Selling lies

“Some of it isn’t rubbish!”, says ‘S’ optimistically. He has a ‘glass half-full’ mentality that serves him well in his work as a cameraman, and more, on a shopping channel out in the provinces. We were talking about the products themselves at this point and how (no matter what) his job is to show the ‘goods’ in as best light as possible, whilst continually anticipating the next important shot (or random occurrence) that could demand his attention at any moment.

It’s a fascinating opportunity to gain an insight into the most unglamourous, ‘day-job’ end of the video industry, -regarded (almost) as a notch above pornography in most industry professionals estimations. Yes, amongst those and even the general public too; some of whom have regaled ‘S’ with such jibes as, “So have you been selling more c**p rings today then?.”

The ‘elephant in the room’ is that neither parties would likely be able to handle the immediate free-flowing, ever changing demands that such a studio environment presents. It’s stand-up improvisation - with a camera, without rehearsals, without a script, and it’s live. Not exactly: locking-off for your beauty-shot, take 10, is it? That’s an over-simplification, but the point remains. In his own words, ‘S’ tells me, “Live T.V. is very much like theatre; you get one chance only”. The action is there, then it’s gone, so you have to be ready. Always.

So whilst the subject material may (mostly) be junk, the skills at play certainly aren’t. The studio setup consists of up to 4 roaming pedestal cameras (although 3 are in usually in active use per show) and one ‘pole’ camera for shooting from a higher perspective. As the vision is mixed live; only one camera is active at once whilst the rest are setting up, -under the instruction of the director or controlled by the operators anticipating the next shot. “There’s always a process of anticipation” ‘S’ tells me, “To ensure that there’s somewhere to go.”

A typical (3 camera) setup would split the visual duties accordingly:

1st Camera: “Vision”. Essentially a wide shot featuring the presenter/s and the product.

2nd Camera: “Packshot”. Just the product itself.

3rd Camera: “Detail”. The finer points of the item at hand, usually following the presenters description of specific points or features, ie: “It’s got a great nozzle.”    

During the show, the specifics of each role vary according to the director (and camera operator) whilst remaining respectively within the general parentheses above. Each show runs for 57 minutes with a three minute break, shifts run 12 hours a day; 4 days a week and the pay stinks.

This stench is particularly rancid for ‘S’, considering that he is also responsible for studio lighting, audio and vision control (making sure all the camera outputs have a similar quality), though not all at the same time. He’s reached a plateau of sorts where he is the go-to senior staff (on standard pay) when the upper tier members are absent, only to be “demoted” again when they return, until next time.

It’s all the result of cost cutting; with a pay squeeze as the result of the channel’s failed expansion ventures, so who has to pay for this blunder? Well none other than the staff, -of course! Such downward financial pressure means that the workforce also has to “go broad” with their duties. It engenders much dissatisfaction and no small amount of corporate paranoia; lest words of dissent about ‘happy, professional T.V. land’ reach the outside world. Just be careful what you post (or like) on your Facebook page, ok?. Enough said.

‘S’ describes the two camps that operate within his working environment: there’s the eager “starters” who are keen to be there and are still somewhat wide-eyed about their jobs “in T.V.” Then there’s the seasoned veterans such as ‘S’ himself. The novelty has worn off some time ago for the latter group. They are now tired of the low pay, the high workload, having to a perform a wide range of tasks ‘on the cheap’, and the daily toll that “selling lies”, as ‘S’ puts it, takes on their ever-withering souls.

Whatever the item on offer, ‘S’ explains that the responsibilities are much the same: “It’s the presenter’s job to make it look good”, he tells me; “And our job to cover up when things go wrong.”

With that, the illusion is maintained. Another unfortunate and cringe-inducing part of his work is enduring the wanna-be Cecil B. Demille types who insist upon pulling show-reel contra-zooms (aka Dolly Zoom) or other grandiose camera flourishes on the latest plastic kettle, -whilst inconveniencing the shots and movements of other camera operators in the process. (“But it’s all about ME!”).

There are definite bonuses though; outside of the immediate character building; that such an enterprise requires. The forced spread of his job description means that ‘S’ has now considerable experience in live audio and studio lighting. The latter is of particular interest to him and is of considerable benefit towards his goal of becoming a Director of Photography. There’s no shortcut to experience and he’s getting plenty with every lighting shift and with a professional 300 light rig.     

Frankly though, ‘S' has done and learnt everything that he would wish to do in his current establishment. With almost four years experience it’s time to move on, to find the next plateau, perhaps?. In the meantime he takes extra commissions when possible and has already worked as cameraman on stately home and music events, international news and semi-pro film productions. Now you’re taking him seriously, aren’t you?

Finally, here’s a great quote from videographer Matt Prior’s freelance blog that seems especially apposite under the circumstances:

“The reality is that forging a career in film is hard work, real hard, and most who attempt it will probably fail. Yet those who have the drive, the persistence and the ability to adapt will ultimately succeed. Taking a step up in an alternative industry is definitely not a step backwards, it is merely a side step. It shows resilience and a desire to advance. Both industries in question need people like me.”