Gail is a specialist camera operator who has worked on many broadcast television programs ranging from natural history, documentary, adventure and drama documentary. Gail has travelled throughout the World to film for National Geographic, Discovery, BBC and Sky. Starting in the camera department on drama as a camera trainee she moved up through the ranks to work in a variary of environments, which may involve filming underwater, aerials from an octocoptor, pieces to camera by a presenter, or using a stabilization system to create smooth tracking shots.
How did your interest in visual media begin?
In my early twenties I went to an adult evening class in photography and began shooting black and white stills. My father taught me how to develop and print from rolls of film and from the first image slowly growing in the developer tray, that bit of magic was born in me. I went on to study photography more seriously as a mature student and worked within photography as an assistant, with the privilege of assisting some of Londonís exciting top photographers. I left that world as digital was really in its infancy and began anew in the world of the moving image.
You started with little filming experience; do you think you would have benefited from a formal film education?
As I was considerably older when I arrived as a new assistant searching for work at 35, and maybe because I was, I received lots of advice and opportunities. Iíd always learned well in a practical way and gathered such a lot of skills whilst on the job. I feel itís a real privilege to learn from professionals and often when people find out I worked with Ďsuch and suchí they always want to know how they did this or that etc. Iím sure it would have been great, and I imagine the chance to experiment in an educational setting would be wonderful but I donít believe for me completely necessary to have had a formal education. I began loading super 16mm film so caught the end of working with film and all the steps through tape etc till now, giving me a really broad practical knowledge Iím just a much more practical person than academic.
How much do you learn on the job and how much do you study in your own time?
I do learn mostly on the job. The conditions you might be working in are hard to predict so lessons are learned, sometimes hard lessons. The sand for example in the Kalahari is fine and gets deeply embedded in your equipment; preparation and meticulous cleaning regimes can keep you going. Its not the sort of thing you learn in film school
Do you make your own films?
Iíve just recently started some personal projects. The chance to work with others out of your usual field, such as artists is so rewarding and I plan to do more.
How do you find contracts and promote your business?
I have always spent a lot of time meeting and connecting with industry professionals. I find face-to-face is best but it can be hard to get that meeting. There are some great events; I recently went to CamerImage in Poland, which really was the best week of meeting cinematographers in such a relaxed and inclusive environment, I would definitely recommend attending. It has taken me years though to gain the contacts I have, itís worth doing as most work is word of mouth for me.
As a qualified female underwater specialist do you find it helps to bring work in generally? Having a specialism can get you into jobs you might previously not have been looked at for. Underwater is just a percentage of my work but a very interesting one. I try not to specialize too specifically, itís hard to find enough work underwater without being a very well known operator and I really enjoy the variation of work days.
How do you cope with the tedious parts of running a business like book-keeping and invoicing?
Zzzz, itís really not my favorite part doing the paper work but it has to be done. There is lots of advice out there for running a successful business practice.
What do you enjoy most about your job and what do you dislike?
I enjoy traveling and that special moment when you get to be in a place you really shouldnít be. I often think itís so lucky, maybe you are up on the edge of a volcano and only really a scientist whoís project it is gets to spend time there. Or getting to know a stretch of the Zambezi well, due to having spent 7 12 hour days getting to know it, that is a privilege. I dislike sometimes the rush to get shots, when you know itís not the best light but there is so much to get done in the day, that can be frustrating.
How do you keep ahead of your camera op competition to keep landing those high-profile contracts?
Well I think everybody kind of has their turn. Sometimes you might be quiet, thinking how come everybody is working but then that happens to others, when you are busy. It all kind of comes around.
How do you cope with the ever-changing technologies available to filmmakers?
I keep up to date with technology at trade shows etc. I find rental companies are really helpful and happy to show new kit and technology to freelancers, it helps everybody when preparing for productions. Iím much more visual than technical so some technology I only have a basic knowledge. I think it is good to understand as much as you can and have the desire to, but not to get too caught up.
4K will soon be the norm for filming, what do you see in the future for video technology?
A much more critical format for focus so hopefully productions will realize this and give some more time, hopefully saving the role of focus puller, which in my opinion is by far the most difficult job on any film set.
Are there times when you get to bring your own creativity and vision to a shoot?
Yes, one of the reasons I moved more into documentaries is the opportunity for the camera operator to be more creative. If the relationship with the director is good there are lots of chances to offer your vision, and hopefully it is asked for.
Whatís been the hardest part about breaking through to become a regular camera op?
Keeping motivated during those in between times and not to panic. It's a transitional time and that in turn takes time. Thinking of your career maybe more like golf than other sports I find helps, you have to play the course.
What was the best piece of business advice you were ever given?
That I'm not inserting the scalpel into the brain. That was advice given to me by a cook when I was a waitress many years ago but it's been relevant to me often throughout my life to just remember when things get a little stressful.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to make a career as a camera op?
Take the time to assist and enjoy the process of that. I really feel it's an invaluable time to learn from experience. Those camera operators that you work for hopefully assisted too so the wealth of knowledge being passed down is immense.
If you could go back to your trainee-self what advice would you give?
That you will always get caught out if you don't do at least one catch up on an equipment case!
Is there a career path from where you are today? Perhaps more DoP or directing?
I will head in the direction of DoP but I really enjoy working in a well oiled team. I consider myself very much camera crew.
Gail's website: www.gailjenkinson.co.uk
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