The Clapper Loader- Commercials

I was lucky because in my school we did media studies from GCSE level, and that grew as we went up through to ‘A’ level.

We used very straightforward equipment, like a VHS camera and a tape-to-tape editing system for the actual filmmaking. From there I went to University to do a film and media studies degree for 4 years, which wasn’t a particularly practical course, it was pretty much, as they sold it, 80% theoretical.

The practical part we did at the end of the 4 years and it was either radio production or TV production. You could do documentary or drama in TV production and I chose to do the drama side.

So I gained some kind of experience on the degree in writing, shooting, producing and editing a short film. A group of us also went on an American exchange which gave us an advantage over everyone else in that we shot with film, and used Avid’s and lights etc – the works basically. In America they have got the equipment to do that and there are only a few Universities here that I can think of, that can afford to shoot with film and use Avid’s or Final Cut Pro etc. 

One of the guys who had left our college had come back and wanted to make a TV pilot for a comedy. He had a big meeting and I rang him up and pestered him and asked for some experience. I ended up working for 4 weeks free as his PA/runner during my holidays.

I went back to my final year with a summer’s worth of running experience and a few short films under my belt. I finished my degree and at that point sent out my CV.

The only other experience I’d had was in an advertising agency, which gave me lots of contacts that were mostly commercial’s production companies and ad agencies, and so I took my CV, as good as it was, and just threw it out to as many people as I could find. Only one company came back to me.

How many CV’s did you send out?

Well the list probably had 40 or 50 names of top commercials production companies, and as I said, only one company replied.

I then went on to work for that production company as an in-house runner for 2 and a half years. I was in everyday working in the offices, which meant driving people to meetings, making lots of tea and coffee, helping with the editing of show reels, delivering the show reels, getting people lunch and everything you could think of really. It was a very varied and diverse job. Everyday was different, but the hours were long.

I do believe that there are advantages to being in-house, in that you are paid a regular salary, however low it may be, and you get to work with producers, editors, directors and so on. You are with them all the time throughout the whole process, from pre-production through to the edit, up to delivering to the agency. I was also lucky in that I got to go on shoots, which meant I was the floor runner on the shoots as well, which was great because I understand that some runners in the bigger companies don't get that opportunity. Sometimes the in-house runners stay in the offices and are groomed up to be PA’s and instead they will use only freelance runners for the shoots. So I was lucky in that I got to do everything.

Saying that though, on the downside I was always on tap. If I had to work a Saturday I wasn’t paid extra, I was just there to be at their disposal. There were times when I would sleep at the office – like when we were doing a shoot and we finished at 11pm and I then had to deliver the rushes. Because I lived in the suburbs which was a good hour or 45 minutes drive, if I had to be back in at 7am the next day, then there was no point in me going home, so often I would stay in the offices for the night. 

And they didn’t mind you doing that? They knew about it?

No they didn’t mind. I think management frowned upon it, but the producer would say it was up to me. I was treated well mind you, and a lot of these choices I made myself, simply because it was not worth me going home.

You ran at the production company for two and a half years, whilst you were running was it the camera department that you were interested in getting into?

Yeah, I was never interested in going into production. I was always interested in what was happening on the floor - what was happening between the DOP, focus puller, director and the actors - that was the exciting part for me.

I would do all the teas and coffees for everyone on set and I would make friends with the loaders, grips and DOP’s and just ask lots of questions. Then they would say, “Well, this is the magazine, this is how you load it” and so I would sit there and practice. I was lucky in that I found guys who were willing to give me a little bit of teaching and weren’t scared that I might take their job. 

Then on certain jobs like ‘pack shot’ shoots when there wasn’t always a loader, I would make myself useful in that I would load the magazines when the focus puller would let me. It was something I had learnt and therefore I made myself invaluable with these certain jobs.

Eventually it came to a point when they were using me as a runner / loader, and so whenever they were off on a job in a studio, I would go along as the clapper loader as well as make teas and coffees for everyone else on set. I made it easier for them to shoot quicker and they used me more and more as a loader giving me the much-needed experience

In my time off I would go and work on short films as a loader. I think I have worked on about ten short films or freebies of varying lengths. I also worked on a feature, which was all unpaid.

And this is all in your spare time?

This was in my free time, so when I had days off, weekends or most of my holidays, I would use that to go and work on short films, dramas or a feature and gain the experience.

There are a lot of those opportunities about, and by the time my running came to an end I had enough experience, I think, to go out there and work as a freelancer.

A lot of people don’t do that, they go out as a camera trainee and learn the ropes from a loader on the job and all you think about is the camera. I took a slightly different way of progressing in that I learnt as a runner, I rarely got the chance to be a trainee, but that’s in commercials, and commercials are different from features.

How does it work in features?

Features are different I think in that if you are a runner on a film, and you want to get into the camera department, the best thing to do is befriend the camera assistants and the trainee – because everyone does eventually step up – and then the next thing to do is apply for a camera trainee position.

What you’ll then be doing is just be working for the camera department for that entire feature, which is a great way of learning I think. In fact I have got a friend who whilst I was running and starting to work as a loader, was on FT2 for 2 years and even though he got a very low salary he worked on big jobs and is now working on big features, so he has kind of overtaken me in terms of the stuff he is doing.

As a clapper loader?

Yes as a clapper loader, but it is a very long slow progression.

From a runner, or from a trainee to a loader?

I think just from talking with other assistants and people in the camera department, it is generally seen that you do your apprenticeship as a trainee for a year or two, which is hard enough in it self, and then you’ll become a loader, which you will generally do for 4-5 years.

You’ll then step up to focus pulling, which you’ll do for about the same amount of time. Traditionally you then became an operator, although operators nowadays are a dying breed because more and more DOP’s operate themselves.

You’ll then become a DOP at the ripe old age of about 50 years old. Now that’s the old fashion way of doing it. There are a lot of successful DOP’s who do go straight from the camera floor of a rental house to a DOP, but it all depends. There are no set rules, although you are expected to do your time and that’s generally how it works.

Some people even go straight into focus pulling! But I worked for 2 and a half years as a runner, and I have now been a clapper loader for 4 years. If I wanted to step up to focus pulling that might be another year or two off from now.

So focus pulling is the next stage up from clapper loading?

Yeah, the next job I would be doing is focus pulling and I have started doing it already.

 A lot of these levels overlap I think. I have done a few low paid or freebies as a focus puller, but I do not tout myself as a focus puller yet because I haven’t got the experience, and again that is a matter of going elsewhere and doing freebies, short films, and also getting that lucky break.

It might be the case that they need a focus puller to go on 2nd unit and rather than getting someone else in they might let me step up. But it’s all about opportunities and luck and what happens as you progress. 

How do people get to become clapper loaders or camera assistants in commercials or TV?

Well I work mostly in commercials, but I think the best thing is to be a loader that can work in commercials, TV drama and feature films, and so whatever job you go on you just adapt for that days work.

For commercials mainly, to get in as a loader, again you can be a trainee, although on commercials they don’t use trainees very much.

If you were to be a camera trainee you would be working on features and TV dramas, but with that experience you could then go on to working in commercials.

So I think the best way to getting into commercials as a loader, is to be a runner and then venture into doing short films and camera trainee work. There are many ways of doing it – there is no black or white way.

In features the way in is a bit more structured, and I think commercials are a little less structured. People can come straight into loading like I did with the right experience or they can come from being a trainee on a TV drama.

So the difference is, they tend to have trainees in TV dramas and features, but in commercials you can actually make that jump from a runner to a clapper loader, just through having experience…

That’s a difficult one, I mean I did, but I had done the groundwork on the freebies and the short films, and I had enough experience to go self-employed.

I was a ‘green’ loader, and you are generally considered a green loader for a good 18 months until you have done the big jobs, like the dramas and a little bit of feature work. I think clapper loaders would rather see themselves as working across the board, except I suppose if you work in features as a clapper loader then that’s as good as it gets.

But I think it is good to be able to do all three. I might get a call from my diary service asking me to do a day on a feature, and I will need to have the skills and the ability to work within that team. Now that doesn't happen much, I am hoping for the phone call! But I think you need to be able to work across the board.

If it did happen tomorrow, would you be able to step up and do it?

I would like to think so, yes, absolutely.

Why not!

Yeah why not! They just need to know my name and see my CV. But it is a difficult one because it’s all about what happens – if someone wanted to give me a film now, I might then go and work on films for a long time and not work on commercials.

However my working life over the past 4 years has mostly been commercials and in terms of a daily rate, it’s the highest paid. You earn the most in commercials, then films, then TV drama. You can do fewer days on commercials for the same sort of money. However there is less work in commercials I think. The nature of the beast is TV drama’s will run for three months, features will run for three months, but with commercials you will have a day here, a day there, and then maybe 2 weeks off.

If you have a chunk of work for a feature film you will get paid X amount for three months, and then come off it and then do something else, commercials are a bit erratic, but you get used to that. 

If I was a runner, who eventually wanted to work in the camera department, is there anything I should be doing or learning about, to help me realise my goal?

The best way of learning the equipment if you are not doing the jobs or if you’re not a camera trainee or you’re a runner who is too busy on a set, is to go into one of the camera rental houses (Arri Media, Panavision, One8Six) places like that and they will gladly let you look at the equipment, take you through the basics of the cameras and magazines and also go through the digital cameras as well.

They will always encourage camera assistants or potential camera assistants to go in and learn, because maybe in 10 years time you’ll become a features DOP, remember who helped you out when you first started, and repay the favour by putting a lot of work through them. I think people do that in this industry because there is no set structure, and it’s all about who you know and who owes you favours or whatever. So go to the camera rental houses and learn the kit. 

Also meet as many clapper loaders, focus pullers and DOP’s as you can and ask questions.

What I also did and what can be a good way in for the experience, is to go on, which has postings for crew and has projects on there which vary from quite large scale feature films to one-day short films shot on DV. I think it is worth applying for those jobs because it is a great way of learning.

If you go and work on a short film and you don’t know anything, there will be people prepared to help you learn the trade. You’ll probably be working for free unfortunately, but it’s good training that you don’t have to pay for. A lot of courses that Skillset, Panavision or the National Film School have set up cost hundreds of pounds, and ok that’s great, they are really good courses, but if you haven’t got the money which most runners won’t, then doing short films and providing labour for free is a good way of meeting experienced people who can teach you the ropes.

But remember it’s a starter, not the be all and end all. You can’t go and do one short film and think you know how to load a magazine, write on a clapperboard and then go and work on a feature film. It’s not as simple as that.

It’s about experience and the skills.  Everyone thinks being a clapper loader is very simple - you just load a magazine, clap the board and then write down your notes, but there are lots of other things such as speed, anticipating what’s going to happen on a set and assisting the DOP, and whether that means changing the film stock, lenses, or rigging a camera etc, all these things need to be done with speed and efficiency and you need experience in order to do that.

So a short film will not necessarily teach you everything, but it will give you the basics.

Anything else?

There are also a lot of books out there, which are worth reading. 

What kinds of books?

I’ve got the Samuelson’s book (Hands on Manual for Cinematographers by David Samuelson), which is like a bible for camera assistants.  It has all the details and although it might be a bit above what a runner needs to know and is more something you keep in your kit once you know your stuff, it is also good for the beginner.

There is also a book called the camera assistants handbook (The Camera Assistant: A Complete Professional Handbook by Douglas C. Hart), I haven’t got one, but I have heard about it, and it’s meant to be really good. Also the HD books by Paul Wheeler - I think there are two of those, which are really good for HD.

Nowadays you have to learn both formats. The older guys just want to shoot with film, but they have soon realised that you can’t think like that anymore, because even feature films are now being shot on High Definition.

So you need to learn about the cameras and how different digital is to motion picture film, and it’s just a different set of skills that you’ll have to learn from the word go I think.

Are there any qualifications to working as a clapper loader?

No, well not yet. There used to be courses before I joined, and this is something that is being talked about by the Union now.

A few years before I became a clapper loader, probably in the late 90’s it changed. I think you needed to have a BTEC or a GNVQ in order to get your card.

Your Union ticket?

Yes and then you may have to have done 100 or so shoot days as a trainee before you can step up to be a loader.

I would rather it was that system, because I am one of the many people who have come into the industry and there is no structure. There is nothing where people can say, “I have done this” or “I have got that qualification” to prove they are that good - it is all done on me not making a mistake, or me proving myself on a set.

That might change because BECTU has discussed the possibility of re-introducing a BTEC or a GNVQ in order to prove that we can do the job. Grips already have it and it will give us protection for our job because a lot of people come into and pretend they can do it, but had there been a structure, then people would have to get the qualifications and work up the ladder that way.

That’s not in place at the moment, but I hope it will be in a few years time, and I wish it were in place when I first started because then you know where you stand.

What makes a good clapper loader do you think?

A good clapper loader I suppose is efficient and doesn’t make mistakes. If you do make a mistake in this job, by flashing a mag, which means opening the magazine and exposing it to light, or many other things which you could do wrong, then it has a great effect on the whole production.

On a commercial if you were to flash a mag, which may be the best shot of the ad, that may result in another days filming which could cost many thousands of pounds. So obviously you don’t ever make a big mistake.

You are efficient, quick, and friendly and you have the right attitude on a set. Also anticipating what’s about to happen is important, so you are always ready with a new role of stock and a new lens or whatever it may be.

Many people would like to pursue a career in the camera department, what advice would you give someone who is just starting out in the industry and what challenges do you think they will face?

I always think being a runner is a good starting block for anyone coming into the industry, because you can then see how it works, with it’s structures and relationships between different departments and different people.

Also you get a good idea of how a set works and when to keep your mouth shut and when to do your job. A lot of the time you are keeping out of the way - you can’t come into the industry and start telling people what you think about the framing of a shot, although surprisingly a lot of people do.

The best thing to do is talk to other camera assistants and ask questions. Show an interest to DOP’s, focus pullers and loaders, and ask if there are any opportunities. Send your CV out, go to the camera rental houses and learn the kit, because as soon as you know the kit then you become useful. 

I think the biggest challenge right now is finding work. There are so many people who want to come into the camera department that we are flooded with assistants.

There are more camera assistants out there than there is work, so it is quite a struggle. There are those that flirt with it and then go away and move into something else, which is fine because they clearly don’t want to do it that much. However if you persist then the work will come, provided you are good at it obviously.

The major thing is that when you first start out there won’t be much work and you need to either have something else to do, whether it is shooting your own stuff or editing or whatever in order to bring the money in. It is very tough to start out with - my first year was very slow, but I earned the same as I did when I was a runner in my first year of being self-employed, which actually is not bad going. But it progresses, and it gets better each year and you need to stick by it.

It is just a matter of being persistent, struggling on, and then you will eventually become successful and busy, and then it’s great, then it’s fantastic. 


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