Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world. Known internationally in the film and entertainment industry, particularly for Hollywood, a place that draws aspiring film professionals from across the globe. As is the case with Ferid Hasbun, a film professional and leading Camera Specialist working in a variety of projects and whom we had the pleasure of interviewing.
1. What is your role in the film making industry?
I generally work in the camera department. I work on all kinds of projects where a production needs to cover a crew position with extraordinary camera skills. This could be as 1st Assistant Camera, 2nd Assistant Camera, Camera Operator, Photographer or Videographer.
Shortly, I define myself as Camera Specialist, because all the crew positions require totally different and unique skills and your responsibilities are also very specific and cannot be compared.
2. How did your career start?
I always felt fascinated by cameras and images. We could say, that I’m in love with images. So, one day I decided to by my first digital camera, started taking pictures and discovered a whole new world. I read articles, watched tutorials, and practiced many things in order to improve my skills on camera.
I then bought my first professional digital camera and started working as videographer for the television channel JOIZ TV in Switzerland, which focused on new media. I covered several live shows, events, interviews and concerts.
I came to the United States, first New York and then Los Angeles, where I finished film college. From the beginning, it was clear for me, that I wanted to work in the camera department and construct images.
After graduating from the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles, I pretty much worked ever since as 1st/2nd Camera Assistant, Camera Operator, Photographer, and Videographer.
It all involved a lot of extraordinary determination and unique studies to get to where I am today and being able to bring exceptional skills to the industry.
3. Can you specify the differences in the duties of the jobs that you do, for instance 1st assistant camera and 2nd assistant camera?
Yes, of course!
Each department on a film production consists of various people with unique jobs. In the camera department it would be the Director of Photography, Camera Operator, 1st Assistant Camera, 2nd Assistant Camera, and Media Manager/DIT. Each position is key and does a very specific job so the department runs smoothly.
The Director of Photography constructs the look of the movie, from camera movement, light contrast, to shot size. Like a painter, he paints the image you see with ratios and lines.
The Camera Operator – as the name says – operates the camera. This however involves many other details and preparation. During the set up of each shot you analize and understand the best configuration and capabilities of this extremly specialized and delicate camera equipment in detail to execute and meet the demands of every specific shot. You pretty much construct the image like an artist thinking about several composition guidelines, like Rule of Thirds or Golden Ratio (to name a few) and “read” the moment to balance the image in a way that conveys the feelings of the scene. This guidelines have been used by painters and photographers since the beginnings and they consist of guiding the eye with lines and proportions towards a point of interest. Really, it’s not just pointing the camera at a subject and pressing record. It requires unique talent to make an image look cinematic.
The 1st Assistant Camera keeps everything in focus. Keeping a moving subject in focus requires extraordinaty skills. A good 1st Assistant Camera can tell you by eye with extreme accuracy the distance between object A and object B. Then, on the markings on the lens, he will set the respective distance so the subject is sharp. He also feels the scene and “pulls” focus accordingly anticipating the movements and reactions of the actors. He also considers other factors, for instance if the lens is old and therefore less sharp on the edges, if we’re shooting anamorphic which equals a distorting of the image and therefore distorts your focus to the subject.
Have you seen sometimes a movie, where the eyes of an actor looks slightly out of focus? Maybe his ears are more in focus than his pupils? Well, that is because sometimes you only get one or two inches of error margin to set your focus distance. And that’s if the subject is static. Imagine if the camera or the subject is moving. Sometimes, there is also no time to practice and you have to make sure all is sharp. You can imagine, that you have to have an exceptional talent to do this job and only very few people can do this.
Additionally, the 1st Assistant Camera is responsible for the camera itself. He knows what specialized equipment and accessories to request to make a shot possible. He can fix technical issues with the equipment itself and is present during the checkout of the equipment making sure the requested equipment is present and runs smoothly.
The 2nd Assistant Camera is the right hand of the 1st since the 1st Assistant Camera rarely leaves the side of the his camera when on set. The 2nd Assistant Camera knows all accessories and the camera as well as his 1st Assistant Camera and is also present at equipment checkout. He administrates the camera and video equipment so the camera is always ready to roll, which means keeping track of memory/film, batteries, lenses, and so on.
He “slates” every scene, which are the wooden sticks that you see somebody smashing together before the actors start acting. This is a process, that requires coordination with the Script Supervisor on set and the Assistant Director, since we shoot out of order. What the slate does, is capturing the right information of each scene on audio and on camera, so later in post production the editor can synchronize audio to video and find the right footage to edit. Is this done wrongly, you might create a big mix up and people will invest a lot of time trying to find the footage belonging to the scene, which costs a lot of money.
Further and connected to the slate are the camera reports. The 2nd Assistant Camera keeps reports of every shot done in the movie. This allows to track changes in lenses and camera settings, which can be used to replicate a camera setup of a past scene, to track the productivity of the production by the producers, or for Special Effects later in post production. The 2nd Assistant Camera also hands over the footage to the Media Manager/DIT and keeps track of the media cards without causing a mess, since a lack of attention could mean loosing an entire morning of work from a whole team (crew and actors) by a negligence of the 2nd Assistant Camera.
A Videographer is something different. He operates the camera with the same skills a the Camera Operator describe earlier, has a good knowledge of light, and paints the image like the Director of Photography. However, the videographer works mainly in digital media such as events, Behind the Scenes, interviews, and other digital content. Additionally, a Videographer has good knowledge of sound equipment since this is mostly a one-man job and records audio accordingly, plus he edits his own footage, which requires a different talent additionally.
4. What skills would you say are required to be successful in each of those jobs?
There is a lot of unique talent involved and you have to love what you do. Persistence and exceptional determination are good key words. But, besides the obvious technical skills, good social skills are a must since you’re interacting for at least 12 hours a day with different people, that you might just have met, and you have to be able to delegate well.
The Camera Operator definitely is exceptional at reading and painting a scene since his reaction to an emotion from the actors creates additional meaning in an image. His ability to see images is rarely seen and very unique.
The 1st Assistant Camera, besides knowing all the accessories available for his camera (like wireless focus), understands the traits of the various lenses he’s using. He must have the extraordinary ability of estimating distances by eye with unseen precision and adjusting the focus on the lens according to the movement of the actors. Experienced 1st Assistants Camera can tell you just by looking at you how many feet you are away from the sensor on the inch, which translates to an image totally in focus. This is why it’s a skill that takes years to practice and only few master.
As a 2nd Assistant Camera you have fabulous knowledge of all accessories, understands all technical aspects of it, and are very talented administrating your equipment. You have to create and provide trust. By that I mean, that the 1st Assistant Camera trusts you blindly with all the equipment and duties running in the background so he can focus on his job; keeping the movie sharp. If you can’t trust your crew, you won’t be able to deliver your best performance and as a result that will cost the production time and money.
Shortly, these positions are covered by extraordinary and highly trained talents. These specific jobs have to be done by specialists in order to run a successful camera department. One weak link or errors on set could mean thousands of dollars for the production later on. But also added time and time is literally money. Let’s say the 2nd Assistant Camera is slow and hands the wrong lens to his 1st Assistant Camera, this will cause a hold up of the production. What if the 1st Assistant Camera doesn’t get the picture sharp several times? You have to reshoot until we get the focus sharp. And if you consider that just renting a camera package can cost thousands of dollars a day – not taking labor and all the departments needed into consideration – you can see, that the cause and effect is immediate here.
As Photographer your eye recognizes patterns, lines, and shapes. You also read a moment and understand light and lenses so you can freeze a “moment”. But you also know how to digitally retouch your pictures understand the color theory. Having an “eye” for images is an unique trait and you have to be born with it.
A Videographer requires similar and no less exceptional skills as the Camera Operator or Photographer, but additionally you know how to record audio and edit your own footage. You are great under pressure and capture moments with natural intuition, plus you are extraordinary at telling a story in the edit room.
5. With the fast evolution of technology and new cameras coming out almost monthly, how do you adapt to the changing environment?
You definitely need to do your research online, follow different cinematography magazines, read blogs, go to conventions, but you also talk with other Camera Specialists on and off set. You also learn a lot during checkouts at rental houses where you can ask questions about a new accessory or equipment you rarely work with.
6. Digital vs Analog?
Personally, I’m pro digital. This because I love technology and computers and I feel we have to evolve with time using what we’ve learned in the past, but adapting it to the new standards.
Digital cameras are getting pretty close to mimicking analog and you can achieve a lot with filtration. It is also more accessible to consumers, which means now more people make make their dream of working in the industry reality and it’s cheaper for productions to shoot digital.
Also, you have to consider the evolution of the internet. With Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon becoming studios, a new channel of income has been created for content. More and more movies are being streamed online and they have their requirements of acceptance. Means, you nowadays ask yourself the question where the your movie will be viewed and that will influence the camera choice. There is no need to shoot 4K resolution if you’re placing your final product on social media since probably you’ll be watching it on your cellphone, tablet, or computer screen. Do you want your final product on Netflix? Then you have to shoot 4K resolution, because we’re now future-proofing for 4K streaming.
7. Do you think your multi cultural perspective brings something to the industry?
I think I achieve a technical sensibility through my cultural diversity. By that I mean, I can adapt to the different styles seen in different continents and cultures.
The Latin American visual style is different than the European and the American. I’ve gotten projects from Europe, because I’m multilingual and because I was able to record the project in the style they were looking for. The same has applied to Latin American projects.
An other example is when you have an international crew shooting in Los Angeles and they need a Camera Specialist, that talks and understands their culture. They call me, because that’s unique.
8. What has been your favorite camera to use?
No doubt; Arri Alexa. As an Assistant Camera the Alexa is amazing. Settings are accessible quickly, the whole construction is kept simplistic, which is key when you have to move quick between set ups and you don’t want to hold up production. Also, the image looks organic and less digitally constructed.
9. What makes a good camera?
This is a tough question.
Generally, I would say every camera that allows you to shoot something is a good camera. Now, there are many things that you have to consider and make the difference such as latitude of the sensor, noise, interpretation of colors, your budget, and many other things.
But in general, what you do is to choose your equipment according to your story and what emotions you want to convey to your audience. I would say, that’s how you choose your camera equipment and definitely lenses.
10. What is the most difficult shot that you have ever achieved?
I’m pretty sure there are many to come, but one that I always recall is the camera on the dolly, with an 85mm lens on and the lens was wide open, which gives you very little depth of field and therefore no room for error. Then, the talent was walking into the room while the camera shoot in closer on the dolly and then panned over to the left following the character to a table, where he then rested. Here you have to adjust to the speed the dolly is rushing in and the speed the subject steps into the room, keeping in mind this varies every single time. Plus, the talent moves across the room while moving away from the camera while you might have just 1 to 4 inches margin for error to keep the talent sharp.
11. How do you prepare for a shoot? How much planning goes into the shot?
Personally, I like to read the script to memorize the character names, understand the story and what it requires from me, and also to analyze what equipment is necessary after consultation with the Director of Photography.
Then you will have production meetings, where all key positions from each department come together and discuss the shoot. We then ask questions and interchange information between departments so we are on the same page and, for instance, whatever the camera department needs from the Grip department is available during the shoot.
Finally, the camera team goes to the checkout and inspects all camera equipment assuring that everything works and is in proper contidition for the shoot.
12. In terms of cinematographers, who do you like?
I definitely love the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, but there are many fantastic cinematographers out there that impress me. For instance Rachel Morrison.
13. What have you been working on recently?
Besides all my regular projects; the comedy, that I worked on as 1st Assistant Camera, “He Matado a mi Marido” with an all Latin-american cast is heading to cinemas by the end of this year. Also an exciting documentary where I was Camera Operator for an established TV franchise, besides the great reaction we got earlier this year for “Purse First”, a music video I worked as 1st Assistant Camera for Bob The Drag Queen.
I also have been focusing more in fashion videography and architectural photography.
14. You work in Hollywood and are up close with stars. Can you tell us a few stars you’ve worked with?
Through my work in film and TV, I’ve had the pleasure and honor to work along Malcolm McDowell, Steven Bauer, Eric Roberts, Maria Conchita Alonso, Eduardo Yañez, Slash, Kimbra, the cast of American Pie, Rita Ora, and Ed Sheeran.
15. What works are you most proud of?
Definitely projects where there has been a specific emotion or memory attached to it. Like my work for the movie “He Matado a mi Marido” with talent, that I’ve know since little. Or working on a commercial for PETA or Bob The Drag Queen, where there is a movement and/or a cause behind it. But also seeing my pictures published on a national magazine back home, that was an indescribable moment.