Should I go to university to become a camera operator?

This is one of the most common questions I’m asked, but really, there’s no right or wrong answer. Perhaps a more appropriate question to ask yourself is, “What do I want out of university?”. If the answer is simply a job as a camera operator, then going to university is certainly not a necessity. In fact, I know many successful camera operators without a degree. Unlike some other industries, employers are often more interested in your portfolio and practical experience rather than your qualifications.

Why should I go to university?

University is particularly useful for anyone who knows that they want a career in the industry, but aren’t exactly sure of what it ought to be. One important question anyone considering going to university to achieve a career in film production should first ask themselves is how much they enjoy studying. Although a lot of your course is likely to be practical, there’s certainly a fair amount of exams and coursework. Most courses do achieve a nice balance, such as this Film and Video Production Technology BSc on offer at the University of Surrey, in which you’ll learn about the science and engineering of film production alongside more creative and analytical modules studying film theory and the creative arts. At some universities, you can even study screenwriting alongside the practicals of film production. Picking the right course will help you to graduate with a well-rounded understanding of the industry, and hopefully, some idea of your place within it.

Perhaps the main advantage of going to university to study film production, in my opinion, is that you’re able to work on creative projects which you can manage yourself from start to finish, using professional equipment. This is an opportunity that you simply will not have if you go straight to work in the industry, especially because you’ll likely be starting at the bottom. It also means you’ll have some impressive work in your portfolio to show potential clients when the time comes.

So let’s assume that, like me, you know you’ll be opting to work in the camera department – why should you go to university? Well, you’ll get to learn firsthand about all aspects of production and how the different departments work together during the filmmaking process. You’ll benefit greatly from lots of hands-on experience with equipment you could otherwise only dream of acquiring, and be given the opportunity to shoot regularly in an environment where you can experiment and make mistakes. There’s nothing more nerve-wracking than trying something new on the job when you’re under pressure from a client when their time and money is at risk.

As with any university course, you’ll also get to meet like-minded people who will probably end up some of your best friends for life. This is particularly important in the filmmaking industry, where who you know is at least as important as what you know.

Most university courses will also offer professional training placements, where you can gain experience by working for a year at a production company or film studio. This is another great opportunity to make useful contacts and hone your skills. Alternatively, your university might provide the equipment and funding for you to run your own company for a year. This is what I chose to do, and the experience really helped to prepare me for my own freelance career.

Because you have easy access to fantastic kit, you can also put it to good use outside of university by creating your own short films or music videos. One of my best university experiences was shooting a short over a few weeks during the summer break, and without the pressure of a grade riding on it we could really enjoy the process.

All in all, studying film production at university is a great experience which I would never discourage, so long as your expectations are clear going in. You won’t come out of university as a camera operator, but you’ll certainly come out with confidence, a good practical skill set, and experiences that will benefit you greatly as you begin your career.

 Isn’t it better to learn film production on the job?

As someone who chose not to take this route, this is a difficult question to answer. To a certain extent, it depends on what sort of work you see yourself doing. For instance, becoming a TV camera operator would likely require you to join a camera department and learn as you go along. However, corporate, commercial or events work generally calls for freelancers or small production companies, and naturally does not afford you the same luxury of figuring things out as you go. You’d also need your own kit, which depends on your resources and personal finances.

If you’re keen to shoot film and TV drama, the conventional route is to start at the bottom and work your way up. The entry-level role is camera trainee, 2nd AC, then 1st AC, followed by camera operator. However, even after leaving university with a film production degree, you would still need to start as a trainee and go through the same process. Therefore, you’d technically be in exactly the same situation had you not gone to university.

The film and TV industry is very much about earning your stripes in your role before “stepping up” to the next level. Personally, I’ve had the opportunity to work as a camera trainee a number of times, whilst knowing full well that I have the skills to be a 2nd AC only without the credits to my name I need to earn that position. So, if you’re dead set on a camera department role in TV or film, then you might be better making a start as a camera trainee as early as you can.

If you can see yourself as a freelance camera operator like myself, then I do think this would be a lot harder to do straight after college. It’s not just a technical and creative role, but a large part of it is the business side – managing budgets, keeping track of accounts and chasing clients for money! This is where all the additional skills you pick up at university come in handy and allow you to be taken more seriously by clients.

Now that decent cameras are becoming more affordable, you might wish to jump straight in and see how you get on. There’s nothing wrong with taking this route, but the kind of clients you are likely to secure would be fairly low level whilst you’re still gaining experience and expanding your portfolio. If you’re young and still have the support of family, then this is a great way to learn your craft, but it might take some time to make a career out of it.

What other options do I have?

Another choice that is becoming increasingly common is taking on an apprenticeship. This might involve working for a production company in a full-time capacity for minimum pay, but the skills and experience you will gain could be really valuable, as your senior colleagues will be there to help you learn and develop your skills. You’ll get to see first-hand how a production company operates, how clients and projects are managed, and how videos go from concept to completion. An apprenticeship is unlikely to be specialised in camera, but if you see yourself shooting directly for end clients it is likely to give you a good understanding of the business elements you’ll need to master. There’s also always the chance that you’ll impress them so much that they’ll want you to come to work for them after your placement ends.

If you are based in one of the larger cities then you may have a local camera hire company nearby. Finding a job in a kit room is a great way to learn about a wide range of equipment and meet a lot of filmmakers and production companies in the process. Some hire companies also offer crew facilities, so if you play your cards right this could be one way to get bookings in the camera department and your foot in the door.

So, as we can see, the answer to the question, “Should I go to university to become a camera operator?” is yes, no and maybe. It all depends on where you see yourself within the industry, the kind of person you are, the resources you have available and the opportunities in your area.

I hope my perspective has been useful, and if you have any other questions or would just like some advice, I’m happy to help!