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BigSPEEGS Goes to the Movies
Interview with: David E. Elkins, First Assistant Cameraman


David E. Elkins is a first assistant cameraman who's credits include "The Wonder Years" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation". He is also the author of several books, including "The Camera Assistant's Manual". He currently teaches at the North Carolina School of the arts and teaches courses at the Boston Film and Video Institute.

Evan Spigelman: Hey Dave, how's it going?

David E. Elkins: Hey Evan.

ES: So what does a first assistant cameraman actually do?

DE: Overall he/she is in charge of the camera department. That includes the following:

Working with the DP to order equipment. Checks the equipment before production starts.

During shooting, sets up and maintains the camera and all accessories. During the shot, keeps it in focus. Places any magazines, filters, access. on camera.

Oversees the work of the second assistant. That's it in a nutshell. There is a lot more.

ES: Could you tell us what the magazines and filters are for?

DE: The magazines hold the film before and after exposure. It is a light proof chamber that the second assistant loads the fresh film into. It is then placed on the camera and the first assistant threads the film into the camera. After the film has been shot the 2nd AC unloads the film in a darkroom. Then places it in a bag and can, seals it and sends it to the lab.

ES: So it's basically the "top" part of the camera

DE: It's not always the top. On some cameras it actually sticks out the back. It just depends on the model of the camera. Now for filters. Filters are usually made of special optically correct glass, meaning there are no imperfections. They are used to change or correct the image. You may want an old time look so you would use a sepia filter. If you want to bring out certain colors you may use the particular color filter for the object you want to highlight such as red or yellow. Sometimes we need to correct the look of the image because of the type of light we are filming under. Then we would use a conversion filter. It doesn't change the look of the image but corrects the image for the light you are using.

ES: Are the filters different for a black and white film as oppose to a color film?

DE: Yes, there are different filters for black & white. Because all colors in black & white are rendered as shades of gray you can use filters to change how light or dark the gray is.

ES: OK. So what is involved in setting up a shot?

DE: Setting up a shot. Well first we watch a rehearsal with the actors going through their moves. During this time the 2nd AC puts small pieces of tape on the floor to correspond to each actor's postion in the scene. These marks will be used for the Cinematographer to light the shot and also by the 1st AC for focusing. The 1st AC will measure to each of these marks and keep notes on the distances. As the actors move through the scene the 1st AC will turn the lens barrel to the corresponding distance to keep the actor in focus.

ES: I see. What are some of your favorite experiences in the film buisness?

DE: Well my all time favorite job was on the television series The Wonder Years. I was on that show for about 1 1/2 years. The show itself (stories, etc), cast and crew made it so much fun. I looked forward to going to work each day. Star Trek The Next Generation was also fun. So were many of the music videos that I did. Overall I have had a lot of good experiences, met a lot of wonderful people in the film business.

ES: Are you still in touch with the cast (of the Wonder Years) today?

DE: I did see Fred Savage a few years ago in a play and we got together afterwards and talked for about an hour. Usually after a show the actors go on to other things just like the crew. But its not unusual to work with the same people on other shows.

ES: Cool... was it any different working with bluescreen for Star Trek?

DE: Bluescreen was not that tough for me as a 1st AC. I was just focusing on a blank screen and the image would be installed later during post production. It was more difficult for the cinematographer.

ES: I bet. Are you still helping with productions today?

DE: Yes, I am still working whenever I can. I now live in North Carolina and teach at the North Carolina School of the Arts. But whenever a film job comes up I take it if my schedule permits. Of course I am not as busy as I would be if I still lived in Los Angeles, but there is enough to do with the teaching. I love sharing my experiences and training new filmmakers.

ES: Cool. Now before we go... could you tell us who did the narrating for the Wonder Years (or is that classified information)? :)

DE: The narration for the show was done by actor Daniel Stern. He was in City Slickers and Home Alone.

ES: Neat! Thanks for taking time out of your schedule to do this, Dave.

DE: It was my pleasure. Bye for now.

You can visit Dave Elkins' website at