I’ve been working as a VTR operator for a long time and more than half the crew and all the normal people I meet don’t understand the position. Here is a quick explainer that breaks it down.

Video Assist Workflow

When a crew shoots a film it is the Video Assist Operators job to get the live feed of the footage and display it for the director and the producers. This involves a different monitors than the camera department uses. Video assist monitors will be on set (for the director) as well as in “Video Village” where the VIPs will watch the footage near set. The video assist operator records the live feed and sends it to these monitors as well as some other monitors for the crew.

VTR In The Past

Video Assist is also known by the acronym VTR which stands for video track record. In the “old days” of film cameras it was impossible to play back from the camera so video assist was essential to see what was recorded. The VTR op would tap into the viewfinder of the film camera and record video from the eyepiece of the camera.

In this modern era it is usually possible to playback from a camera however VTR is still an essential and valuable part of a film set.

How VTR Improves Production

Here are some ways that a production benefits from Video Assist:

Viewing: Through monitor arrays and handheld monitors the video assist operator makes sure that the director has the optimal viewing environment so that no time is lost walking to a monitor and nothing in a shot is overlooked.

Confidence: The more access that a director and producers have to the footage the better the product will be. VTR gives the director total access to everything that has been shot.

Time Savings: A good VTR op saves a lot of time. If you have a four person camera department and the camera department has to playback from camera, then the whole camera department has to pause their momentum to support this playback. But with video assist, the camera department can continue to work during playback, this creates a more efficient set.

Client Review: One of the main jobs of the Video Assist operator is to playback footage for clients and ad agency on commercials. On commercials there are often many clients and agency supervising the shoot and they have myriad concerns and opinions about what is being shot that the crew could never answer. “Is the actors head rotated at an angle that assures the viewer that the meal is made with farm fresh ingredients?” The agency can answer that question, but they need to review the footage. Having a VTR operator allows the agency and clients to have full access to the footage without slowing down the set.

Continuity: As scenes are built they may be shot out of order. Playback allows the crew to review the shots that will cut together to make sure they match.

Effects: VTR operators provide an essential function as a bridge between production and post production. They create rough, live versions of the effects so the crew can stage the shot correctly. VTR Operators can key out green screens, put in backgrounds, re-position actors, overlay other footage for match cuts and even composite pre-visualizations of complex effects from the visual effects department during shooting.

Link to Post: VTR delivers stills and footage that is accessible to the client and post production in real time. With this instant access the client and post can begin their collaboration faster.

I hope this page has provided more clarity on this interesting and commonly overlooked film crew position. See you on set.