Philip Kerns has been a studio camera operator for 46 years, working for news broadcasts, sports, game shows, reality television and more. While he is on staff with CBS, he also works as a freelance camera operator during his free time. In fact, he says he has used every vacation day he has received over the last nine years to freelance and do more work because of how much he loves what he does.
Q: How would you describe what you do for a living?
Well, at my staff job I’m a bit of a dinosaur now because they don’t really use camera operators per say at local television stations, even though I work at two of them. I work for Channel 9 and Channel 2, which are called a duopoly since they’re both owned by CBS. Like today I just ran a hand held camera on the Channel 9 noon news. If they have a cooking segment or a guest segment that needs a good camera, I’ll go in and do that. This afternoon I’m going to go in and edit promos for “Entertainment Tonight” and a few other things, then later I’m going to help with audio on CBS’s 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. news, since I also have experience as an audio operator.
I’m the guy that built all the shots for Channel 2’s news set when they got the new set about a year ago. I was the one who came in and built the devices, I was the robotics operator. I ran the situations for the cameras, I was the cameraman. I built the shots and ran them through the show.
Now, it’s eliminated that position and everything is on a computer and it’s coded by the director. They may have me come out to build an extra shot if they need an extra shot or if they want to adjust one or if they have someone big coming in and they want to take a chance on it.
On the outside I freelance as a cameraman and always have. I work on different shows like “The Bachelor,” “Shark Tank,” “Family Feud,” those kinds of shows as strictly a cameraman. The last couple days I’ve been over at Sony studios working on “Shark Tank” as one of twelve studio camera operators. There’s a bunch of us. So that’s my job, I’m basically a cameraman.
Q: Is the disappearance of jobs in place of digital camera operation a common trend?
Yeah absolutely. You know it’s funny, when I started in the business in 1971, I was hired by a television station and they trained me on how to use a camera. I got out of college and I got the job as a cameraman and they said ‘forget what you know with your production degree, we’re going to teach you what we want you to know.’ I spent six months in a studio one-on-one with an old timer, training to be a cameraman. He would put a can on the desk and he would sit there and say ‘all right zoom in on this can and set it up in the middle of the frame,’ and we would be there eight hours a day for six months to train me.
To be a cameraman, it’s all about visual conceptualization and composition and framing, that kind of stuff. Some people have it and some people don’t. Just like some people can have a gift for basketball with great natural ability and some people struggle their whole lives to do it and nothing comes to them. They sort of weeded you out that way. But once they trained me, it was six months before they let me do a local noon news shoot, which was just a lock-off shot on the news anchor.
Nowadays they wouldn't do that. If you showed up here at Channel 2 and say you want to train to be a cameraman they would look at you like ‘oh we don’t need that, we need someone who can code a computer.’ They got rid of all their studio cameramen, they got rid of the audiomen, they got rid of pretty much everybody that they don’t need. Now it’s pretty much down to a director and a technical director. Everything is on a computer, and that’s how much has changed in the last ten years.
I’m still here to do those things that they need an old timer to do sometimes. On the outside, they’re never going to automate shows, you’re never going to see a show like “Dr. Phil” with automated cameras. That’s what we do for a living.
Q: What are good ways to learn more about and get into the industry?
It’s funny, I was thinking about you the other day, and so when we were shooting “Shark Tank” I was asking a bunch of the different camera operators ‘how did you get into the business?’ Everybody had a different story.
One women told me she worked at an equipment rental company that a lot of shows rent their camera gear from. Got a job there part time, learned a lot about different equipment and its uses.
A lot of the camera guys start out as utility guys. You know, back before a lot of my friends would work on the Lakers, Dodgers, back in the days before they became union. Utility guys were guys who could get a job setting up cameras and pulling cables, they were essentially assistants to the camera operators.
A lot of camera operators, especially if they were doing baseball or something where it was a really long day, they would let the guys run the equipment. During a break they’d familiarize them with the equipment, show them techniques that you’d use with baseball and how to focus on what. It was real basic elements, and they’d let them fill in once in a while. They might hand them the headset and say don’t tell the director, but just follow the ball for a while. They’d watch them, and that’s how these guys got experience.
One guy, he’s a friend of mine, is now a camera operator on Jimmy Kimmel. I was asking him how did he get into the business and he said, ‘Well I was working on a non-union show and I was a teleprompter operator. They had to walk off camera, off stage and I asked if I could run the camera. And they said ‘sure, go ahead and try it.’ That’s how he got his experience.
It’s all about luck, timing and finding someone who’s going to give you a break. But you’re never going to walk right into a union situation.
If I were trying to start today, I would probably try to find some kind of non-union production company that does reality shows. There’s so many thousands of reality shows. I would try to find a production company, try to get on as production assistant or do whatever it takes to get onto the set so I could meet everybody and say hi. Say hi to the cameraman, have them show you what they do. You just have to get in.
You can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. In the old days you could get a job at a TV station and work as a production assistant or a summer intern and if you wanted to be an editor or on photography, you’d just sort of gravitate toward that department and try to make friends, see if you can go out on a shoot with them or sit in with them on an editing session. That’s the trick, you have to get in there and see if you even like it. You may find you just don’t have an aptitude for it or you might decide to pursue that.
Q: You’ve mentioned needing an eye for composition and such as skills to be a good cameraman.
Yeah that’s everything. I see things symmetrically. I never noticed it, but when I was a kid my mother was asymmetrical. You see things symmetrically or you don’t. I could be looking out the window and see things symmetrically just from how the trees line up vertically against the horizon, I just see things like that. My mother would decorate our living room, and I had no education at that time but I would just sense like ‘why is that clock there.’ It just didn’t make sense to me.
But that’s the whole trick to being a cameraman. You’re working on a two dimensional format, looking at whatever shot you’re framing and putting it symmetrically. It’s all about composition, and that’s why studying design, architecture, art, any of that sort of stuff would really help.
You know, by the time you get to college you should know whether you look at stuff that way. I’m a big fan of a lot of original art, I have a lot of sculptures at home, and my brother who has a degree in industrial psych says he doesn’t understand sculpture. I just tell him I like the symmetry of it. I work in a two dimensional flat format in a viewfinder, seeing things all day long that are four-by-three and flat. So I like to come home and see things that have depth. That kind of symmetry it all makes sense to me, though I guess that’s all a matter of logistics.
For what I do for a living, you better understand symmetry, composition and framing. That is your job.
Q: What other skills would you say are needed to be a camera operator?
I think you have to have great visual conceptualization. I’ll give you an example, like yesterday when I was working on “Shark Tank.” We record stuff so quickly that we don’t have time to rehearse everything. I’m looking at a shot on my viewfinder while there are two other cameras next to me. I’m watching to see where those two cameras are so I’m not shooting that. The director doesn’t have time to go to twelve cameras and tell you what to do, he expects you to know what to do.
You have to look down the road, like by the time that shot gets on the air, you’re behind. Those three shots that I’m punching up, I’m way behind. I’m looking two shots down the road. When those models walk off I have to be there, I can’t wait to be told to go get the shot.
When you’re always looking into a camera they have what’s called a multiviewer. They put so many different cameras in a quad box or a six box and you’re constant hitting the button on the viewfinder so you can see where the other cameras are looking and not replicate shots.
Most shows are edited. On “Shark Tank” each pitch we do may be an hour but it’s cut down to eight minutes. You don’t know which eight minutes they’re going to use or what they’re going to get out of them, so you’re always shooting. You better know how to visually conceptualize what’s going on.
You have to know your equipment. You have to know what you’re working with and what are the limitations of that. You also have to have good confidence in yourself. You could get beaten up when someone like the director starts screaming at you, but you’ve gotta just compartmentalize that and do your job. You can’t let that rattle you or shake you, there’s a lot of screaming that goes on on the headsets, especially at sporting events. You’ve got to have confidence in yourself and really know how to do your job.
You just have to pursue your passion. I work on “Family Feud” with Steve Harvey and he’s a huge advocate for that, he pushes it on everybody day and night. Find your calling, you know it’s out there for you. Pursue your path. You want to find a job that you want to do for 25, 30 years.
My dad, when I was a kid, he was a newscaster who did the 6:00 p.m. news. When I got up in the morning to go to school he was asleep, and when I got home from school he was at work, and when he got home from work I was asleep. I didn’t see my dad very much until the weekend. I’d see him on TV.
We have some people here who don’t want to work those kinds of hours, they want to be home to see their families. My dad never once saw any of my track meets or my swim meets, he was at work providing for his family. But he did not have a normal nine-to-five job. It just depends on your situation and what works for you.
Q: Are there any shows you’ve worked on that have stood out as really fun projects?
I think some of the most fun I’ve had was when I first started and was doing sports. For my first 10, 20 years I did a lot of sports. We traveled around the country, doing Big Eight Football and basketball, that type of stuff. There’s a real camaraderie when you get there on a Thursday, you check in and you set up all day Friday and rehearse and you do the game on ABC on Saturday and then you fly out. You might be in a different city three weeks in a row. That was a lot of fun, being there and covering a sporting event.
Or music numbers, those kinds of shows where you have five, six camera guys who do all the sync and are doing a musical number, it’s really a joy.
A lot of it can be tedious and it’s long days, and in fact on “Shark Tank” there’s a lot of standing up and a lot of work, but I think if you walk out of there you feel like you did the best job you can do then that’s a very rewarding day.
I think the most fun I’ve ever had was when we were doing a live show for VH1 and it was the guys from “Spinal Tap.” They had Mick Fleetwood as their guest and the whole day of rehearsal they stayed in character. We never laughed so much, we just had a great time. It was a real loose atmosphere and there were music rehearsals, it was just a lot of fun.
Q: Do you still feel starstruck when you meet certain people?
You know it’s funny, especially on Channel 9 and Channel 2 we get a lot of people coming through. Yeah, I’ve met a lot of big stars. I’ve met James Cagney and Jimmy Stewart and Michael Douglas, those types of people.
Especially with musicians, I think most of my admiration comes for musicians rather than actors. Some actors can be really dumb but still hit a mark and be told what to read. But for some people… You know Lou Diamond Phillips? He had a movie coming out called “The Night Stalker,” but he’s also got a show called “Longmire” on A&E that’s a western. He came out to do an interview, promote some stuff, and he’s just the nicest guy. Super put together.
I think probably the nicest guy I’ve ever met in the business: Dick Van Dyke. Absolute total down-to-earth sweetheart of a guy. Just so nice, it’s amazing. And there are other ones that aren’t so nice, you know you’re told not to look at them, not to talk to them, to approach them.
On most shows, like I have friends who work on “Ellen,” and even on “Shark Tank,” it’s like a whole different hierarchy. You don’t walk up to [a big movie star] and start chit-chatting with them. They have no interest in you or anything you have to say. You learn really quickly that they’re not your friends, they’re a part of the job. As a cameraman, you’re in the background. I don’t go up and ask for autographs, I don’t ask for pictures or Instagrams or that kind of stuff. But it’s interesting, I do get to meet a lot of people.
We had Judy Collins out here one day, she was a big folk singer back in the 60s, and I’ve known her for a very long time. So we were just standing around, chit-chatting, and when I brought up a particular song I really liked she just started singing it to me. That was kind of weird, it was like I didn’t expect that to happen.
Q: What else about the job would you say is rewarding?
It’s kind of fun and it obviously has its perks. When I was doing sports we used to get to travel a lot. You get to meet a lot of people that you wouldn’t usually meet. The other day I was shooting “Shark Tank” and Chris Bosh, a NBA player for the Miami Heat was sitting right next to my camera. How many people at their jobs would get to meet a Chris Bosh, or Sir Richard Branson, or people like that? Or have a conversation with Michael Douglas. For most people, no way. I’ve had Tom Cruise come up to shake my hand, and it’s very weird.
I don’t get starstruck but I think I just find it more really amusing. Most people who work at their job would never get to meet Tom Cruise.
Written by Jason Rochlin
Jason Rochlin (@jdrochlin) is a news editor of California State University, Fullerton’s newspaper, the Daily Titan, and beginning his work as the founding editor for California Connections, a student publication to be published through the school's Pollak Library. When he isn't busy working, he also has a self-proclaimed intense love for video games, Nintendo franchises in particular.