It was a full-on cameraman mutiny right in the middle of the rocking blues band’s finale. Desperately, I thought back to the last thing I said to them. What had brought this on? There was no time to figure it out. Masking my panic, I calmly yet quickly ordered each back to his original position. With seconds to spare, I got the shot progression I wanted. It worked beautifully. With the last crash of the cymbals, I sat back and took a deep breath. My assistant director and I exchanged glances. That had been a close one. Too close.
The intermission was up next. The cameramen came back to base camp to take their breaks. Chilled water bottles and a flurry of sugary snacks ensued.
Keeping my frustration in check, I called for an impromptu feedback session. Usually I do this as an end-of-shoot recap with my crew. I’m a huge fan of feedback. It helps me bridge the gap between what I think I’m communicating and what others actually hear. I get to know which crew members are superfans, which ones have unresolved issues, conflicts, or new ideas for how to do things — all invaluable information, and it’s free! You just have to ask. Of course, you also have to be willing to listen (and keep your ego in check). A feedback session isn’t about you — it’s about your crew and what they need in order to help you create brilliant things.
Keeping it upbeat, I asked my cameramen what went through their heads earlier. Why did they give me identical close ups that I hadn’t asked for it? Graybeard and Rocketboy seemed surprised. They had thought I had asked for it. When I ordered them back to their original positions, they were confused.
“Why would I want all three cameras on the same shot?” I asked, trying to appeal to their sense of logic. “I didn’t have anywhere to cut to.”
The guys thought about it. When I put it that way, it made sense. But at the time it really sounded like I wanted a guitar closeup.
“I did,” I explained. “And I got it from Newbie. If I wanted another, I would have told you. Don’t I always tell you when I want something?”
There were more shrugs, sheepish looks. Sure it made sense when I put it like that, but that’s not how it sounded at the time. Even Waldo chimed in. If he had been on a camera, he would have zoomed in just like the rest of them.
I stared at them, wondering at how their man-brains work.
Finally Graybeard opened up. They heard me spend so much time coaching Newbie that they thought he was the only one doing what I wanted. The kid stumbled on a close up of the guitar and they heard me practically jumping up and down over it. So naturally they thought that’s the shot I wanted. Rocketboy agreed. Yeah, it wasn’t like I was jumping up and down about anybody else’s shot.
I took a moment to think this through. The problem was that they were men, or more accurately, that they were in competition with each other. All this time I thought I was running an egalitarian ship, but my crew were trying to crack the algorithm of my shot selection and praise ratio — vying for alpha dog status.
Newbie’s dilemma at the beginning of the concert was being outcast dog. His shots weren’t being picked and he was failing in competition with the others. Graybeard’s dilemma had been to give me more interesting wide shots so I would select him over Deadcam, even competing with the boys in the wings to give me more “artsy shots.” Rocketboy confessed he’d been sweating it ever since Newbie learned to get better shots, feeling like he’d fallen in the ranks.
I reassured them they were all doing exactly what I wanted. They looked at me skeptically, unconvinced. I explained my reasoning behind how I had them positioned and why. I even had Waldo replay the blues band finale so they could see how I used the variety of their shots, each an integral part of the visual playing field.
Graybeard seemed especially relieved. He had been worried his shots weren’t “artsy” enough for me. I have a reputation for highly stylized visuals and he had been nervous about working with me. He didn’t have an artsy bone in his body, he confessed. But seeing the playback made him more confident. I took care of the artistic part and integrated whatever he gave me into my style.
Rocketboy confessed he had researched my other films to get an idea of my style. He had been trying his hardest to get the dazzling angles he thought I would like. He even coached Newbie before the shoot that he would have to step up his game with me. Newbie admitted he had been nervous but appreciated the time I spent coaching him. He had learned more about camerawork in one afternoon than a whole semester of film class.
And I learned something of what they were up against out there. All they had was the sound of my voice amidst a sea of chaos. They couldn’t ask questions or voice uncertainties. It was hot. It was loud. There were hundreds of people. We were live broadcasting with no room for error. I don’t chatter so they listened close to everything I said, trying to anticipate. Every nuance and pitch of my voice was as much of a command as the words I used. So when I broke formula and enthusiastically praised one particular shot — in the heat of the moment, they all zoomed in to get that shot. It wasn’t a failure of my command, rather it was my command working too well. They trusted me more than logic and critical thinking combined. They hadn’t let me down as a crew. Rather, I had failed to appreciate just how much power I had as their director.
With a better understanding between us, I sent them back into the field for the final half of the concert.