Filming is neither fun or glamorous, says cameraman Joel Shippey, which is why you need commitment, the right attitude and a love of people
Joel Shippey is an expert in the art of hanging around. “‘Hurry up and wait!’ is a phrase we use in the TV industry because we are always rushing to get somewhere then end up twiddling our thumbs for hours as each department does its thing,” he says.
He is similarly gifted when it comes to negotiation – he once had to get 69 pieces of excess baggage through customs for a job – and navigation: “One of my first tasks was to drive kit to Morocco in three days to shoot Made in Chelsea.”
Mastery of lenses would appear to be one of the least required skills of a TV cameraman, who must possess the tenacity to work 24 hour days, the initiative to drop everything and cross the world on the prompt of a phone call, and the stamina to think – and shoot – straight in extreme conditions. “People think filming is fun and glamorous, but it’s very rarely either,” Shippey says. “You have to be very sure you want to do it because it involves years of long hours, challenging conditions and low pay.”
Shippey, 31, is a cameraman and director of photography at Procam Television, which provides equipment and crews for broadcasters. In his four years with the company he has worked on election night coverage, the Bafta awards, Stephen Fry’s Gadget Man, and Derren Brown’s shows. But it was a long hard path that led him to this starry firmament, and very little of the celebrity glitter rubs off on those whose job it is to record it.
“I’d intended to study illustration during an arts foundation course when I left school, but we were allowed to borrow cameras to create art and film and I fell in love with them,” he says.
After completing a degree in film production at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design (now the University for the Creative Arts), he took a job as a kit room assistant with ITV Anglia. “It’s the long way into the industry, but it’s a well-worn path and I chose it deliberately because you learn everything you need to know about the maintenance of equipment.”
He moved to Procam as a delivery driver – “the best way to start meeting people and learning about the kit” – and graduated via Procam’s kit room to a perch behind the lens as an assistant cameraman.
The thorough grounding as a backroom boy comes into its own when faced with live film jobs. “You only get the one chance to get it right and you have to adapt to any problem that might arise, but if you know your kit well you have the confidence,” he says. “It’s very easy to forget to press record. I’ve never done it when it’s really mattered, but a friend once described the feeling in the pit of his stomach when he realised he’d missed the staged explosion of a car – not something you can do again.”
A good cameraman needs to possess the artistic eye of a director, as well as a scientific understanding of the technology and conditions. It’s also essential to love people. Whereas many careers in the creative arts involve working alone, a cameraman has to operate as a team with its attendant stresses and compromises. “You may be stuck with 20 people in a desert for two months, so it’s vital to be able to get on with them,” Shippey says.
Given the cost of tuition fees, Shippey reckons a university training in film studies is an unnecessary burden. “You’ll still be starting at the bottom when you leave, saddled with debts, and although a seasoned cameraman can earn between £300 and £400 a day, you’ll only be earning the minimum wage for the first few years. I was doing jobs for free when I began.”
Companies like Procam will, he says, take on school leavers with no experience because commitment and attitude are rated above technical skills. “You can be in a freezing warehouse on an industrial estate half the time, or sent of to Lapland at a moment’s notice, so you have to love what you’re doing,” he says.
The chance to trail the rich and famous is not always the compensation for the loss of any spare time. “They can be very difficult and very particular, and the more famous they are the less time they have with you, so you don’t establish the same working relationship,” he says. “The only time I remember being awed by celebrity was when I once went to the bathroom backstage at the Baftas. I had to say ‘Excuse me’ to three guys blocking my way – I looked up and it was Brad Pitt talking to Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman.”
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