Sarah Edwards : Lighting Camera Operator / Director of Photography

sarah-edwardsName: Sarah Edwards

Age: 37

Job title: Lighting Camera Operator & Director of Photography (DOP)

Time in current role: 17 years

Sarah is a freelance Lighting Camera Operator and Director of Photography (DOP). Visit her website camerawoman.co.uk and follow her on Twitter @camerawomanDOP

Why did you decide to go freelance?

In my teens I had no idea what I wanted to be. I’d simply kept progressing with the subjects I most enjoyed, then a combination of TV work experience, photography and video made me realise that working behind the camera was a real possibility. This was quite a revelation for a girl from a small town in Cornwall who’d never really travelled.

I moved to London in 2001 and worked as a Kit Room Assistant and driver for a company that hired out over 100 cameras, three outside broadcast trucks, sound and lighting equipment, and was open 24 hours a day. It was a steep learning curve with low pay and long hours but I loved it from day one. To start with I worked on early versions of shows like The Weakest Link, Pet Rescue and Scrapheap Challenge.

I first went freelance in 2003 after nearly three years working in a large facilities house in South London. Prior to this I’d only worked as a Runner (production assistant) at a local TV station in Oxford during my final year at university. I studied Fine Art and English but my art course allowed me to pursue photography and video work instead of traditional painting and sculpture, so that’s where it all started.

It was a big step but during my time in the kit room I’d built up good working relationships with other camera crew who were able to offer me work and support when I finally took the plunge. I’ve never looked back.

I initially worked as a freelance Camera Assistant but soon progressed to Operator and eventually moved into Lighting too. I worked regularly on Grand Designs as well as shows like You Are What You Eat, Property Ladder and The Culture Show.

These days I do less broadcast television and more corporate promos, short films and online commercials.

What are the key functions of your role?

To make the moving images I’m recording look as good as possible. This is a complex combination of technical knowledge, style, composition and working well with the people around me whether they be Directors, other crew, the Sound Department, Make-up, the Art Department, contributors or actors.

I need to be able to instruct my camera team to work quickly and efficiently with the equipment and whatever challenges the location may throw at us. And if it’s a small crew job, I need to make sure the client and the people on camera are as comfortable as possible with how I’m working.

My job doesn’t begin or end with just the filming, it involves many other aspects. I’m often reading scripts weeks or months in advance so I can work closely with the Director to achieve their desired look. This can also involve a fair amount of film-watching research as well as recces (visits) of locations and camera and lens testing.

For other projects I may be required to have input on idea development over the phone or in face-to-face meetings with producers and clients.

Logistics and planning are another key element. I often have to book the crew and kit required for each shoot, sometimes weeks in advance, sometimes the day before.

After the shoot is over, I may be invited to have some input on the edit and the grade to make sure the final piece looks the best it can.

Talk us through your typical working day

A typical shoot day for me will begin between 5:30am-6am. Breakfast is essential or I’m useless, then I pack the van and drive to the location which can be anything from 15 minutes to three or four hours away. Then it’s unloading, assessing the location and setting up for the first shot. Sometimes it will be a simple interview set-up, other times a more complex drama scene which may require a couple of hours of lighting and rehearsals before we can shoot.

Lunch break normally involves an email catch-up and phone calls to organise up-and-coming shoots, then it’s back to filming. Often there will be a location move part way through the day so we have to pack up, move on and repeat the process as necessary.

Wrap time can be anything from 6pm-9pm depending on the project and any unforeseen holdups (which can vary when dealing with public places and real people). Then it’s home for dinner before a final email check and bed!

I tend to be on location three to four days a week, sometimes more during busy periods. So the other weekdays will be spent in my home office catching up on admin and organising upcoming shoots.

Sometimes I have to work weekends. I don’t mind this but I’ve learned over the years that a day or two off every week or so is essential to recover your mental and physical strength. It’s all round a very demanding job, plus my level of responsibility is significant – I don’t want to be so tired I’m making mistakes as this could jeopardise an entire production.

Your favourite part of the job?

The people I get to meet and the places I get to see. Every day is different and I always learn something new. Sometimes I’ll get to work with famous people and CEOs of large corporations, other times it’s ordinary people, but they’re all equally fascinating.

Often I’m there because something exciting is happening, but sometimes I’m there because the worst has happened and it needs documenting in some way. I have to adjust my behaviour and attitude accordingly and make sure the people I’m working with and the environments I’m working in are given the utmost respect.

Being a woman means I’m often asked to film in intimate or potentially difficult circumstances involving other women so they can be made to feel at ease when telling their stories or performing particular scenes. I’m very lucky to be given these opportunities.

I’ve travelled the world with my job and often seen behind closed doors where the public don’t normally get to go, so I’m very privileged.

…and the part you could do without?

The occasional long hours and lack of organisation on set or on location. Often time constraints mean there’s little or no chance for breaks so you just have to plough on. This is where team morale is essential so you can all help each other get through the tough times.

I have a group of freelance camera and sound crew I like to work with regularly. On some shoots they can become like family. I trust them to do their best for the production and help those around them to do the same.

How would your clients describe you in three words?

Calm, creative and strong!

Plans for the future? 

I’m really excited about where my career is going. In the last couple of years I’ve stepped up to Director of Photography so this is opening doors for me into really interesting projects that I can take ownership of stylistically. From music videos and online commercials to short films and features. I love that you never stop learning when it comes to lighting and once you’ve mastered the basic rules you can work on developing your own unique style. I can’t imagine doing anything else!

Do you have any advice for other aspiring freelancers?

Film and media studies is a very common choice at university now. There are a few institutions around the country that are really well respected when it comes to this type of qualification – Bournemouth, Falmouth, NFTS, Ravensbourne, UWE are among the best, so this is a great place to start. Also, institutions that offer more practical courses give you a better idea of how things work when you get out into the real world of filmmaking.

However, more often now not going to University is an equally valid choice if you start at the low end of film and media as you learn so much on the job. If you start when you’re 18 or 19, you’ll be way ahead of your peers once they’ve graduated. Many media and production companies, large and small, have apprenticeship schemes so this is another way to go.

London used to be the only place to go to make it in TV and film, but I’m glad to say this is no longer the case. Cities like Bristol, Cardiff, Manchester and Glasgow all have plenty of production companies and great filmmaking communities to get involved with.

I’m a big fan of being freelance but at the start of your career, permanent or contract work is often the best choice as you’ll know where your money’s coming from, hopefully learn as much as you can, then move on to the next company and eventually go it alone if you choose.

Technical jobs in media are most often done by freelancers – things to do with cameras, lighting, sound etc. – whereas production work (researching, producing, production managing) is normally done as contract or permanent.

If you’re new to the industry, the best thing you can do is get out there and get some experience. Be a runner, extra or supporting artist on a shoot and see what really goes on behind the scenes. And make your own films too – you’ll always learn something from everything you make and hopefully develop lasting relationships with fellow filmmakers in doing so.

Be open-minded, talk to people and create your own opportunities. Things move fast in film and media so it can be hard to keep up, but once you’re in it, it’s very rewarding. LLY

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