So instead of just waiting for a call from the Natural History department, if you can do sync or presenter lead stuff too, you’ll get much more work and add more strings to your bow to make the phone ring.
Budgets are the biggest changes. And I’m going to be fairly negative on this, but the first things that tend to go are camera assistants and runners on location. Half the time these days you’re on your own on location with a sound recordist doing everything, so money is changing the way things work. So the few jobs that are available everyone is fighting for them. The only way to be part of that game is to stand out and get as much experience as you can in that field.
ON SET/IN YOUR WORKING ENVIRONMENT:
CAN YOU OFFER ANY ON SET/PRACTICAL HINTS AND TIPS?
Because of the time constraints in TV I always like to think ahead. So even though I’m filming a sequence right now, I’m thinking ahead to the next one, so when you finish a piece-to-camera or any sequence, a lot of people will stand down for a bit, have a coffee and have a chat, whereas I’m doing a bit of that but at the same time moving things around and doing a bit of set up for the next shot. If I know we have slider shots or gimbal shots later that day, I’ll be preparing that ready so it’s easy to grab when we need it. You just have no time so you make the most of any time you have. If I’m shooting in the UK from my van, I’ll have everything set up in the van ready; camera strapped in, all wired up ready to go, Slider set up etc. So I just need to grab them rather than having to unbox everything when it’s needed.
WHEN YOU ARE FIRST BROUGHT ON TO A PROJECT, WHAT ARE YOUR IMMEDIATE THOUGHTS AND PROCESSES?
Prep with the director is always the first thing for me. Because it’s all very well having something in my head, but the director will have something else in his or her head and there’s no point in us being on different song sheets, so I always make a point of sitting with the director and getting them to sell to me what they’re trying to achieve. There are lots of ideas that are achievable but usually through time constraints and wanting to use all the different bits of kits, from drones, to sliders to gimbals, you find lots of things can be done but sometimes they can’t. So I might suggest to the director, that idea might not work but then suggest an alternative with a different piece of kit that will get the job done and save us time. Sometimes people get blinded by kit. They want a drone, jib, slider etc. I’ve been on location when we’ve had all those bits of kit and we’ve used none of them because they haven’t factored in the time or space to use them. Half the time they don’t even know what they are, but that’s another story! It’s trying to get to use the toys to help get across the vision the director has and take out the ones that aren’t needed and hone the gadgets to get the job done in the time allocated.
YOU’RE ALSO AN UNDERWATER CAMERAMAN. HOW DID YOU GET IN TO THAT?
I’ve been a diver for years and I didn’t actually think about becoming an underwater cameraman until I was asked if I did underwater camera work and it gave me a bit of a kick to add another string to my bow. The problem with underwater work is it takes a lot of time to get your training. So I thought ahead; when I’m in my 40s and 50s I’m not going to be running around jungles with a camera on my shoulder, I’d much rather be on a nice beach filming underwater! I decided about ten years ago to start training for underwater camera work. This included getting Health and Safety qualifications, training in commercial diving, re-breathers, trimix, and endless courses you need legally just to be underwater. I thought as I have time, I’ll train myself up thinking ahead for future work, and now underwater has just become one of my things.
A lot of time producers who are making a show with underwater sequences have never worked in an underwater environment and so they don’t get the legal or health and safety requirements. There are very strict health and safety elements like how many people need to be in the water, like dive supervisors,stand-by divers etc, so instead of just having a cameraman who can dive, and a rate for that one person, it’s actually a team of four. So that’s four times the budget just there, and then there’s the underwater camera equipment which is a huge expense. Also you have the time constraints. If you’re on open circuit diving, (regular scuba tank diving) you only have so many dives you can do in a day, and you need intervals in between those dives. I’ve been on shoots where I’ve come up to the surface and the director has said “change your cylinders and get back in the water”, but you cant do that. You need to have time to ‘off gas’ and surface. Producers need to know these things, budgets are the biggest issues, and dive shoots are hugely expensive. With that in mind, other options are re-breathers where you can spend two or three times the amount of time underwater, so instead of having all those surface intervals you can have three hours underwater on one dive and tick a lot of boxes.
There are restrictions on diving and flying too. It’s usually only 12 -24 hours after diving that you can fly again. So if you’re abroad, the production needs to factor in another day after the shoot before you fly back, so if you have lots of production crew that can add up and be very expensive.
YOU’VE ALSO FILMED IN THE JUNGLE A LOT. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE PLACES YOU’VE BEEN AND YOUR EXPERIENCES SHOOTING THERE.
I’ve been to most jungles in the world, from Papua New Guinea, to Central African Republic, the Amazon, and most other major jungles. They bring a lot of their own problems health and safety wise. Kit is the biggest issue as kit doesn’t like the damp and when you’re in a humid jungle, at 100%, kit tends to fail. So it’s one of those places where as soon as you arrive, your body starts to rot. If you’re in the jungle for a few weeks, your body starts to struggle and your camera equipment really struggles. Some of the places we get to are so remote, you don’t have any medical cover either. Your casualty evacuation scenarios are usually helicopters and that could take days, so most of us are trained in remote area trauma like the Mira course, (Medicine In Remote Areas) so when you go in the jungle environment you’re pretty much fending for yourself. In some of the places I’ve been, white men haven’t been there before. And you’re discovering new tribes and all the rest of it. It’s quite hardcore and you need to be trained for all those factors.
In jungles, everything is out to get you. You’re going to have leaches, mosquitoes, and snakes are a big issue too. Snakes won’t go looking for you but you can easily stand on them and I’ve had friends who have been bitten by ones like a Fer-de-lance which requires immediate evacuation and you could easily die depending on how remote you are. Sometimes we have a medic with us who has anti-venom but usually you’re on your own. Jungles are weird, you’re always on edge, waiting for shit to happen.
ADVICE AND MISTAKES:
WHAT WAS THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN?
A cameraman who trained me always said “If you’ve got the time, take your time”. It’s always stuck with me. Sadly, we don’t have a lot of time these days!
WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU COULD GIVE?
The best advice I can give, is advice given to me, when I was student. I didn’t need to earn money to live. I could take advantage of the fact that my parents were giving me a place to stay and that I had no rent or bills. The fact that I didn’t have to work, allowed me time to get myself trained and get myself out there and work for free. Take advantage of not having to pay the mundane bills of life!
WHAT WAS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE BLUNDER?
Honestly I don’t really have one. I can tell you one that happened to a friend of mine though. He was filming in America and they flew someone from Australia to LA to be interviewed. It was a quick turn around for the interviewee and they went straight back to Australia afterwards. After the interview, the crew went out and filmed some shots on a boat and my friend was getting that classic shot when you hang the camera over the side of a boat close to the waves. The matte box on the camera caught a wave and ripped the camera right out of his hand and it went straight to the bottom of the ocean ... with the tape of the interview on it! I remember him saying, he didn’t know how to bring his hand back over into the boat without the camera in it. I said, “you might as well have just jumped in and everyone else would have been worried about you instead of the camera!”.