How’d you get that cool job as a camera assistant on SNL?

Sebastian, on location in France

Sebastian, on location in France

It’s not uncommon to have lofty dreams of becoming an actor or director at some point in your life, but what about the cinematographers? Sometimes you see them on late night shows when you catch a glimpse of the whole studio, but for the most part, the camera crew is overlooked. Where do these gadget geeks come from and when did they realize that sitting behind a lens was their calling? Williamsburg resident and Manhattan native Sebastian Slayter has worked on multiple projects ranging from Anchorman 2, to The Following to Saturday Night Live. Today, Sebastian tells us how he found out about the cinematographer scene and what a camera assistant’s typical day looks like.

What first drew you into the film scene?
I was exposed to the film and TV world at a pretty young age. My godfather is a cinematographer and I used to visit him on set all the time. Then when I was a senior in high school I got the opportunity to intern on two large feature films which solidified my desire to work in this world.

What’s your favorite part of your job? Your least favorite?
I get to go to some pretty amazing locations. Our “office” is a truck which moves to wherever we’re shooting every day so the scenery is always changing. It’s always nice to be shooting outside on nice days – but the days when it’s freezing cold, raining or snowing can be a major bummer.

I’ve been to France and Norway for projects and all over the United States. The hours are crazy long some days. It’s rare to do less than 12 hour days. If it’s a day shoot I’m usually up around 4:30 or 5am to get to work and if it’s a night shoot, I usually get home when the sun is coming up around 6 or 7am. That gets physically taxing after a while, so it’s important to take time off between jobs.

If I get on a long TV show or film, I could be working for between two and eight months, sometimes pulling 70-plus hour work weeks. You don’t have time to see very many friends or family because you’re usually sleeping or catching up on every day chores (bills, laundry etc). Once the projects end though, you can travel or take a bunch of time off to recharge. That’s pretty nice.

Is there a corporate ladder, same as everywhere else? If so, did you have to work your way up to your title?
There is definitely a hierarchy in the camera department. The cinematographer is the boss at the top. Below him/her are the camera operators who physically manipulate the cameras, followed by the assistants. There is a 1st assistant who “pulls focus” – there is no autofocus in our world- which involves watching the actors and your lens simultaneously and adjusting the focus on the lens depending on the distance from the actor to the camera. The 2nd assistant works under the 1st and helps with maintaining the camera and lenses, marking the actors positions, hitting the slate and doing a lot of paperwork. Below the 2nd is the loader who deals with downloading the film or media. Organization skills are an absolute must in this business.

The group also determines how fast you move up the ladder. If you excel in your field, people will notice and will want to keep working with you. It’s all about paying your dues and working hard to earn the respect of your peers.

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Is there a big Brooklyn contingency of cinematographers?
I guess some cinematographers live in Brooklyn?

The majority of our studios and sound stages are in Brooklyn so a lot of work happens there.

What’s a day in the life like for you right now?
Currently I’m the B camera 1st on a pilot for CBS. I wake up early and get to work around 7 or 8 depending on the call time. I eat breakfast at work- we always have full catered breakfasts and lunches- then work for 6 hours, break for lunch, work for another 6 then go home. The union world is pretty regimented in terms of scheduling so they have to feed us a meal every 6 hours or they’re penalized – meaning they have to pay us more.

How did you manage to snag a job at SNL?
SNL is just one of the gigs I bounce around on. Even though I’m in a union I’m still technically a freelance worker. Everything in this business is word of mouth. It’s who you know and how much they like you. Crews who work well together tend to stick together and go from job to job. It’s a small world and we all sort of know each other directly or indirectly. I had a friend who used to work on the SNL commercials and digital shorts. He ended up going back to school and he passed my name along to the producers over there (thanks, Nick).

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As a cameraman, are you always on the lookout for the most advanced cameras? Are there trade shows for this kind of thing?
Yeah I’m kind of a nerd when it comes to gear. I’ve always loved cameras and been a photographer since I was little. We’re always looking for a new tool or piece of equipment that will make our jobs and lives a little easier.

As camera technology advances, sensors become more sensitive and cinematographers use fewer lights as a result. There are all sorts of trade shows for the film industry – the biggest one probably being NAB which is in Las Vegas every year.

What kind of qualities does a union member need to have? Who’d be good at working in film?
Organization is a must. There are so many things happening on a film set, that a good assistant needs to be on their toes ready to anticipate the next move. The best assistants are often several steps ahead, working with the other departments to figure out the fastest and most effective ways to get things done. We’re always on a tight schedule – especially in TV.  It also helps to have good interpersonal skills. There’s usually a whole new group of people to get to know on every job so it helps if you can work well with others.

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Who would suck at this job? 
If you’re lazy and can’t stand on your feet for 12 to 18 hours a day, this probably isn’t the business for you. If you can’t take extreme cold or heat for hours on end or do a lot of heavy lifting and manual labor, this probably isn’t the business for you.

What equipment do you personally own/use?
Because camera technology is constantly changing, I don’t invest in gear that I know will be outdated soon. I own gear that I can use at work every day and rent to productions. I own a DSLR and a few lenses in addition to my ever changing, constantly growing kit of film gear.