Dave Chameides, SOC  – “St. Vincent”

How did you get your start as a camera operator? Who gave you your first job in the business?
I saw my first offical Steadicam on a freebie PSA that I was helping out with in 1990. Kirk Gardner was the operator and he was kind enough to answer the ten thousand questions I had and he even let me try the rig on. I was hooked. I bought an old Steadicam (serial #23 as I recall) and started hacking away on any project that would have me. I’m not really sure when I became an operator but it was sometime after that. My first A camera job came years later on a short that Steven Poster ASC was shooting. He wasn’t the first person to hire me as I’d done a lot of Steadicam prior, but he was the first to offer me a job on A camera and it was an invaluable experience.

When did you discover your passion for camera operating?
I have always been interested in photography as my Dad was (and is) a really good still photographer. So I grew up considering framing and composition without really realizing it. The real clicker came on a no budget feature in upstate NY that I pulled focus on while in college. A gentleman named Bob Fiske showed up with a home built Steadicam and as crude as the thing was (the vest was made out of plastic paint buckets and the “follow focus” was a return mechanism from a VCR that actually worked), I was mesmerized and knew it was what I wanted to do.

How long have you been an operator?
I started operating in 1990 so this will be my 25th year in the rig and behind the lens. It’s been an amazing ride so far and has taken me places I never would have dreamed of.

Do you have any previous nominations or awards?

  • 1982 6th Grade Spelling Bee First Prize (winning word was Cornucopia)
  • 1998 Emmy Award for Outstanding Technical Direction, Camerawork, Video for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special – ER Live
  • 2000 Emmy Award for Outstanding Technical Direction, Camerawork, Video for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special – Failsafe

About the nominated project

Give a brief description of the project. Describe a memorable scene you operated on for the nominated project.
St. Vincent was a really great script and I was brought on to the project by John Lindley ASC, an extremely talented DP who I’ve worked with many times, and more importantly than that, a good friend. Ted Melfi was our director and this was his first time helming a feature. He was extremely prepared and boarded everything prior to filming, but at the same time constantly told John and I “to make it better.” We took that to heart and John, as usual, let me have a tremendous amount of input as far as shot layout and execution. He’s an amazing visual storyteller and we work well together because we are constantly trying to come up with better ways to move the story forward.

The whole shoot was memorable for me because it was such a great cast and crew and we really had an incredible time. I know that sounds trite but it’s true. Having said that, the final day, the director came up with an idea that he wanted to do for the opening credit sequence of the film. He wanted me to wander around the streets of Brooklyn following Bill Murray as he did whatever he felt like doing within his character – going into shops, stealing fruit, generally meandering around. He wanted me to keep an odd frame on the back of Bill’s head the whole time. So, with a small skeleton crew to wrangle any issues we unloaded, started rolling and Bill just started walking. Each take was about 4 minutes long (we shot on actual film!!) and covered about 8-10 city blocks. It was exhausting but fun to improvise and play with the framing as it was unfolding. We did 5 or 6 takes, as my back and knees can recall, and as often happens, there are only about 20 seconds worth of it at the opening of the film. The life of a camera op I guess.

What was the toughest aspect of the project you are nominated for?
Ironically the toughest problem I experienced was not over operating what was in the script. I know that’s an odd thing to say regarding a nomination as an operator but it’s the truth. The story we were telling was fairly straightforward and what we came to find very quickly was that it needed to be told in a simple and elegant manner. As a result, we decided to play more with static frames and letting the characters play within those frames than with more complex shots. I’d say my input can be seen more on this film in the choices of interesting frames than the actual execution of those shots as so many were static shots that we just let play. Of course there were many opportunities to move the camera and we did some great stuff, but some of my favorite moments in the movie involve locked off slightly oddly framed shots where the scene is allowed to unfold. After operating for 25 years, I’ve come to realize that it can often be harder to allow yourself to keep things simple than to execute technically difficult shots.

What excited you about operating on this project? What were your contributions? What was your team like?
Right off the bat, the prospect of shooting a full feature with John Lindley was exciting as we usually do smaller projects like commercials and pilots. Being able to work with a friend whose work I greatly respect for an extended period of time was a big part of why I took the gig. After the first day, I realized that between the director and the cast and crew, something really cool was happening. Add to that a really sweet script and it was just a great experience.

Sean Moe was my focus puller and I can’t say enough about the job he did. We shot on film with Arricams and he kept everything sharp and moving smoothly as well as always being a second set of eyes for me when it came to flags, stands, and whatever else I might have missed in rehearsal. Andy Peck was Sean’s 2nd and just incredible and Emily Miller was our fantastic loader who kept us moving and smiling all the time. Our dolly grip Mike Morini rounded out the team and I couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator to “drive the bus”. Our fantastic B Camera crew included operator Ted Chu, 1st AC Denny Kortze and 2nd Hamilton Longyear, all of who did an outstanding job. Of course there are many more people to mention, too many to list here, but suffice it to say it was a complete honor to work with such a talented group of people across the board.

The contributions came from all angles as we were very lucky to have a director who was not afraid of hearing new ideas and who constantly wanted to make the film better. One of the specific contributions that I’m proud of didn’t actually involve any operating at all.

The final shot of the film was supposed to be this extremely complex technocrane move that pulled away from the family at the dining room table, armed out the front door and above the houses and went up to the sky where the final credits would run over the clouds. There were many problems with this, not the least of which being we weren’t really sure if we could pull the shot off due to the physical limitations of the location. It would have been a blast to try and figure out how to do it, but to me it didn’t seem to tell the story we were making. One day after lunch I asked Ted Melfi, our director, why he wanted the movie to end that way. Now by this point in the shooting schedule, Ted knew me well enough to know that I was looking for a way to pitch an idea so he just said “Why, you got something better?” and smiled. So I told him that I didn’t really understand the final shot because it sort of suggested that everything was now okay and all was right in the world. I pointed out that in reality, Bill’s character may have been redeemed a bit but was still pretty much the same screwed up guy he always was and it was one of the things I loved about his character. “OK, so how do you think it should end?” he asked.

So I pitched the idea that we set a locked off camera with a full mag framing the back wall of Bill’s ramshackle house, tell him what the frame was and point out the wall that the credits would roll over, and just let him do whatever he wanted to do. Bill’s so watchable that I figured even if he sat there for four minutes it would be funny. We gave it a shot, Bill came out with a Walkman and started singing a Bob Dylan song mildly off key while walking around and watering the dead flowers, and that’s how the movie ends, with the credits scrolling over the wall next to him while he does his thing. As we were shooting it, everyone, including Ted, recognized that it was the way the movie should finish up.

At the end of the day I believe that being a good operator isn’t just about pointing the camera, framing a shot, or knowing how to operate a piece of equipment. It’s about being a storyteller and using your skills, both technically and mentally, to tell stories in interesting ways. Being part of a team is the most important aspect of the job and its great to be able to help shape a story from start to finish and see that work come to life on the screen. St. Vincent was a true joy to be a part of and to be nominated for my part in it makes it even better.