Working as a freelance camera operator

freelance camera operator title
Media Simulation as a freelance camera operator

My introduction to Crown Media

Who says you get nothing back for your IOV Membership? Back in July this year, IOV Member and partner within Crown Media, David Bennett, posted an article on the IOV’s forums seeking freelance camera operators entitled, “Looking for interesting work?”. The headlines within David’s article which caught my eye were… “work around the world”, “we replicate TV news and current affairs”, “sometimes in relatively rudimentary conditions”, “preparing military organisation for media engagement in combat operations”, “Some jobs last a day – others more than three weeks”, “Interested?

I certainly was interested. After digging a little deeper into Crown Media’s website I made an approach and an email came back from Andy Reeds (the other partner within Crown Media) which included a more comprehensive guide to working with Crown Media, detailing the type of work I’d be expected to do, the remuneration and their expectations of me as a freelance camera operator. I also noticed that one of their regular freelance camera operators, Ben Bruges M.M.Inst.V., was listed on their website so I made contact with him to see what it was like working for Crown Media. I was hooked.

About Crown Media

Crown Media covers a variety of work, but their main activity is providing organisations with realistic media simulation. The majority of their clients are within the defence and emergency services industries, providing them with a real-world experience of working with media, in all its guises, within their regular training exercises. This doesn’t just stop at providing freelance camera operators, but extends to all areas of media including TV News, Print Journalism, Radio Journalism, On-line Journalism and Social Media.

The value Crown Media bring to their clients was obvious to me from the very start. The way organisations and their activities are portrayed in the media plays a vitally important role in forming public opinion and maintaining or improving their public support. Giving these organisations an appreciation of how their actions might be perceived, in both friendly and more hostile media, enables them to manage and facilitate the press more effectively and help ensure their actions are seen in the best possible light. This experience gives participants confidence, helps identify areas where they need further training, helps them to refine their messages and plans for dealing with the media and generally helps them cope and prosper in the most difficult of circumstances.

These are often sensitive situations which require a distinctive set of skills and experiences in order to deliver this service. Crown Media was established in 2006 and are able to meet these demands through the many years of experience of company’s partners; David Bennett being a trained print journalist and BBC TV reporter and Andy Reeds having spent most of his career in the British Army where he was heavily involved in public relations, media training and journalism.

The company now has large pool of specialist freelancers working alongside them from all areas of the media, working in small or large teams on assignments across the globe. Apart from media simulation the company also provides media training and consultancy for an increasing range of private and public sector organisations – including various national armed forces, NATO, blue-light emergency services as well as private companies looking to improve their in-media performance.

TV journalist
Working with a professional TV journalist

Cutting the mustard at Crown Media

Crown Media look for certain qualities within all their freelance operatives. Firstly, you’ve got to have a proven track record within your particular area of speciality. Secondly, you must be a first-rate team player. Whilst you will be expected to work under your own initiative, Crown Media place a lot of emphasis on being able to work within a team in order to deliver the product. You’ll also have to prove your ability to be able to work under pressure, often to tight deadlines and often in demanding situations outside of normal working hours. There’s no room for anyone being precious and you’ll often have to muck in even when there’s work to be done outside of your normal remit.

You’ll also need to sign the Official Secrets Act as there will be situations where operational security could be compromised. Further NATO security clearance and CRB disclosures are also required for certain areas of work, but in every case you will need to observe the company’s strict confidentiality policies at all times.

As a freelance camera operator and editor you’ll be expected to supply all your own technical and support kit. This means having a reasonably light but robust professional-level camera, enough battery power to keep you going all day, radio microphones, tripod/monopod, a portable editing system which can input and output to a variety of formats and enough media and storage to handle projects which might last up to 3-weeks at a time. You’ll also need to make sure you are adequately insured – for your kit, your travel and personal injury.

Dave and Mary wide
Working in demanding situations requires the right kit

The only kit you’ll be provided with is specialist PPE (personal protection equipment), which often means wearing a bullet-proof vest, combat helmet and survival suits on some sea-bound exercises. On some of the military exercises you’ll be embedded with the troops on exercise which means having to cope with the same weather and sleeping conditions as they are coping with. Assignment locations can range from the North American prairies in winter to the plains of Africa in summer, and you’ll be expected to come prepared for any conditions you may likely face – and includes items like bivvy bags, sleeping bags, bed rolls…

You are clearly warned that overnight accommodation can range from a reasonable hotel to sleeping rough, or in dormitory-type shared accommodation. It goes without saying that you can’t be overly fussy or expect your own living space. The work often results in many hours within the confines of vehicles, be that military or civilian, so there’s no point in applying if you suffer from motion sickness or claustrophobia.

The range of exercises you could be involved in can vary quite considerably – from computer-generated indoor simulations through to ‘live-rounds-in-the-field’ exercises. You’ll therefore need to be in good general health and able to cope with the physical challenges. They can last anything from one day up to three weeks – sometimes with little or limited contact with the outside world. If your business or family life dictates that you can’t be away for any length of time, then Crown Media work probably isn’t for you.

BATUS – My first Crown Assignment

OK, so I’d read and understood all the requirements and challenges of working for Crown Media but was still more than keen to offer myself up as a freelance camera operator and editor. They’d checked me out through my connection with the IOV and I’d supplied them with my CV and examples of my work. That whole process only took about 2-weeks to complete before I got my “Welcome to Crown Media” email. An offer of my first assignment came in shortly after, working as a freelance camera operator and editor for 15-days on Exercise Prairie Storm at the British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) in Alberta, Canada in October.

From what I have seen so far, most assignments are allocated by way of a notice email which gives the exercise name, location and date. It’s then up to you to say whether you are available to cover it or not. As a freelancer, whilst there’s no obligation to accept any Crown Media assignment, once you do accept it then nothing should stop you from fulfilling your obligation other than extreme circumstances beyond your control. I was actually away on holiday when the first notice email came through but managed to respond quickly, and the confirmation that I’d got the job came back a few days later. I have to admit, my emotions at this stage swung from extreme excitement to mild concern about what I’d let myself in for.

Even though I’d read and re-read all the information Crown Media had supplied I was still in the dark as to what I would be facing, or indeed what a typical day at work would be on this assignment. Thankfully they’d put me in touch with Steve Gravenor, an experienced freelance camera operator who has covered BATUS on many occasions. I was also introduced to the rest of the team working on this assignment – namely Graeme Bowd (Team Leader), Mary Green (Television Journalist) and Dave Pethick (another newbie freelance camera operator who had also applied to the original IOV forum article).

Mary Green – Graeme Bowd – Dave Pethick – Kevin Cook

The contact with Steve was really helpful and removed any concerns I had about coping with the technical and creative requirements of my post. Steve also gave me some really useful tips on the undocumented challenges about working at BATUS, emphasising that the biggest of which would be coping with the many hours of downtime spent either waiting for an exercise to start or at the end of your working day.

To give you an idea, BATUS is located within an area roughly the size of Derbyshire amongst the many thousands of square miles of featureless rolling prairie. Steve drew a pretty accurate picture of ExCon (Exercise Control) where we would be stationed for 15-days, which consisted of a main control centre building, a canteen/cookhouse, a huge mast, helicopter pad and an accommodation block which was essentially a Portakabin arrangement containing our bedrooms (AKA our cells), ablutions and a laundry room. And that was it – other than an abundance of ground squirrel holes and a few boulders. There was no nightlife, no corner shop, no nothing really – and the only internet access was within the main building and canteen when it was open.

Our cell block at BATUS
Our cell block at BATUS

Graham and Mary were also really helpful in putting my mind at rest. Over the years Graham had been building up a list of essential kit needed for the assignment which proved invaluable and also highlighted a number of bits and pieces that I would need to acquire before travelling. Whilst I had some cold weather gear it was all a bit too brightly coloured for this type of work (you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb – or indeed a target!) so I had to factor in a trip to Go Outdoors to get a bivvy bag, self-inflating bedroll, mosquito head net and numerous other bits and pieces that would help me cope with any conditions I might find. On a previous October BATUS exercise Mary and Graeme had experienced -18 Celsius, but it could equally hit +20 so most of my case space would be taken up with “what if” weather clothing.

All the flights and transfers were arranged by the British Army via Crown Media, travelling cattle-class with BA from Heathrow to Calgary and then a 2 ½ hour taxi transfer south to BATUS. We didn’t need any special work permits as we were attached to the British Army, and both Dave and I were booked with additional hold luggage to cope with our video gear and masses of embedding kit. Whilst it was unusual for a team to include two newbie cameramen I found some comfort in this. At least I wasn’t going to be the odd one out and I dare say both of us took slightly more kit than we actually needed so there would be some spares should either of us lose or forget something vital. I’d met Dave before on a couple of occasions at past IOV events so we weren’t complete strangers, and we were familiar with each others work having both been recipients of IOV Awards.

After brief introductions whilst we waited for our departure, and Mary and Graeme sharing many of their Crown Media experiences, we were on our way. By the time we arrived at BATUS I think both Dave and I were pretty confident about what the next two weeks would bring. I suspect we still looked like wide-eyed newbies though. We spent our first night at BATUS base camp before being transported up to ExCon the following morning. It was, pretty much, as explained – nothing to write home about! Had we not had an unplanned three-day down period mid exercise that is where we would have stayed, however we did manage a day trip down to Medicine Hat (a 40-minute taxi ride away and the nearest major town to BATUS) and had a very welcome beer or two (BATUS is totally dry!). Not sure I’d bother with Medicine Hat again though.

Into Action

BATUS tank
Exercising at BATUS

I can’t go into too much detail, but BATUS provides the army with a virtually unrestricted environment in which to exercise troops in a number of scenarios. Whilst on this occasion this consisted of companies of foot soldiers undertaking various objective-led assignments, such as securing strategic mock settlements and helping the civilian populations in their own peacekeeping efforts, BATUS is also big enough to allow for mechanised and heavy artillery exercises. Whilst the British Army have fantastic facilities nearer to home, nothing compares to the freedom of movement and range of terrain offered by BATUS.

Divided into Blue Press and Red Press two-man news crews (with Graeme and Mary working as front of camera reporters), our task was to position ourselves within the target villages or alongside the troops as the exercise progressed and to film the action. This included interviewing soldiers as they worked and filming pieces to camera by the reporters. Blue Press team played the role of a more friendly news crew (akin to the BBC) and the Red Press adopted a more hostile position. These represent the two kinds of media found on a military operation, ‘Unilaterals’ and ‘Embeds’. Unilaterals roam the area reporting as they see fit and without reference to the military. Embeds agree to report within constraints laid down in an agreement negotiated between news editors and the MOD. This is known as ‘The Green Book’. The media give the military the right to vet their product to ensure that operational security (OPSEC) is not compromised in return for unique access. Part of the training is to see whether the military properly understand the differences and the implications for how they should manage these differing relationships.

The different roles played by Graeme (Blue) and Mary (Red) were immediately apparent, and as their camera operators we too were expected to take on a similar stance with our camera work – Blue Team being more cooperative and compliant than Red Team. It was fun, but at the same time you had to imagine the soldiers and their opposite combatants were firing real bullets (on this exercise they were firing blank rounds and electronically monitored a bit like laser paintball) and being subjected to real IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) – so you couldn’t just swagger through the battle scenes to get your best shot. The point is to give the troops a realistic impression of working with TV crews around them, and to experience the range and style of questioning they might experience in the real world.

Red Press
Working as Red Press with Mary

Apart from us playing our roles, each scenario included CivPop (Civilian Population) who were actors playing the part of people and local militia within the mock villages who were either thankful of the army’s attempts to help them or resistant to it. The atmosphere was therefore very close to what the soldiers will experience in the field, with everything going on around them ranging from human atrocities to political positioning – and on top of that there was us recording the story from our Blue and Red perspectives.

At the end of the exercise we were shipped back in army vehicles to ExCon where we started the editing process in our bedrooms – first capturing the footage, selecting a range of interviews and pieces to camera and then recording a voiceover with Graeme or Mary once they’d written their respective stories. These were then edited into short, 2 to 4-minute Blue and Red news packages, much in the style of a regular bulletin you would see on the TV news back home. In the meantime, the troops in the field would be tabbing (marching) on to their next exercise within the BATUS training ground and preparing for another exercise.

Every exercise is broken down into a series of missions. Every few days at the end of these missions (natural breaks in the exercise) the lessons identified during the training are fed back to the soldiers through a process known as an After Action Review (AAR). In our case the news packages reflect how effectively the troops had communicated through the media the operations that they were involved in. This was then briefed down to the youngest soldier in the unit so that they would better understand how their actions would appear to the public on television.

My BATUS Kit Choice

For my main area of work I’m still shooting on DSLRs, but these are simply inappropriate for this kind of work. They’re great for beauty shots but totally useless for run-and-gun news applications. Shoulder-mounted cameras are fine for general news work but too bulky for war zone environments where you need to be nimble on your feet and not overly fussed by the rough and tumble of trench and battlefield warfare filming and the damage it could cause to an expensive camera. However, you will need something capable of producing news-standard images and sound, so therefore something which you can easily connect XLR-type mics and radio mic systems to.

Shooting with the JVC GY-HM650
Shooting with the JVC GY-HM650

My JVC GY-HM650 was perfect for this, weighing just over 2Kg and being compact yet fully configured for professional audio and monitoring. Whilst much of the time you’ll be running in full auto mode, having the ability to quickly set things manually is ideal and, in some situations, vital. For my radio mic system I was using my Sony UWP-D11 system with a Sony ECM674 directional mic connected to the transmitter. A radio mic system is essential as you’ll often drift apart from your reporter, and they’ll also need a handgrip and wind gag on this to record in often windy outdoor conditions.

Even though Crown Media specified a lightweight tripod there was little opportunity to use one on this exercise. Further to Steve Gravenor’s advice I’d taken my Mogopod with me but ended up leaving it back in my room after the first couple of days. There simply isn’t enough time to use one, and all they become is another dead weight to carry around. This did mean that most of the time I was relying on the HM650 Optical Image Stabiliser, but the ever so slight picture degradation it causes and additional strain on the battery wasn’t an issue. On a couple of extremely long lens shots I’d also used my NLE’s shot stabiliser too.

For editing I’d took along my recently purchased Edius Laptop system which was built by DVC in Hove. I’m an Edius fan boy through and through, and it’s ability to suck in and spit out almost any format is a real advantage. Whilst it seems extremely antiquated, the delivery specification for the news packages used within the AARs was standard definition, 4:3 aspect ratio in Windows Media format. This was because the videos were used within a PowerPoint presentation and this format causes less issues for the guys handling the output. This didn’t matter a jot to Edius. Both Dave and I were shooting at 1280 x 720 50p, and whilst I was using this format throughout the entire editing process, and only outputting to the pillar boxed Windows Media format as the final button click, Dave was having to do some intermediate format changes using his Mac-based Premiere system – and then a Sorenson Squeeze to give him the final Windows Media file at the end. It all looked the same on the final output but I think Edius saved me a fair bit of time over the two-week period.

BATUS editing
Editing the news packages with my Edius laptop

Having decried the use of DSLRs for this kind of work I did take my trusty old Canon 550D out with me should I need it in an emergency. This also meant taking out my Tascam DR-60D audio recorder too as without it I’d have struggled to connect anything useful audio wise. Thankfully I didn’t have to call on it as, with hindsight, it would have been next to useless.

After Action Review

With only one Crown Media assignment behind me I can’t honestly say I know what it’s like to work as a freelance camera operator for them, but I have a much better idea and would certainly know what to expect from another trip to BATUS. With an extraordinary number of down-days and virtually nothing in the way of embedding with the troops, Graeme and Mary both said this was not your usual BATUS assignment, nor any way typical of working for Crown Media.

At this point I need to thank Steve Gravenor for one of his greatest tips, in that I needed to take plenty of things to do in my spare time, such as books and DVDs. His suggestion of taking the complete box set of Breaking Bad was spot on. Having not seen a single episode before I managed to watch all 48-hours of series 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 by the time our taxi came to pick us up and take us to the airport. I think I might have gone a bit loopy had I not had this to fill in the blanks.

BATUS sunrise
Shooting a sunrise at BATUS in my downtime

As tame as this introduction might have been I’ve certainly got a taste to do more Crown Media work. The downsides are few as far as I can see, leaving aside the daily freelancers’ rates which are somewhat less than I would normally achieve in the corporate sector but comparable to BECTU rates. However, the experience was amazing and if Mary, Graeme and Dave are typical of the teams I will be working with in the future then I’m going to have a lot of fun and stand to gain a lot of experience from working with some extremely professional people.

Thankfully I’m not going to have to wait too much longer for my next Crown Media assignment to find out. Whilst out working at BATUS another opportunity was emailed out, this time working with a team of ten Crown Media people on a week-long exercise in Cornwall at the beginning of December. I don’t know much more about it other than the dates at present but I’ve been confirmed as part of the team – whoever they may be. Bring it on!

Kevin Cook F.Inst.V.

Note: Details about working with Crown Media are available from their website –


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