The position of the Operator in cinematography places him in a unique position to either contribute, enhance and help the DP and the Director or to completely compromise the work of both. His power stems from his control of the handles: only he actually sees and executes the fine details: no amount of pressure from the outside will persuade a brutish operator that HIS shot isn't the right one. In the end it comes down to this: WHOSE SHOT IS IT? The Directors, the DP's or the operators? As most of us who have shot more than a couple of films have found out, it's sometimes the Directors but quite often it isn't. And if it isn't the Directors, it might be the DP's and it might be the Operators: and all shades of grey betwixt and between. For some reason it sounds like this threesome must be an unholy alliance in which only compromise is possible: but we all know that many of the world's materpieces of cinema have been made with the terrible triangle at work for months or even years on end. So it can't be that bad, it can't always result in dilution and compromise: a recent visit to the newly released print of Lawrence of Arabia left me gasping with astonishment at the achievement - many of the best English cinematographers were involved in that film and they seemed to get on just fine.
But for those of us who came into the industry sideways, and didn't have the benefit of the studio system to train in, it is hard to accept the operators presence when you have come from years of 16mm and low-budget features; you get to feel that your framing, your vision and your shot breakdown is the only way to do it and right or wrong, it's a pain to have an operator who thinks he knows better. And this is where it all falls apart: in the industry today there are a number or operators who deep down in their souls know that they should be DP's, and when they see one of those "Clapper-Lighters" blast onto the set in their Porshe Turbo and reach for the Minolta Spotmeter, they just want to throw up. Instead it's "Morning Guvner, How are We?". And similarly the young stud, veteran of 101 nights of continuous rock promos, can't abide the desert lean look of the wizzened ex Ealing operator who wants a 40mm on the sticks at eye level just HERE, Thanks John. He's itching to crank on the 9.5, go handheld and do the focus! And somewhere in the middle of all this there's a Director who may or may not know what she or he is doing and may or may not have something to say about the shot. Some Directors just announce to both the DP and the Operator that it's a 40mm and it's here and call me when you're ready. Exit. Others rehearse a scene then turn and look at you and say: "How do you want to shoot it?" The DP and the Operator working in symbiotic harmony leap forward with 101 suggestions that may or may not conflict with each other, dazzling the director with a series of close-ups, tracking on certain dialogue lines to “cross the line” and displaying a knowledge of mis-en-scene that only comes from inimate study of The Maltese Falcon. Alternatively there's a sort of appalling silence whilst the seething relationship between the DP and the operator manifests itself on the poor first time director who knows none of this! And of course, I'm happy to say, MOST of the time an extremely fruitful and enjoyable collaboration exists between all three parties and the film moves forward with an almost audible hum as the engines smoothly move into gear.
I think it is a mistake to look at the job of the Operator as a job that is in any sense undervalued. I have had much of my work enhanced by the brilliant suggestions and execution of good operators. I have also had a small amount of fortunately short one day jobs completely compromised and spoiled by one or two boring, bigotted silly men who should do something else with their lives before they drive themselves to an early grave. But these kind of people exist in all walks of life and those of us who want to get on with the job and enjoy their work try and avoid such people. I asked Steven Frears once how come he worked with such good scripts and he just said: "Why not choose the best?" I've operated several films of his myself not because I have anything against operators but because they took place in very small rooms where the presence of an operator makes lighting a cumbersome affair and the smallness of the camera crew (and I don't mean physical size!) a definite contribution to the integrity of the set. But the contribution of Mike Proudfoot on Absolute Beginners and Restoration was invaluable: any DP who thinks they can handle massive sets or night shoots where the camera is forever on a crane and complain about operators must be either very selfish or very unable to get on with people. Always I have niggling doubts about Operators.. will he do it EXACTLY as I want it ? Can I COMMUNICATE EXACTLY what I want? I would suggest that those DP's (are there any?) who think that Operators contribute nothing should perhaps try directing: when you direct you begin to understand the meaning of the word compromise! Compared to directors, the DP has an astonishing amount of control: the director on the other hand has to TRUST first and foremost the Writer, then the DP, then the Operator, then the Designer, then the Sound man, then Costumes etc etc etc etc. By comparison the DP doesn't know the meaning of the word delegation: so learning to work in harmony with good operators seems to me the least we can do.
I will certainly continue to operate small controlled films myself when much of it is Day Exterior or just simple in terms of lighting requirements. Why not? I enjoy the experience of working one to one with the Director and a certain kind of intensity of focus. But equally, when the situation demands it, I'm willing and ready to enjoy the input of the Operator, to benefit from his experience. After all, the whole process is a collaboration: no-one's ever made a movie on their own.
Apart from the few whose soul's have been left behind in some bar in
Rio de Janiero, Operators, like everyone else on a good crew, just get
on with it. Fini.