A first camera assistant (also called a 1st AC or focus puller) is one of the most skilled jobs on set. Despite being a mid-senior level film crew position in the camera department, they are largely responsible for capturing the perfect shot during production. This means ensuring the subject remains in focus throughout the scene. The first camera assistant’s role is to essentially manage the camera crew and make sure filming runs smoothly, take after take. If they lose the focus during filming, the shot is ruined and will have to be redone. Therefore, this crew position requires superb camera skills and a keen eye for detail.
Think you have what it takes to become a 1st AC? From salary averages to the day-to-day responsibilities of this job, here’s everything you need to know about becoming a first camera assistant.
The 1st AC is the point of contact for the camera crew and anyone managing camera equipment on set. They report directly to the director of photography or camera operator and are often explicitly requested once the DP/camera operator is on board. If there is a 2nd AC on set, they report to the 1st AC, as does much of the camera crew.
Most first ACs production assistants before moving into a more specialized camera PA/camera trainee role, shadowing the 1st and 2nd ACs before advancing. Another route is to find work with camera rental houses to learn the technical details and nuances of working with a variety of cameras.
The 1st AC has two main roles
- They physically operate the camera lens’ focus ring, keeping the correct subject in focus through every scene. This involves not only getting the shot in focus but also maintaining that focus as actors move through the frame. “The [1st AC’s] job is to keep the camera running and to make it do what the DP wants it to do,” explains Doug Hart, whose 1st AC credits include “Manhattan,” “Kramer vs Kramer,” and “Stepmom.” “The DP will describe the shot, lay it out for you, tell you what filters you need, what frame rates, what shutter angle—[and the 1st AC] is going to be the one who makes those things happen.”
- They organize and maintain all camera equipment and accessories. During pre-production, the 1st AC works with the DP to determine what cameras, lenses, and other support gear will be needed to ensure the director’s vision. When production starts, it’s the 1st AC (alongside the camera crew) who unloads and preps equipment, setting up the shot so everything is in the proper place before rolling. “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 position in the scene,” says David E. Elkins (“The Wonder Years,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation”). “These marks will be used for the [DP] 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.”
Like many crew positions (since their work is typically freelance), 1st AC’s earnings vary due to a few factors. A first camera assistant's salary typically depends on the amount of work they do in a year and the length and location of each project. At the time of publication, data shows the average annual salary for a working 1st AC is $100,000, with a range from $70,000 to $250,000.
1st ACs are represented by IATSE Local 600—the International Cinematographers Guild—which regulates minimum rates on union productions.
The most important part of a 1st AC’s job is knowing how to set up and operate cameras. They must understand every detail of how a camera works to ensure the correct settings are used and troubleshoot should the need arise. While experience on set is necessary, these technical skills must be learned beforehand so as to not hold up production. Many 1st ACs spend their non-working hours attending vendor workshops, watching tutorials, and visiting camera houses to get experience with all of the different camera systems available.
A formal education is not necessary to become a first camera assistant, but attending film school can provide access to gear that might not otherwise be available to those just starting out. It can also be a great place to make connections and really get your foot in the door when it comes to a career in film.
In terms of personality, 1st ACs must be planners. “They need to be constantly aware of what is happening on set” so time isn’t lost between takes if a lense needs to be changed, says Derek Plough (“Now Apocalypse”). They must be reliable and careful, as they regularly handle extremely expensive equipment. That precision must also translate to small details; if a 1st AC’s calculations are off, the scene must be shot again, stalling the schedule and losing the production money.