By: Justin Sanders
The road to making a living as a crewmember in film and television can be long and bumpy.
Just ask Jaxon Woods, who traversed from rural southern Oregon to the gray, drizzly shores of Vancouver, British Columbia before finally settling in Los Angeles – and that was only the beginning of his journey toward becoming a successful camera operator.
In his early days in L.A., Woods “would get turned down for stuff that was nothing more than a couple of guys in a living room who knew how to make a Craigslist ad and had a video camera,” he told CreativeFuture.
Eventually, he would get work behind a camera, but it was far from easy as Woods proceeded to pay his dues and then some, spending years working long days (sometimes 15 hours or more) on low-budget, low-paying movies that would go straight to video or maybe nowhere at all. One of these productions, Desert of Death, saw Woods confined to the Mojave Desert for two weeks, subsisting on hot dogs and Wonder Bread, and surrounded, Indiana Jones-style, by one of his most feared things on planet Earth: snakes.
“It was awful,” Woods concluded. “The worst conditions I’ve ever had working.”
Fortunately, it could only have gone up from there, and it did, as Woods toiled away on project after project, padding his resume with credits and making connections at every stop along the way. Slowly but surely, his pay began to increase, and his ranking on sets began to go up as he ascended from camera production assistant gigs to assistant camera jobs, and beyond.
For the past five years, Woods has been working steadily as a camera operator, the highest position on the camera crew ladder other than director of photography, for some of the biggest television shows on-air – including Fox’s The Grinder with Fred Savage and Rob Lowe, and ABC’s Speechless with Minnie Driver.
“I realized that the fun part for me is just pointing the camera,” Woods said. “It’s the best job on set, and I think most camera operators you would talk to would say the same thing.”
Clearly, the epic journey that began in the small town of Williams, Oregon was all worth it.
Justin Sanders: As a kid living in rural Oregon, how conscious were you of the entertainment industry as a possible career goal?
Jaxon Woods: Growing up in a small town, watching movies that took place in Los Angeles or New York, the idea of working in film seemed as much of a fantasy as growing up to be a king.
I always wanted to go to the movies, and was aware what movies were coming out, but it was much more about being a fan than being someone like Steven Spielberg, who knew that he was going to be a director when he was, like, 10 years old. It was more of a hobby for me.
JS: When did your hobby start to transition away from merely watching to being an active participant?
JW: I took an English class in high school that had a video component, including broadcasting the school news in the morning. In between footage of football games and pep rally announcements or whatever, we would show little short videos that the students would make, and those were always really fun.
After high school, I went to community college and got an associate degree, but I had no purpose. I worked at video stores. I was still living at home in Williams. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. I saved up a massive sum of maybe $2,000, and I blew more than half of it on a crappy video camera, which I used to shoot a western with a girlfriend. I would drive four hours up from southern Oregon to Portland, Oregon to edit it on my friend’s computer. I was just making it for fun, but I was starting to learn some craft, whether I knew it or not.
At the same time, there was the advent of DVDs with director commentaries and special features. I became obsessed with those. A lot of the directors were gearing their commentaries toward aspiring filmmakers. They would talk about how their careers started, and it just slowly started to dawn on me that there were baby steps one could take to working in the industry. I started to realize that maybe this was something I should do for a career.
JS: You thought you could be a director?
JW: I went to Vancouver Film School [in British Columbia], thinking I wanted to be a director. It had a very hands-on, short-term program. By that point, I was 24 and self-conscious that I hadn’t gone to a real college. I was kind of hungry, and I became one of the standouts at the school. It felt good. It felt very comfortable. I loved it in Vancouver, and I wanted to stay there after I graduated, but it became complicated with work visas and stuff. At a certain point, I had to move down to Los Angeles, which was a decision made strictly off of the premise that I had heard they made movies down there.
JS: You moved to Los Angeles, sight-unseen?
JW: I had never been to L.A. before. I didn’t know anything about the city at all when I got here. I got the cheapest Craigslist roommate situation I could find, found a retail job at Lululemon, and scored an internship in development at a production company affiliated with Warner Brothers, Di Novi Pictures.
JS: Wait a minute – you started your Los Angeles entertainment career in development? That’s a totally different track than what you’re doing now.
JW: Development is kind of the other extreme end of my interest in the industry. Camera operating is great, but I’m also always reading about projects in the works, fascinated with who is getting attached with what script, etc. Denise Di Novi, [the founder of Di Novi Pictures], was a powerful producer who had partnered with Tim Burton on his Batman movies, and I was hugely interested in that.
JS: What did you do at Di Novi Pictures?
JW: A lot of development is sourcing original ideas. If you find something interesting in the news that week, it could be a story. So, as an intern, I was going through all the newspapers and all the trades, finding out what stories were available, what news events were happening, what books had just come out and were getting interest, and so on.
Being at the bottom level, my findings would get submitted to the front desk person, who would whittle them down and send to an assistant, who might then share them with Denise.
JS: Did you ever get an idea to her that was seriously considered for development?
JW: (Laughs) No. Not that I’m aware of.
JS: Meanwhile, were you yearning to work on set the whole time?
JW: Everyone at Di Novi Pictures thought I was crazy for wanting to do crew work. It was like if you were interning at a law firm and said, “You know, I think I have some other options in the plumbing field.”
But I was in the wrong place at Di Novi. I started getting really hungry for crew work, looking for projects on Craigslist. I would go after literally everything, just trying to meet people basically.
JS: It seems like most people working in film and television, on either side of the camera, have to go through a “say yes” phase in the beginning – unless they get really lucky.
JW: At first, I felt lucky if I even got to say “yes”. I would get turned down for stuff that was nothing more than a couple guys in a living room who knew how to make a Craigslist ad and had a video camera.
Eventually, I started getting projects that had a little bit of money – maybe they couldn’t afford to pay people, but they were trying to actually make the movie. The first thing that fit that description was a horror movie with this director who had a handful of video releases at Blockbuster. I was going to Blockbuster every day back then because I lived right by one, and I knew every cover they had, and this guy had a few covers of horror movies that I recognized.
I was like, “All right! First step.” I wasn’t getting paid, but I could put it on my IMDB page. It was a “real” movie.
JS: What was the movie called?
JW: It was called Desert of Death and I was a camera assistant on it. We drove out to El Mirage, the dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert, and we were there for two weeks, working crazy hours all day in the hot desert sun, and then all night. There were snakes all around and I’m terrified of snakes. To eat, there were hot dogs and Wonder Bread. They didn’t even have hot dog buns. At night, we would drive 40 minutes into the nearest town and rent a hotel room and I would sleep on the floor.
It was awful, the worst conditions I’ve ever had working, and I couldn’t go anywhere because I drove out there with them in an RV.
JS: My god, they were holding you hostage.
JW: Basically, but we were in on the con: “We’re going to work our asses off and you’re going to get to sell it to Blockbuster, and we’ll get a credit.”
The whole goal is credits. Even though nobody sees movies like Desert of Death, potential employers can look them up on IMDB. It looks a little more official. Your IMDB page is your resume at this point. It’s very rare that I submit a resume anymore.
JS: How did you start to break away from productions like Desert of Death and get higher-quality gigs?
JW: That finally happened when I took a camera production assistant (PA) job on a $200,000 movie that was funded by a group of dentists and veterinarians. They were this group of friends who would invest in each other’s side projects every year, and one of them had written a script that was a modern-day Tarantino-esque version of Shakespeare’s Richard III.
During the production, the DP got fired, which meant the gaffer became the new DP, the second assistant camera (AC) became the first AC, and then the camera PA – me – became the second AC. So, I was getting paid then, which was a big step!
JS: Let me make sure I have this straight: Your first paid, on-set job in Los Angeles was a crime thriller adaptation of a Shakespearean history play produced by dentists and veterinarians?
JW: And every job I’ve gotten since then I can trace back to that movie and the connections I made on it.
JS: (Laughs) You can’t make this stuff up. But what happened to your dreams of becoming a director?
JW: I think maybe what I had thought was directing when I was younger was actually what a DP does. I realized that the fun part for me is just pointing the camera. It’s the best job on set, and I think most camera operators you would talk to would say the same thing.
JS: Wow! That is a glowing endorsement of your position. Why is camera operator the best job on set?
JW: It’s so simple and pure. You’re trying to connect the placement and movement of the camera, along with a particular lens, to the emotion of the story. Whether that emotion is funny or scary or something in between, you’re looking for ways to tell the story simply through that rectangle you’re moving around.
There are a lot of “established” ways of how to achieve this, but it’s ultimately subjective in the end, and figuring out how to do that in each shot by working with the DP, the director, the actors, and your focus puller and dolly grip is very challenging and rewarding. You’re constantly learning new things. It’s the best.
JS: It kind of sounds like a dream job, when you put it that way.
JW: My job is not without stress or hardships, but before I was an operator, I was mostly working as a camera assistant, and that’s an even tougher job. As first assistant camera, you’re the head of the camera department even though you’re not really in charge. You’re the go-to person for anybody to talk to about anything concerning the camera. You align the gear, so if a single shot needs, say, a Technocrane, a remote stabilized head, an extra camera body, a zoom lens, and a remote follow focus – you’re the one coordinating and sometimes even nickel-and-diming the price down with the rental house and trying to make it work with the producers’ budget.
You are also, as first assistant camera, the one that has to go to production and fight for overtime minutes if the shoot runs late. Or, you might instead have to talk to your crew and be like, “We’re only a minute over. Can we just let it go this time?”
JS: That sounds stressful.
JW: It’s tough to be an AC. You are the one that has to deliver bad news on all ends, basically, and try to fit the square peg into the round hole to make things happen. You’re the in-between person in a really difficult way.
You also have to pull focus as an AC, which is another extremely difficult task on top of the very, very difficult job of all that other stuff on the business end.
JS: Why is pulling focus so challenging?
JW: Pulling focus is all measurements – the distance from the camera to whatever you want to be in focus. Sometimes that measurement has to be down to the millimeter, or the shot will be out of focus. And the actors are trying to hit their marks, but even if their feet are perfectly in position, their face might be three inches too far forward, or three inches back. If they drop their head to look at their feet, their face comes six inches closer, again throwing off the focus. It’s maybe the hardest job on set, getting that focus right.
JS: And now you don’t have to do that anymore.
JW: Right. (Laughs) The relief of not having to pull focus or negotiate, after many years of doing both, is a small part of why I consider camera operating the best job. But mostly, I just really enjoy the work I do now. I feel grateful every day that I get paid to concentrate almost solely on simply pointing the camera and making that part of the process the best I can at all times.
JS: What does that mean, though? How do you go about making a shot the best you can?
JW: One side is the aesthetic – making every frame as beautiful as possible, with the best light, the best composition, etc. The other side is emotional – what frame is going to sell the most emotion for the story? What makes this moment look the funniest for the scene? What gives a frame the most punch for a tragedy?
Composition can give you emotion, but also just the way the camera moves can give you emotion. You can add in emotion through character movement, following the character a certain way, but sometimes a story beat can be tied to something that doesn’t have a lot of movement – like, the phone rings. Or sometimes it’s as subtle as a character thinking about their childhood, and in the corner of the room there is a teddy bear that ties into their memory somehow. You’ve got to find a way to get over there with the camera – to highlight that bear, which is very difficult. Finding ways to add that to the scene is really exhilarating.
JS: What’s a day in the life at work look like for you?
JW: I show up at call and first thing I do is put on a walkie-talkie and get a set of sides. There will be a morning meeting to discuss the day and any particulars, and then everyone has to leave the set except for a select few: the cast, writer, director, script supervisor, DP, and camera operators.
The cast will read the material and if they have the luxury of a little time, which we usually do, they’ll say, “Let’s put it on its feet.” So, we’ll start reading it and figuring out where the actors want to stand, and when.
The DP or the operators might say, “This will make a better shot,” or, “This will reduce set-up time if they say that line here vs. there.” And then the actor might say, “No, I really need to say that line by the TV,” etc.
So, we have those discussions, and then you do a marking rehearsal, where you bring the entire crew in. Everyone jams into a corner so they’re not standing where the actors need to be, and the second AC has a rope with about a billion colors of tape on it, and they’ll do the scene for the entire crew, reading it, and standing where the actors would stand. Every time they stop at a place, the second AC will lay a colored piece of tape in a “T” shape at their feet. Each actor has their own color of tape that they keep for the entire show, and they can come in and just read the tape marks like a map basically.
After marking rehearsal, you send the actors off to get their costumes and hair and makeup, and we’ll start setting up the shots. We start to physically set the cameras in and adjust lighting and stuff. It’s usually about an hour before the actors come back, and then we shoot. You get to work very closely with the actors, which is one of my favorite parts.
JS: And now you’re working with big actors such as Fred Savage, Rob Lowe, Minnie Driver, and Tig Notaro.
JW: Yes, when The Grinder happened with Fred Savage and Rob Lowe, it was a big step up for me. The main shows I’ve done since then are Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi and Speechless with Minnie Driver. All three of these shows are shot by the DP Rhet Bear. I met him a few years ago on Comedy Central’s The Meltdown and I’ve been fortunate that he’s been calling me ever since.
JS: What’s the next step for you, career-wise? Can you go from camera operator to becoming a director of photography?
JW: Yeah, but if I were to move up to director of photography, now it gets a lot harder again. As DP, you’re in charge of camera and lighting. Right now, I’m just in charge of camera movement, and it’s really fun.
If I wanted to start making more money and remain a camera operator, the next stage would be to invest in gear. You buy gear and you rent that to a production – remote follow focuses to pull focus, monitors, carts, pretty much anything, though certain items pay better than others and get used more.
As an operator, the first thing you would invest in, probably, is a Steadicam. I’m always thinking about doing that, but I don’t know if it’ll ever actually happen.
JS: Do you remember what your first gig as a full-on camera operator was?
JW: My best guess would be an MTV show that I was assisting on called The Hard Times of R.J. Berger for the DP Mathew Rudenberg. We had a scene where the characters go to a Weezer concert and we had something like five cameras on set, so I got to operate one of those for the day. I got bumped up.
It often works that way for new operators – “We’ve got an extra camera today, so come on up.”
JS: I often think that, in addition to talent and work ethic, making it in Hollywood is a matter of sticking around long enough to receive those opportunities and being ready when they come – of outlasting the competition.
JW: If you had told me at the beginning how long it would take me to get to a paid gig as a camera operator in L.A., I would never had pursued it.
JS: Is that what you would say to a young person interested in becoming a camera operator? “Don’t pursue this unless you love it – because it could be a while”?
JW: If you can imagine yourself doing anything else, you should do that. It’s not an easy path, but I’ve been working steadily as a camera operator for about five years now, and I’m still in love with figuring out new things that make shots work.
All photos courtesy of Jaxon Woods.