Q&A with Scott Staton, Camera & Jib Operator

As part of an ongoing series of Q&A interviews with TV & video production professionals, we’ll hear from experienced Jimmy Jib owner/operator and cameraman Scott Staton.  As the owner/operator of Big Iguana Camera & Jib LLC, Scott works on major network broadcast productions across the country and has over 20 years of broadcast and network experience. Joshua:  Thanks for taking time out to participate in this Q&A, Scott.  First question: where are you from originally, and where did you receive your training?  

Scott:  I'm from Troy, MI.  My general TV training was in college, at Eastern New Mexico University.  As a student I was able to work (credit and paid) in all positions on a local newscast, as well as a nationally syndicated home show.  For jib experience, I bought one, and practiced, and spoke with other operators.  When I got one, they weren't all over the place, so there were not a lot of opportunities to try one, or train on one.

Joshua:  What sparked your interest in camerawork in general, and in jib work specifically?

Scott:  While working in college, and the first few jobs after moving back home, the jobs covered all aspects of production, from pre to post, as well as talent.  My first job at a production company reduced the options to production, or post.  When it came time to decide a direction in order to get a promotion and more money, I decided I liked the idea of being in a different setting every day, rather than in a dark room all day, every day.  I liked shooting better than audio or engineering, so that is the route I went.

For jib work, I went to my first NAB (which everyone should do once), and I saw the jibs.  I got to try them out, and decided it might be good to have one in Detroit.

Joshua:  Like many television professionals, you seem to be on-the-go constantly.  Can you give a rundown of all the broadcast networks you’ve worked for over your career, and perhaps a few of your most recent gigs?

Scott:  As for networks I've worked with: ABC Sports, which is now ESPN (2, 3, U, etc), NBC News, NBC Sports, ABC News, CNBC, MSNBC, MLB Network, NFL Network, BTN, CBS News, Discovery, TLC,  OWN, MTV, CMT, VH1, PBS, QVC, USA, TNT Sports, Turner Sports, YES Network, MSG Network, MASN, Nickelodeon, Disney, E!, Comedy Network, NHL Network, Fox, FS1, FSD, CSPAN, Spike, Sprout, History, and Bloomberg.

Recently, I have worked an ENG and 2-camera studio show for BTN's Michigan Football Preview, DP'd a 2-camera ENG for the Harpo show "Oprah, Where Are They Now?", jib for the Woodward Dream Cruise for WXYZ, jib for Season 2 of "The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca" which is syndicated on CBS Saturday mornings, jib for the Boy Scouts of America National Order of the Arrow Conference, ENG for the MASN broadcast of the Orioles at Tigers, and jib for PBS for "Alfio: Live in Concert".  One fun one back in May was covering the 2nd round of the Stanley Cup Finalsin the Western Conference for the NHL Network.  That was two weeks going back and forth between Anaheim and Calgary, but with a couple of days off in each town, there was a bit of time for a little fun.  I also did an Aerosmith concert this summer, and met with Steven Tyler in his dressing room for a half hour, with the producer and director, because he was concerned about the jib placement, and what shots I could get.

Joshua:  Describe the job of a Jib Operator at a live televised event. 

Scott:  It really depends on the type of show.  Some shows I am just a floating wide shot for scene sets and/or transitions.  For sports you will most likely have to follow some, or all of the action, depending on the sport.  For instance, there were two years where my position for figure skating was at center ice as the main "game" camera, or the main head-to-toe camera.  More often than not, you do not know what you are in for until you get there, and you don't want to look bad, so you load up the 1200 pounds or so of gear, then unload it on site, and begin setting up.  Most jobs are a single day, or you are working that first day, so they are usually looking for you to set up as quick as possible.  So, you go in, see where they want you, try to figure out how they plan to use you, and what size arm they are looking for.  Then, you try to talk them into the size arm that makes sense, but this usually doesn't work. so you set up what they want.  Hopefully there is then time for a break, meal, and a camera meeting, before the event starts.  Then you do the event, wait for crowd to clear the area so you can park the jib, in order to tear it down, and load those 1200 pounds out.  Of course, if you're lucky, and it is a multi-day event, you just have to secure it for the night.

Joshua:  No doubt you’ve worked with dozens, perhaps even hundreds of television directors over the course of your career.  In your opinion, what are the qualities of an excellent TV Director?

Scott:  One of my favorite directors was at ABC for figure skating, and not just because he took me on the road for 11 years.  In addition to being the nicest guy, he challenged me, and what could be done with the jib.  He liked the jib's fluidity, and how it matched with motion of figure skating, rather than just getting different angles, or sweeping crowd shots.  All of that made me a much better jib operator.  He was the kind of director who rarely raised his voice.  Rather than it being that he had been at ABC for 50 years, it was just the way he was.  If there was an error, he would rarely chastise anyone.  It would usually be a quiet, under his breath, "Oh, no".  That was pretty much it.  Then, he would take the blame for not directing you as well as he should have.  It sounds crazy, but when this little old man said "oh" because of something that happened when he took your shot, you just wanted to crawl under the sidewalk.  You definitely made sure there were no more problems.  Contrast that with the more common network director who will scream at the top of his lungs at you.  Usually these are sports directors, but not always.  So, while even a screamer can technically be a good director, and put together a good show, the best are the ones who do that while respecting their crew, and letting them do what they do best.

Joshua:  What do you like most about being a cameraman and jib operator?  What were some of the most memorable gigs that you’ve worked on and why do they stand out?

Scott:  I think I still like the variety the best; never knowing what the next job will bring, and the opportunity to do things and go places most people are not able to.  I had worked Chicago's 30th anniversary show on ABC's In Concert, and I was a handheld on the stage.  I have also done 4 or 5 Kid Rock concerts with the jib, and had never been more than 100 feet from the stage.  I had even worked on the Born Free documentary, and had the jib at his warehouse as they practiced for their tour, and at his house for some shots.

Working with celebrities can be fun.  Well, not exactly fun, but always nice to be able to say I've done it.  Not only have I been in Kid Rock's house, but I have also been in Ted Nugent's house (well actually two of them, three times, including eating wild boar for dinner), Paul Newman's Central Park apartment, and Jaclyn Smith's home in Hollywood.  I spent a half hour with Steven Tyler in his dressing room discussing shots before a show, toured the Salk Institute with Kathy Ireland, spent time at the Daytona 500 with Darrell Waltrip for his last 500 there, toured Auto World in Flint with Michael Moore, and even went to Mexico and had beers with an astronaut.  There are probably hundreds of interviews with other celebrities and athletes.  From going in the locker room after the game, to charity events, and broadcast interviews.

Another perk is the places I have been, both working, and visiting while on a job.  Puerto Rico five times, Sweden, Germany a couple of times, Canada, Mexico, and a great many of our own 50 states.  National parks, Disneyland, Disney World, the stage of the Grand Old Opry, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals, World Series, a dinosaur museum in the badlands of Canada, a castle in Germany, Homestead, FL after a hurricane, Northridge, CA after a earthquake, Puerto Rico after a hurricane, a tour of the Bacardi plant, too many historic sites to count right now, smelling chocolate outside of the Hershey plant in PA, and even my picture in an issue of GQ.

So, while I can't really pinpoint one specific job that was memorable, many are, for different reasons.  Mostly because of where they were, or what I was able to do on my spare time while on a job.

Joshua:  “Jib Operator” doesn't exactly sound like the kind of job opening that gets posted on online where just anybody can apply...do you have any advice for aspiring broadcast professionals about how to break into the television production industry?

Scott:  Nowadays, you can find some listings online for jib ops, just like camera ops, but most of it is still word of mouth.  Advice for anyone looking into this industry?  Run, and run fast.  Well, OK, at least be sure this is what you want to get into.  While most of this interview covered the glamorous part of the job, don't forget the long hours, last minute changes, cancellations, working nights and weekends, being away from family, and lots and lots of lifting heavy things, at least for a jib op.  Maybe not so much for cameras now, although many of the "FrankenRigs" people come up with are heavier, and far less ergonomic than real cameras.

The industry has changed so much in the last 20 years.  Where once I didn't want to spend all day in a dark room pushing buttons, there will always be work for someone who can push buttons.  Camera ops are being replaced by robots.  Yes, they have to be operated, but usually, one op runs up to four cameras, for less money.  I think the biggest change has been the manufacturers deciding to go with volume profits, rather than per item profits.  As soon as they started making toy cameras almost as good as real cameras, for a fraction of the price, they made so anyone can do it.  Chimera did something similar, by making light banks available, so anyone could make an interview look fairly good, without really knowing how to light.  Television news also had a hand in the shift, by deciding to use viewer video, so that it was no longer necessary to have good video.  It became acceptable to have crappy looking video hit air.

The result of all of these changes?  More gear available, and more people wanting to get in the business, which results in lower budgets, which means lower wages.  So before you say yes to that PA job that gets you food and a credit, make sure you are getting some money, and you can live with that money.  Many companies are taking advantage of the fact there are a lot of people looking to get into the business, and they are not afraid to take advantage of them.  I'm not saying to not work for free or cheap to get some experience, but remember that many times, once you do a job for a certain price, the client will expect it the next time.

For actually breaking in, unfortunately, it is still mostly word of mouth, so keep making connections.  There are some sites out there with job postings, but then you will need to provide support as to why you should be hired.  So, try to get copies of what you work on, to use for a demo reel.  I have actually had a couple of clients tell me to get listed on IMDB.  I know some of the job listing sites also have crew listings.

Joshua:  Thanks for your time, Scott!