A journal of workers working

Greg Schmitt

DP & Steadicam Operator

Starting Out

I came into shooting still photography after a number of years of crazy odd jobs; berry picking, dishwashing, packing and hauling live dungeoness crab, tile work, and then construction. I sort of supported the habit of shooting stills through doing the construction work, until I didn’t have to do construction work anymore.

I started out shooting for smaller magazines, a magazine called Plow that was in Seattle, and another one called Wave Action, and in Blunt. I got photos in lots of those magazines but the only one that I worked for with any regularity was Blunt, and through that I ended up shooting for Whitey McConnaghy on his snowboard movies.

Dropping Cliffs

Then I bought a Bolex, a super simple little 16mm camera; I thought it was cool and that I’d try shooting live action film at some point. And then, like a day later, I met this guy Sean Johnson (info on Sean Johnson?) who I was shooting stills with and he said, “Hey man, you know how to shoot film?” And I was like, "Actually, I just bought a Bolex yesterday!" So he gave me five rolls of film to shoot and was like, “shoot this and ship it to me in Canada and if the film is any good, you got a job.” So I shipped it to him and he liked the stuff – people dropping cliffs, all kinds of snowboard action - and I ended up working for them for about two years.

Gotta make money

Eventually I got married and bought a house and at that point I was shooting snowboarding videos for people and basically wasn’t making any money. I hadn't been paying to snowboard so I didn't really care, I was able to ride more than 150 days a year and I wasn’t paying for anything, boards, lift tickets, etc. I didn't really need money, except to eat.

But then we got married and bought this house and I was like, fuck, I gotta make money, I actually have to have an income, so I took an internship at a film production company in Portland, and started gripping three months later, and basically worked full time as a grip. I was still shooting stuff the whole time, skate board stuff for John Humphries, and music videos for Whitey. I never stopped shooting, I just made a living as a grip.

What the heck is a grip anyway?

People always ask what a grip is, and I tell them it’s the lighting department, movie lighting. And rigging. And dollying. People don’t really want to know the details, though. What they’re really asking is, are you the dude that holds the microphone, or the guy that pushes the dolly? So I tell "I’m the guy that carries the sandbags!" Taking it upon ourselves Then the stock market crashed, and the entire advertising business hit the brakes, and all of a sudden there was no work. Everyone was like, shit. And the movie-of-the-week-industry, which was providing a lot of work at the time, all of a sudden went to Canada. So all that changed the dynamics of the industry, most folks left, Paladin left (one of two grip and lighting houses) the other being Pacific Grip and Lighting (PGL), and now it was difficult to get a generator, or get equipment, in Portland.

So many people I was friends with were going to be out of jobs if the industry completely left Portland. All these families were stuck, and I thought this was crazy, so I bought a generator and cable package and stands and flags, and lumped it all in with Joel (last name here, snippet of detail of who he is), a guy who I was working with a lot.

Together we had a small grip and lighting business (name of this business?). We knew if the equipment leaves, the jobs leave, and nothing will come here, so we took it upon ourselves to make the equipment available. I feel like we were doing it with good intentions, and everyone responded to that. And that's how this business started.

Problem Solver

Now I’m a full time DP (Director of Photography) and Steadicam operator. It’s about 50/50. I actually like operating the camera for somebody else better than I like being the boss. I like solving problems.

That’s what I like about being a grip, you get to solve problems all day. Photography is the same way, you’re trying to figure out how to make something look a certain way. There are definitely guys who draw lighting diagrams, and know exactly the instruments they want to use, and are kind of scientific about it, but I’m not like that at all.

I always try and set up little challenges for myself. I mean, you work inside what the director wants to accomplish, and it’s all a bit of an experiment. I see my job as accomplishing somebody’s vision. I don’t want to be the famous person who’s getting the credit for all of it, I just want to be the person who has the answers for that guy.

It just feels right

My wife got me into Steadicam. I'd always been into solving camera movement issues, and I'd wanted to be able to get better angles and not be limited to a dolly or tripod, so my wife Robin signed me up for a Steadicam class, and I went, thinking not that I would start working as an operator, but that I would understand what you could use it for, figure out what the thing can do and then use it later as a DP. But I put the rig on and I thought, "this is awesome, its so fun!" It just felt right to me.

Night of my life

On one of the first jobs I did with the steadicam I almost fell. It was a 35mm package, so it was pretty heavy, and we didn’t talk about the shot ahead of time. I had to follow a couple of guys as they come flying out of their cars, and run through a tiny gap in a fence, which is barely wide enough for me to squeeze through, and I gotta do it at running speed with a steadicam. But I have it figured out and the actors have been told there’s a steadicam coming, so they have to make it look like they're running fast, but not actually go fast.

These guys, however, were, like, track stars in high school and they’re trying to race each other, and I’m like fuck this, I am not gonna lose them and I run full tilt as fast as possible and I make it through the fence and all I can think about is how psyched I am that I made it and I sort of forget that we're all still running in this field, full of rocks and potholes, and its totally dark, and the director is barely keeping up with me, and then I feel him tumble next to me, and all of a sudden the ground just drops out from under me, and my knees lock up - like a whiteout in snowboarding - and the camera comes straight outta my hands, and I’m running for my life to catch the thing. I’m not even thinking about the shot, but I get the rig back in, like, two steps, and somehow I get my feet back under me and I start to realize that through all the flailing the rig has perfectly held the shot! I had so much adrenaline going. And the director comes out, all covered in dirt and and he’s like, “It was great!"

Loving what you do

I love being the rigging and photography guy. When I had to figure out how to make a living, I was like, I’m going to get an education in what it is I want to do eventually, by being paid to learn my job. So I figured this is kind of a good way to do that, you get to watch great cinematographers do their job and see how they approach the same problems you will eventually, hopefully, be solving yourself. I’ve watched Caleb Deschanel and Dante Spinotti and a number of other great cinematographers do what I hope to do, and see how they do it and get to be part of the process. And make a living at the same time!

I'm really lucky, I picked something that, if I ended up being sixty years old and still doing the same thing I’d be totally happy. There’s nothing about being a grip that I don’t think I could do forever. I really, truly love it.

Photography by Daniel Sharp. Interview by Daniel Pasley.

Greg got his start shooting snowboarders with a bolex, an iconic swiss camera brand famous for their 16 mm and super 16 mm formats.

Rob "Whitey" McConnaughy, a director and cinematographer, influenced Greg quite a bit. It was with Whitey, and a few other mutual friends, that he started making music videos, skateboard and snowboard films, and commercials.

Greg is obsessed with solving camera movement problems, shooting things the way they should be shot. So it only makes sense that Robin, his wife, put him through steadicam school; and it’s no wonder that he fell in love with it.

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