For over 20 years Paul Martin's work has regularly appeared on national television in the UK and around the World. His career didn't begin with a formal education and started when he made a decision to work in television after delivering media on a motorcycle for the TV companies. In our interview Paul tells us how he got his break after an unusual introduction to an editor who would provide him with those first critical commissions behind the camera. Pauls also tells us about how he progressed his career and the type of work he does as a freelance cameraman.
How did your interest in visual media begin?
Like a great many camera operators, I had an early interest in cameras, but had no real idea at that age that I would go on to make a living with one. Good quality cameras were expensive, so I didnít really get to play around with them. Also, I had a healthy interest in what was happening in the world around me, so I watched a great deal of news. The end of the Vietnam War and Apartheid in South Africa were big stories from my early childhood, but growing up in 1970ís Britain there was a huge change in social and cultural norms that I watched with huge interest. I guess I was born a news junkie.
Did you have a formal education based around visual media?
Ha Ha! Most definitely not, no. After leaving school, with a year in 6th form, I joined the Army. I emerged 10 years later as a fully fledged cold war warrior. I did however, get to travel a lot, which exposed me to a great many different cultures, people and attitudes, some who welcomed the British Army soldier, and few who didnít. I took a lot of pictures though along the way, which sparked my interest in photography using cheap cameras.
How did you get your first job?
Well, I was working as a dispatch rider for about a year or so after leaving the Army. I found myself picking up BetaSP cassettes from news cameramen on location and delivering them to news studios around the South of England and London. I used to sit, wait and watch until they finished, pick up the cassettes and deliver them. One day, after watching one of them filming, I said to myself ďI like the look of that job. I could do that!Ē Yes, I really did say that! Anyway, to cut a long story short, I took all the money I had saved from my time in the Army and spent it on a BetaSP camera and taught myself how to use it, failing to comprehend that I had no CV, training or friends in the business. Not surprisingly, every news broadcaster I approached turned me down or didnít even return my letters. It took around six months to realise that something drastic needed to happen. So I turned up unannounced with my camera at the BBC in Southampton and told the receptionist that I was there for an interview with the news editor. He came out to see who the idiot in reception was, and I gave him an unedited tape of some tree protesters I had filmed the week before. 20 minutes later, I walked out with a dayís freelance work for the following day, and 21 years later, Iím still there.
Can you tell us about your early career?
As you can imagine from what I just told you, I had a very steep learning curve, and I mean steep.Luckily for me, as an ex-serviceman, I befriended a couple of freelance cameramen who were ex-Royal Navy, trained by them as photographers and camera operators, who were now in the news business, along with friendly journalists and editors.I had to be honest with them about just where I was in my knowledge of cameras and filming news stories and they helped me enormously, as they allowed me to pick their brains and ask really stupid, basic questions. I learned an enormous amount from each and every one of them, but I had this constant niggle of self-doubt. Am I actually good enough to do this job..? I had a feeling that I was going to get found out at any moment, that they would stop hiring me or I would mess up on a job, do something stupid. Yes, I made plenty of mistakes, but I learned from them.
The main thing was, I spent as much time as I could in the edit suites. Not just on the stories that I had filmed, but on the stories filmed by the cameramen of many years standing. Watching and learning how, why and what they did and more importantly, what the editors did with the pictures. It was the absolute best education I could have had. Even when I was told I could go home, I stayed behind. It was the best education I could have hoped for, and best of all, it was for free. So, I shut my trap for a year or so and learned the trade from the inside with a great deal of help from others. I took all the work I could get, even the 2am, cold, wet and miserable stories, and built myself a reputation as a hard working and reliable cameraman. After 2 or 3 years of constant hard work and learning, I think I earned the title freelance news cameraman and that constant niggle of early self-doubt faded.
Why did you choose to become a freelance cameraman?
Quite honestly? As I said above, watching the news cameramen out on news stories as a dispatch rider, I simply liked the look of the job they were doing. Naive, I know, but it was as simple as that. Being a news junkie also helped I guess, with a background interest in cameras and photography whilst in the Army, but honestly... it was a case of ďI like the look of that job. I could do that!Ē So I did.
Can you describe the type of work you do?
Camera Operator and Editor. The classic shoot/edit. News, sport, current affairs and features, live or recorded. Iím aware that this covers a whole multitude of filming styles, but thatís the joy of the job I do. As a freelancer living in the South, most of my day to day filming and live broadcasting is done for regional news outlets, BBC, ITV and the like. I consider myself as a regional news cameraman, although I do have a fair bit of work from network news broadcasters and international clients. The long haul, international world events are not really my cup of tea though, so I tend to stick with the UK these days.
Like any news cameraman, I film cute fluffy stories, business stories, political stories, crime, culture, celebrity, royalty, sport and the unusual. I meet homeless people, dying people, inspirational people, the rich, the poor, Prime Ministers to local councillors, people with hearts of gold, to thugs on street corners. Each one has a story and itís that story I am there to tell using my camera and edit skills to the best of my ability. Sometimes I have only 20 minutes, sometimes Iíve got all day. I film the best quality images and sound possible to tell the story in the time allotted by the producer or working as a team with my journalist on the day. I guess thatís the simplest way of describing what I do.
"You put every effort and use of experience and knowledge to get the very best outcome for the broadcaster." Whatís it like to work on live productions like national news?
As a freelancer, you have to look at it as a live production the same as any other. A live production for network news is just as important as that for regional news. You put every effort and use of experience and knowledge to get the very best outcome for the broadcaster. Of course, knowing that you are live to the nation or even an international audience, gives you an extra kick of adrenaline. Working with news people who are internationally known and respected in their specialist brief is always a pleasure, but donít forget that for every national live broadcast I do, I film 10 or 15 live broadcasts for regional news, and in all honesty, when a big regional story breaks, things are just as stressful and intense, if not more so than national, because itís regional news that gives me the most work and rely on me to get the job done. Yes, itís a great honour to be asked to do live for the national news, and I get plenty of them, but I donít differentiate. EVERY live is live and as a freelancer, my reputation is at stake, no matter who it is. Live work is what I enjoy most, itís the biggest kick I get out of being a news cameraman. What I see through my viewfinder is what the audience will see, itís a one-time only thing that you have to get right at that particular time. Thereís no going back to reset and whatís done is done.
Talking heads in front of camera are the basic live I guess, top and tail a VT (That i probably filmed) into the programme from the scene or location of the story. Filming and editing the VT followed by the live is always a satisfying thing to do, as you get to see through the whole story, whatever that may be. However, the best lives are those with a touch of unpredictability. You can practice the live as much as you want, but thereís always that feeling, especially around filming with children or animals, that it could all go wrong and thereís nothing you can do about it. Those are the lives that get me out of bed at 3am for BBC Breakfast news or Good Morning Britain. Google ďCarol Kirkwood dog on beachĒ (For BBC) or ďPiers Morgan Christmas tree switch onĒ (For ITV) for instance, and see what I mean. Yes, they were both my lives.
You work with many broadcast networks, how do you build a reputation to get regular work?
Iím reliable. I do good, solid camerawork and I try to be good to those around me. I work hard even if I donít feel like it and work even harder when I do. I go out of my way to get things done. It gets noticed. As a freelancer, if I donít work, I donít get paid. Itís that terrifyingly simple. I learn new things on a regular basis. I taught myself how to edit for example. I invested in my own kit to the point where I can now go live on my own without a satellite truck, using LiveU (which of course, has its limitations). I network and make friends. The reason I work with regional ITV News for example, is because a cameraman friend asked me to cover his shift. So I had him and ITV to not let down. I didnít let them down because Iím reliable, therefore I got more freelance work. Be reliable, good at what you do, and be nice to work with. Works every time.
What other things do you shoot apart from the news?
I have filmed a couple of documentaries. See below. I have the odd corporate film here and there, features for online clients and so on. I tend not to rely on corporate because I only own at most 1 or 2 cameras that I bought to satisfy my news clients. Corporate producers these days ask for all types of cameras and formats that they prefer or is the Ďnew big thingí at the time. I honestly have no desire to be swapping cameras every 2 or 3 years. I have a training company that I film for on a regular basis, and have recently filmed and edited around 50 online films for a Government client, but other than that no, itís just the news Iím afraid. Not that Iím unhappy with that.
What do you enjoy most?
Live broadcasting is what I enjoy doing most, as a day-to-day cameraman. I do also really enjoy stories that I have been given a good amount of time to complete. I recently filmed a 16 minute film about the homeless for the BBC Victoria Derbyshire Show, which I and my producer were given 3 days to film. A very satisfying 3 days. Also, chance meetings. One such meeting with a military press officer that I knew from serving in the Army, resulted in me traveling for 5 weeks with a medical unit to Kenya. As an independent cameraman, she asked if I could film a news item that I could get shown on the regional news using the contacts I had. I said yes, of course! I ended up selling 14 local and international news items, and 3 half-hour documentaries for the Discovery Channel, all filmed and produced by myself as an independent producer. I also very much enjoyed filming a documentary directed by Oliver Tobias, someone who I used to watch on TV as a child, which I took great delight in reminding him of, on a daily basis. Basically, anything unexpected that results in a bloody good story and with the time to do it justice.
Describe a typical day.
There is no typical day in the news industry. One day I could be stood outside court all day in the rain, the next, in the sunshine. I regularly drive for hours to do a 10 minute interview, only to drive home again straight afterwards. Iíve waited for days outside someoneís house to get a clip, only for them to turn up abroad after 3 days of waiting. Iíve turned up at locations to film grieving families who want to talk to you, and on others where they chase me away.
Iíve waited and waited... Iíve driven for miles, only to be turned back again. Seriously though, I turn up on location and film interviews and sequences that fit the narrative of the story being told. I try and be as creative as possible, but sometimes there just isnít time, lunchtime and evening bulletins must be fed in time. Sequences, sequences and sequences, paying close attention to the sound. Pieces to camera from the journalist, more interviews at a different location, sequence, sequence, sequence... Record a voiceover if required. If Iím not required to edit and send the package, then Iím off to film the next job or Iím released to go home but on call. If on a live broadcast, I meet up with the satellite truck engineer, journalist and field producer if there is one, and meticulously go through the live spot and practice if needed. Set up the camera, rigging to the truck, (mostly wireless link) and test camera, sound and lighting. Usually it is just the journalist or a journalist with 1, maybe 2 guests. Link up with the desired programme and go live as directed by regional, national or the 24 hour news channel. Drive... Wait... Drive... Wait... Repeat above.
What excites you most about working behind the camera?
When a big story breaks and you are the first on the scene, sometimes even before the emergency services. That doesnít happen very often, but the intensity of being on the ground, during an unfolding story, is the best feeling if you are a news junkie. Unfortunately, this often means meeting people at their lowest ebb, should they lose everything in a flood or large fire for example. It always amazes me when I witness the resilience and kindness of ordinary people at the lowest point in their lives, often to strangers and cameramen alike.
The most exciting thing though is the feeling you get when you know you and the team have told a good story very well. Sometimes, these stories can take weeks or even months to cover, such as health care scandals and the mistreatment of vulnerable people. Securing interviews with the right people and exposing those people or institutions that deserve it is a satisfying job, and getting to tell the people who watch the programme a good, solid and informative story still excites me.
What are the highs and lows of freelancing?
I think I have pretty much already covered this question in my answers already given. The sheer variety of my working days and the people I get to meet makes me grateful that I do the job that I do. Other than that..
Highs - Being my own boss. I donít have to answer to anyone in the daily running and management of how and why I go about my business of being a freelance news cameraman. The only people I answer to is my journalist or producer on the day. The rest of my time is mine. Being responsible for my own success. As a freelance, If I want a day or two off, I can go right ahead and have them.
Lows - Being my own boss. Doing the paperwork. Invoicing, chasing invoices, VAT, taxes, PAYE, profit, loss and cash flow. Looking after and maintaining your own filming kit and wages. If you want to be a freelancer, no matter what industry you are in, you must keep on top of your paperwork and cash flow. If the business goes belly up, thereís nobody to blame but yourself. As a freelance, If I want a day or two off, I wonít be getting paid.
What special qualities does a camera operator need to have?
Be good at what you do and work hard. Get on with those around you and donít be late for a job. Anticipate what may be needed and get it done without having to be asked. Ability to learn on the job and be flexible in your approach to the job. Be a self-starter and donít rely on others outside of your immediate team.
What was the best professional advice you were ever given?
Summer, 1997: ďHey Paul, come in here and look at this...Ē - News film editor, BBC edit suite. (Seriously, itís the best thing I ever did.)
Winter, 1997: ďYou might need to buy a better coat and waterproofsĒ - Experienced news cameraman.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to break into working behind the camera?
Iím at the risk of repeating myself, but I will.. Be good at what you do and work hard. Get on with those around you and donít be late for a job. Anticipate what may be needed and get it done without having to be asked. Ability to learn on the job and be flexible in your approach to the job. Be a self-starter and donít rely on others. There has been no better time than now to be interested in cameras and learning how to film. Even the mobile phone in your pocket will give you quality output with a few, inexpensive add-ons. Go out, film stuff and learn how to sequence, sequence and sequence. Experiment. Learn to fail but embrace the success. Go and make friends with a film editor.
Paul on Twitter: twitter.com/ukcameraman
Paul's website: mediaattentionltd.blogspot.com/
All images © Paul Martin and used with permission.
Article Date - July 2018
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