Pete Harper - Camera Assistant in TV & Film

Pete Harper's camera department credits include BBC1's Case Histories, Black Camel's Sunshine On Leith, BBC3's Impractical Jokers and promos for Virgin, Scottish Widows and The Proclaimers.

How did you get started working in the camera department and what are some of the most valuable things you've learned thus far?

Pete: I originally got into filmmaking after failing to find a photography course that I liked the sound of so I suppose it was only natural that I would gravitate towards the camera department. I've always really enjoyed taking still photos and that very much carries over to moving images.

The most valuable thing I think I've learnt to date is patience. You can't just buy a camera, make a couple of shorts and then be touting yourself as a DoP. You need to start at the bottom of your chosen department and work your way up. Take opportunities wherever they arise, but at the same time be very realistic about your skills and experience; there's nothing worse than, for instance, claiming you're a focus puller when realistically you're a frustrated DSLR operator who has racked a few shots on the fly. That's the quickest way to getting a bad reputation and no further work, not to mention wasting peoples' time and money.

What have been some of your favourite productions to work on and why?

Pete: I really enjoyed a shoot called 'In Extremis', a Screen Academy-linked production at the start of 2013. For a short drama shoot with student producers there was some serious money behind it, which went a long way to building a very impressive set and employing several actors you've probably heard of or at least would recognise from their work in film and television. It was a great opportunity for me to put into practice a lot of skills and techniques I had picked up on 'Case Histories 2' which had only finished about six weeks before. The rest of the crew were really great and supportive and overall it was a really valuable experience for me.

What do you think are some of the key attributes an individual should possess in order to work in the camera department?

Pete: To work in the camera department I think you really need to be good with numbers and have a vaguely mathematical/scientific mind. Numbers are everywhere – from focal lengths to exposure values, colour temperature to bit-rates, slates, takes, batteries charged or not charged etc etc. You need to be organised and methodical whilst at the same time being creative and thinking outside of the box?

In what ways (if any) might a camera assistant's role on a BBC primetime drama, such as Case Histories, differ from working on a music video for a band such as The Proclaimers?

Pete: The main difference is the overall size of the production and the amount of crew members that are involved. On a series such as Case Histories it's a 3-month job to create four or five hours of television so the crew is pretty big and everyone has a dedicated role in a specific department.

On a small music video (no offensive to the Proclaimers, but they're not as big as they were twenty years ago) you've got a day, perhaps two, to create three or four minutes of material. So whereas you might have four or five people in the camera department on Case Histories, plus a dedicated grip, plus a gaffer for lighting, the gaffer's crew of five or six people, a camera truck, a lighting truck, a generator truck, a DIT... on a music video you might have two or three people to cover all of those roles.

Perhaps on videos for Lady Gaga and Metallica, where millions are spent on their promotion and marketing, you would have something resembling a typical television or film-sized crew, but when there's only a few thousand pounds available then you need to be more of a jack-of-all-trades.

You have an HNC in Television Production from Edinburgh College. Has this been beneficial in any way?

Pete: The HNC certainly garnered me with a basic understanding of some of the principles of camera, sound, lighting and editing. It wasn't a particularly creative course however, it was more a “this is a camera and this is how it works” technical course. But it served its purpose as an introduction to the industry which set me on the path that I'm on today.

Camera department job vacancies don't tend to be advertised all too often. How does someone aiming for a career in this area go about finding work?

Pete: The film and television industry is all about “who you know,” especially with on-set roles such as camera, sound, make up etc. The reason why jobs are not really advertised is because the production company will first call the person they worked with last time and then go through their list of contacts, asking for recommendations on the way if no one they already know is available.

You still need an initial breakthrough however and one of the best ways is to find people already making films and persuade them to bring you on board, perhaps as a runner or driver, anything just to get some on-set experience and the chance to meet people. If camera is your interest then make a point of talking to the camera team, show that you're keen – without getting in the way or neglecting your other duties of course – and make those initial contacts. Camera assistants are aiming to one day be operators and DoPs so they will shoot lo/no-budget films around their paid work, so if you impress them on those jobs then maybe they'll invite you on to bigger and better things in due course – that's how I got my breaks!

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