I Am a Camera


Mikey Jackson (assistant cameraman)

Income: $25,000 to $30,000 (this year)

Health Insurance: none Rent: $930/mo.

Utilities: $30/mo.

Phone: $30/mo.

Food: $40/mo.

Transportation: $15/mo.

Only yesterday, “someone was killing someone else at the bottom of a 30-foot mountain of garbage in New Jersey.” Mikey Jackson, an assistant cameraman, was there with his tape measure to get the focus for each shot, running up the garbage mountain 100 times over six hours until he almost collapsed. “It was pretty smelly.” He got home at four in the morning and then he had to climb up six flights of stairs to get to his apartment.

The garbage experience was Jackson’s 20th indie. Indies are all he knows. But he is excited lately because this is his first action indie—”people blowing up and car chases.” The others were all “coming-of-age stories” where everybody likes to just talk about doing crimes. But “two nights ago, I was in a burning building for 12 hours straight. My face was covered with soot.” Then he was shooting in an old mayonnaise factory and “the fumes were so bad, I got sick for a month.”

Jackson, 22, who has one long, dyed red lock hanging out of his short dark hair—”it’s been there since I was 12. I can’t cut it off now”—dropped out of SUNY Buffalo at 19—”there was one camera there and it hardly worked”—to devote his life to film. This year, as a nonunion assistant cameraman, is the first that he “really started making a living at it. Nonunion pay ranges from $300 to $1200 a week. Union is around $400, $500 a day.” Film employees are like migrant workers. In winter, “I often have to go through the Ramen noodle thing.”

Some days Jackson does not know if he is going to live or die because of the van. “If independents shoot out of town, they’ll have a van pickup, usually at 6 a.m. in Union Square at the Apple Bank. For the driver, you always get some production assistant who doesn’t know how to drive. The p.a.’s usually been up 30 hours because they’ve just finished the final drop-off from the night before. They’re driving vans with too many people, going thousands of miles an hour.”

The minute the van screeches to a stop at the location, everybody is yelling, “Let’s go, let’s go. They’re always fighting against the sun, shoot as much as they can before it’s gone….I see filmmaking from two sides now. Producers want to make it as fast and for as little as possible. They do try to exploit crews as much as they can. So usually on the first or second day of a shoot, the crew will decide on a shop steward, the one who says we’re 10 minutes over for lunch—pay us for that. Or we’re not going to work five or six 16-hour days in a row.

“Before you start a job, you sign a deal memo—number of hours, when you get meals, and how long you have in between when you finish and start work. If I wrap at midnight, they want me back as soon as possible because they’re trying to condense four weeks into three. They still have to give us 10 hours between working and working so we can sleep and eat. Sometimes they try to push that.” Lunch is only a half hour. “Everybody’s starving. And every day, for every film I’ve ever worked on, there’s been a vegetarian discussion, how there’s no vegetarian food or what vegetarianism is about. Every film.”

“I come from suburbia, Rockland County, Ramapo, New York. My parents are accountants. My sister’s in cooking school. My parents are ’60s, early-’70s kids. They say they weren’t hippies, but I don’t believe them. They’re going through a midlife thing right now. They’re both pretty young, mid forties. It’s been like growing up with two more kids in the family. They spoiled us. I know they did. As soon as I dropped out of college, I felt bad taking their money so I fended for myself.”

The independent Jackson, who has made his Lower East Side apartment very tidy and livable with a blue dish drainer and beige carpeting, because “I grew up with carpeting,” said he does not long for things, particularly, though he would like cable TV. “If I had a couple of extra dollars.” But for now, it is just a dream.

He does expect to climb out of the indie life some day. Like the “people who started 15 years before me who now have a family and are working on commercials. They won’t work on independents anymore. You have to be young and stupid.”