In Focus: Bonnie Blake

After more than 30 years in film and television, camera operator Bonnie Blake shares her story of breaking into Hollywood and building the relationships that have shapped her career. 

Female camera operators are still the exception in film and TV, but that never deterred Bonnie Blake, who’s carved out an impressive career. She’s always in demand, and her credits read like a list of TV’s biggest hits, from Malcolm in the Middle to Monk to CSI: NY.

Blake had just finished shooting BET’s new show Being Mary Jane when we spoke with her about her career and the on-the-job challenges of being a camera operator. She also had tons of great advice for anyone who wants to work behind the lens.

Get In Media: Let’s start with how your career as a camera operator began.
Bonnie Blake: I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and I wanted to be an actress, so after I got an MFA in theater I moved to New York. Well, I did a thousand odd jobs to support myself, and got really frustrated with auditioning and not getting much paid work. Then a friend of mine suggested I try something completely different and take a photography class. I did and I really loved it, so I started working as a still photography assistant. One of the photographers was hired to make a 16mm movie for a client, so we both learned how to use a 16mm camera and how to record sound, and we went and shot a film in Iowa on a farm. I really enjoyed it, and a friend of mine in the film business said, “Well, if you wanted to work in motion pictures and got into the union, you could make a lot more money.” And it sort of broadened my horizon to think I could do something I enjoyed and be compensated really well.

The funny part is that when I told the still photographer what I wanted to do, he said, “You’ll never get in the union. Forget about that idea.” That sort of challenged me to prove him wrong in a way.

GIM: How did you go about getting into the union?
BB: Well, the requirements for getting into the union were to take a written test and an all-day practical test to show that you had knowledge of different cameras and that you could put together and load film. I took a summer class at New York University in cinematography. That professor, Beda Batka, was a wonderful man and a talented cameraman. He was very encouraging and helped me get the skills and the confidence to move forward.

I also needed hands-on experience to pass the practical part of the test. While I was studying, I worked as a production assistant—some of it paid and some of it free—and I was introduced to different people in the camera department along the way. In this business, your whole ability to make a living is based on the people you meet. You’re always building your network from the very, very beginning.

GIM: Once you passed the union test, how did you begin getting work?
BB: Actually, that had to do with taking the test, which involved 12 different cameras at 12 different stations and was administered by 12 different camera assistants in the union who were very experienced. Of course, while you’re taking the test you’re hoping that maybe one of those people will hire you, and one of them did recommend that I call a camerawoman he thought I’d be a good match with. Her name was Lisa Rinzler, and I did a lot of work with her. The first full-length movie that she and I did—I was the first assistant—was called True Love, and it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance that year.

GIM: When you began working as a camera assistant, was it what you had expected, or were there some surprises when you actually found yourself on a union job?
BB: I sort of knew what I was getting into from the production assisting I had done. But what really surprised me was that after a couple of years of trying to get work as an actor and having no one ever return my phone calls and having so little reward for the effort I was putting out, it didn’t seem that difficult for me to get work as a camera assistant. People would actually return my phone calls. People would actually meet me for coffee. People would actually say, “Hey, why don’t you come down and help me out this weekend and we’ll get to know each other this way.”

There was a flow to the work, even though it was freelance. But I was willing to do anything. I was willing to work 16 hours a day. I was willing to work at night outside in New York in the winter. I was willing to work in very difficult physical conditions.

GIM: How did you make the leap from camera assistant to camera operator?
BB: I worked as a second assistant and then a first assistant for 12 years, and near the end I had a mentor, Fred Elmes. I said to him, “Do you think I should go to AFI if I want to move up? How should I do this?” He said, “You just need to go out there and shoot and get behind a camera any way you can and get the experience.” So I took his advice and went out and started shooting really low-budget and no-budget features just to get behind the camera. When I was able to put a reel together, I started redefining myself to everybody, letting them know I wanted to work as a camera operator and not a camera assistant.

That was really tricky, because in order to prove you’re not a camera assistant, you have to stop doing it so people will take you seriously. And it can be financially challenging. You have to either save up some money or find work where people won’t really see what you’re doing. I took commercial jobs, which are short term and paid really well. So that funded part of my transition.

GIM: And how did you land your first job as camera operator?
I got really lucky in that I reconnected with a director of photography I’d known when he was a camera assistant, Ray Preziosi. He was doing a low-budget feature, Frog and Wombat, and I told him I’d work as a camera operator for little or no money. He said okay, and he did get me a salary—a very low salary. But it was a wonderful experience.

That was a non-union movie, so I still hadn’t changed my union classification. When you do, that means you can’t go back to your old job. My first union job was a TV show called Action. They hired me as a camera operator on the second camera crew, and I worked enough to be reclassified. .

GIM: What kinds of challenges have you come up against on the job?
BB: Well, the last thing I worked on was a brand new show that hasn’t aired yet. It’s called Being Mary Jane. We shot that in Atlanta, and for 3 weeks we were in a practical location, a beautiful contemporary house that had a lot of mirrors and a ton of glass, floor-to-ceiling windows in every room. We shot so many different angles where we would be looking at glass, which for a camera operator means you are trying to keep from getting unwanted reflections. It’s very, very challenging. You have to cover the camera and sometimes yourself with black cloth. The grips have to put up flags to hide the reflection. The boom operator will have a boom pole and a mike, and they have to figure out where to put them so they’re not reflected. And that’s a big, big issue.

Also, we were often in very tight quarters. There was a scene we did with the main character and her boyfriend in this bathroom, and we [Blake, the camera assistant, and dolly grip] were stuck in a closet. When I first got the camera in position, I wasn’t even sure physically how I was going to see everything that they wanted in the shot.

It was also challenging because they didn’t rehearse. They wanted to capture things spontaneously. That can be either nerve-wracking or very thrilling. I just had to go with the flow, following the dialog, going off of the actors, seeing their hands touching each other, or going to their reflection in the mirror, just intuitively following the emotional thread of the scene. It was technically difficult because I’m operating the camera, I’m changing the frame or the size of the millimeter, or directing the dolly grip how to move the camera. The first assistant is changing the focus and the distance, which requires real coordination. The only way I could shoot something like that was to have an incredibly talented, very skilled camera assistant. I can communicate a certain amount of what I’m going to do to that person, but some of it they just have to wing. It’s incredible teamwork. We were able to get more than I ever thought that physical environment would provide. It was very satisfying.

GIM: One of the biggest shows you’ve done was CSI: NY. What was that like to work on?
BB: Well, on CSI: NY there is constant camera movement. Your composition is constantly changing and sometimes you’re shooting it almost like a documentary, following the action when they’re chasing the criminal or following the dialog. The parts of the show where they’re investigating evidence in the crime lab we’d shoot like a music video. They would actually play music on set to give everybody a similar rhythm. There was no dialog. It would just be moving the camera and getting different frame sizes and different movement. It was very erratic camera movement, swishing from one to the next, or changing your millimeter with a zoom. A very eccentric, more flamboyant kind of a style.

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GIM: Do you have any special advice for people, and maybe women in particular, who want work in your field?
BB: Well, there are not a whole lot of women camera operators. I was very lucky when I first got into the business in that the first two directors of photography that I worked for were women, Lisa Rinzler and Joey Forsyte. And I worked with a camera operator named Alicia Weber, who had been one of the first women in the camera union ever. She was fearless. She hung out of helicopters; she hung off the side of boats. I was so new; I didn’t realize how unusual it was to have a woman DP, a woman camera operator, and a woman first assistant all on the same film. I was incredibly lucky that that’s how I started.

I think that attitude—like it’s really not a big deal—is one of the best attitudes you can have. That certainly helped me. And you have to be very physically fit, you have to have a lot of stamina and endurance, and you have to be comfortable standing on your feet in the cold, in the rain, under difficult conditions. I always sort of naturally enjoyed that—much to my surprise. You do have to be incredibly good—or at least be good at paying attention, which is a big part of the job. You have to have a very strong work ethic. You also have to enjoy and get along with a huge variety of people.

It’s very competitive. There are a gazillion people wanting to do relatively few jobs. I can have 10 people calling me in a week saying, “I want to be a camera intern.” If they don’t keep calling me every month I’m going to totally forget who they are because there are so many people calling. It’s like that on every level. You have to learn how to be politely persistent, put yourself out there and meet people, and be consistently in touch with people, consistently networking.

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