So you have that very special camera geek in your life, and you want to get them something useful? You’ve come to the right place! Whether it’s a holiday gift, a secret santa exchange or a birthday surprise, it’s always nice when you hear “How did you know I needed that?!” after the wrapping is torn. With the holiday season looming upon us, get your loved ones something useful nice and early to avoid last-minute panic.
Camera assistants are a peculiar bunch, if I may say so being one. It takes a special combination of passion for filmmaking, innate curiosity about all things technical and a tiny bit of masochism to make a successful camera assistant. These are usually people that keep abreast of any and all technical innovations within the imaging field, while also keeping tabs on the latest in brewing and hydroponics.
That, unfortunately, makes them particularly difficult to buy gifts for. If you want to get them something truly useful, you’ll need to your research and dip your toes in the magnificent world of camera geekness. If you are ready to do so, step away from the gift card and let us guide you!
To make your gift of choice truly hit the bullseye, you’ll need to start with a bit of research. Camera nerds (aka camera assistants) tend to accumulate a lot of gear, so without good research, you risk getting them something they don’t really need or already have. Fret not, for we’re here to help!
What’s with all the assistants?
First thing to to is to identify what it is exactly that the person does. You keep hearing about that one camera assistant that forgot the cap when black shading, and that other AC that got a magliner up the stairs alone, but it all sounds like gibberish? If you’re not in the industy, the whole job and what it entails may be a bit confusing. You’ve probably grasped that by now, but a camera assistant is often referred to as just an AC. No, it’s got nothing to do with air conditioning, just the abreviation. Why is it not CA then, you ask? No-one-knows! It’s just one of those cine anachronisms.
Right, so, your friend identifies as a camera assistant, but did you know there’s actually two different jobs under that title? Yep. Basically, what every camera (in a feature film or bigger TV productions) needs to run is a minimum of three people – an operator, 1st camera assistant and 2nd camera assistant. The first camera assistant may also be called a 1st AC or focus puller. The second camera assistant is also known as a 2nd AC or a clapper loader. These are two distinct and rather different jobs, and to pick the perfect gift you need to know which one it is. We’re not gonna bore you with the details, but if you want to learn more about film jobs click here!
To make matters more complicated, in addition to those two positions, there’s also a third option. If your friend is just starting out, chances are they might still be what’s known as a camera trainee or camera utility. These are entry level positions within the camera department, usually with the idea of gaining experience before moving on to camera assisting.
What’s the difference?
So to reiterate, there’s three possible jobs when your friend refers to themselves as a camera assistant. Naturally, the easiest and most sure-fire way is to just ask. Camera assistants die to tell battlefield stories, so you’ll soon receive way more information than you bargained for. If, for some reason you won’t or can’t ask, you’ll need to extract a bit more from the context.
If you hear a lot about focus pulling, peaking, missed marks, something being soft or that f***er shooting wide open all day long, chances are your friend is a first camera assistant aka 1st AC or focus puller. Focus pullers have one of the most stressful positions on set, as they are in charge of keeping the camera in focus through every shot, which is often not as easy as it sounds. If the focus puller messes up the shot, everyone has to go again. In addition, focus pullers are tasked with keeping the camera set and running, fixing any issues on the fly.
Alternatively, if you keep hearing about slates, clapperboards, sticks or camera reports, you’re probably dealing with a second camera assistant – 2nd AC or clapper loader. Clapper loaders’ most visible task is the namesake clapping – clicking that board with the director’s name in front of the actors at the beginning of a take. Apart from that, they bear most of the brunt of the camera department’s work – monitoring and changing camera batteries and cards (or film magazines), keeping camera logs, schlepping huge cases of gear around and keeping track of every little oscenely priced gizmo.
Last but not least, if your friend claims to be a camera assistant but won’t shut up about coffees, sandwiches, batteries and heavy stuff, they are probably working a camera trainee position. There’s nothing to be ashamed of if that’s the case, pretty much anyone worth their salt in filmmaking has started as a trainee. Trainees support the work of the main department members, in this case the first and second assistants and the camera operator.
Finally, it’s also important to know that although these are discrete positions, there is a lot of overlap between both the work and the tools and equipment they use. The natural progression within the camera department is camera trainee > second assistant > focus puller. You start as a trainee, with minimal experience and kit, and you gradually accumulate the necessary knowledge, tools and supplies to advance. Consequentially, it’s much easier to get a gift for a trainee than it is for a focus puller.
Get to the gifts already!
So, now that you’ve an idea what your friend’s job is, we can delve into some gift suggestions. As we discussed, ACs use tools all the time, so chances are they already have much of what they need. Because of this, your best bet is to get them something that will help them advance to the next step of their career. Our gift recommendations reflect this, but, as with anything, try to extract as much information as you can from the people themselves to make an informed choice. Without further ado, let’s bounce some gift ideas for camera department professionals.
Camera trainee gift ideas
Starting with arguably the easiest situation, picking a gift for the camera trainee-cum-assistant in your life should be easy. They are just beginning their journey into the wonderful world of camera tools and supplies, so you may have a chance of getting them something that they will be using daily for the rest of their career.
Trainees are routinely tasked with the dirtiest, heaviest tasks within the camera department. Reorganizing cases, sweeping the truck, recoiling that mess of a BNC, you name it. Make their first few days on set a bit easier with a nice pair of work gloves. The Setwear Pro Leather gloves are something of an industry standard, and are bound to save them from a few calluses and pinches while presenting a professional appearance.
Camera trainees generally do not need many tools in their daily work. If they are tasked with a technical duty, in most cases it’s natural to borrow tools from the 1st of 2nd ACs. However, traineeship is the time through which you build up a toolkit before you graduate to a second assistant. A solid foundation of any camera assistant kit, a quality multitool like the Leatherman Surge pictured above is bound to help them get through a tough spot on set. For something more specialized and budget friendly, the Smallrig multitool is a crowd pleaser.
If a multitool is over your budget, or they already have one, you can also go for single tools. Having a dedicated, industry-standard tool is bound to help them get things done while looking professional. A good choice is a nice T-handle screwdriver like the Facom Agt or the PB Swiss film industry tool, you’d be hard pressed to find a camera assistant on set without one or the other. For more ideas check out our 15 Camera Assistant kit must haves gear guide.
If you know they already have a basic toolkit, another good idea might be to get them a nice, professional pouch in which to store their tools. As discussed above, trainees are not expected to carry a lot of tools, but a pouch like this will both show people they mean business and be useful in their transition to a second assistant. A telltale sign of a newbie AC is a generic bum bag in lieu of a proper tool pouch.
There’s two popular approaches to tool pouches – waist pouches on a belt or a chest pouch. It’s a personal preference whether you go for one or the other, so if you can, dig a little into the preference of the person you’re buying for. The Cinebags CB07 or the smaller and cheaper CB03 are both excellent choices for waist pouches, especially combined with a nice padded belt.
For someone just staring out in the industry, a handbook on the topic may prove immensely useful. The Camera Assistant’s Manual by David Elkins is a popular read, as is Douglas C. Hart’s The Camera Assistant: A Complete Professional Handbook.
Staying within the book format, a nice pocket journal is another good idea for a camera trainee gift. The first few days on a film set will drive pretty much anyone to an information overload. From the way you are supposed to stack batteries in the caddy to how everyone takes their coffee, you’re lost without taking notes. As smartphone use may be frowned upon on certain sets, a nice notepad is always handy. In addition, it provides a lasting record of those first steps, that may come useful for their memoirs down the line.
Clapper loader gift ideas
Buying tools for someone already working as a 2nd AC is a bit trickier than getting something for a trainee. Furthermore, camera assistant toolkits are a very personal affair, and people work out their preferences through experience, trial and error. However, there are some industry standard tools which you can’t go wrong with. If know the receipent of your gift has recently stepped up to a second assistant position, they still probably have some holes to fill in their toolkit.
To minimise the risk of getting something the person you’re buying for already has, your best bet is to go for more exotic or newer tools. For example, the baby size Knipex Plier Wrench always gets the crew’s attention, as it’s something not often seen but immensely useful. Check out our The Next 15 Things for Your Camera Assistant Kit gear guide for more ideas for less common 2nd AC tools.
Depending on where you are based and the type of productions your friend works, they may find themselves exposed to some pretty harsh conditions for weeks on end. Getting them something to ease their suffering outside might be nice, and they will thank you time and again. Seasoned pros have dedicated adverse weather bags, but if your friend is a younger addition to the camera department they might not have their fully kitted out yet.
Overshoes are a particularly popular addition to the outdoor kit of many assistants, and for a good reason. You put them over your regular footwear, and suddenly you’re invincibe to mud, slush, snow and grime. Give them a good rinse at the end of the day, and go home with happy, dry feet. If you live in a warmer climate, where your friend is more likely to encounter mud than anything else, a non-insulated model like the Neos Adventurer is a suitable option. If, on the other hand, snow and sleet is a regular occurance in your locale, you might opt for an insulated model like the Explorer.
Camera assistants have a love/hate relationship with coffee, coke and pretty much any other drink that does not come in a bottle. The love bit is quite self-explanatory, with all the early mornings and the late nights. The hate, however, comes from the unnatural alure of the camera cart to anyone with a coffee cup. Keeping an open top drink on the same (not all that stable) surface as the rather expensive camera equipment is a recipe for disaster.
This has led to the popularity of clamp-on cupholders, and the Robocups are one of the best. In addition to coming in a variety of colors, they also offer add-ons for extra cups or storage. Make sure, however, that whoever you’re buying for doesn’t already have them, as it is a popular accessory.
If the person in question is one of those relentless tinkerers that are all too common in the camera assistant circles, chances are 3D printing is something that is already on their radar. More and more 3D printed accessories are making their way onto camera rigs, and for the right person, a printer can unlock a treasure trove of possibilities.
3D printing technollogy is moving rapidly, and very capable desktop models like the Creality Ender 3 v2 are very affordable. Do keep in mind that a 3D printer is a bit more involved than our other camera assistant gift ideas, so proceed with this only if you are certain they have the space and the inclination to use it.
Focus puller gift ideas
If your friend has told you that they are pulling focus (or you’ve deducted so in your investigation) you have a tough task ahead of you. An experienced focus puller has probably seen pretty much every camera related gadget and gizmo out there. They also most likely have a pretty complete set of tried and tested tools that they are comfortable with. Therefore, the chance of you picking out a tool that will surprise them are rather slim.
American Cinematographer subsrciption
If whoever you are picking a gift for has made it up to a focus puller position, that usually means they are pretty deep into this whole filmmaking thing. So why not get them a subscription to the industry’s leading magazine? A paper magazine subscription might seem weird in this day and age, but believe me, they will appreciate it.
If you know you’re dealing with a seasoned pro focus puller that has been doing the job for a few years, you probably know that the next step in their film career is to become a camera operator. Granted, not every focus puller wants to make the step, but many do. If you know that the person you are buying for has such aspirations, getting them something for the challenges that lay ahead might be nice.
A director’s viewfinder is one such thing. Do not be fooled by the name, the tool is used by directors and DOPs (director of photography) alike to preview shots and plan ahead. The Alan Gordon Enterprises Mark Vb, pictured above, is the current model of the industry standard although it is a bit pricy. If you want something a bit more budget friendly, there the a highly rated Opteka 11x model.
Another one of those tools that will be useful in a trasition to operating, the gaffer’s glass is a nice little touch. It’s a filter used to look at the sun to check cloud coverage and movement or to adjust very bright lights without affecting your vision. You’re unlikely to find it in a focus puller’s kit, so it’s a safer option if you don’t want to risk doubling on something they already have. A gaffer glass is one of those tools you see round the neck of most badass directors of photography.
Alan Gordon’ blue ringed model is a popular choice, as is the newer Tiffen VVF Variable Viewing Filter. Like sunglasses, this is something you rely on to protect your vision, so it’s best not to compromise on quality.