Many people are drawn to working in television because of its collaborative nature. Working on a show really can make you feel like a part of one giant family, and since you often have to spend a lot of time and work very long hours with that family, it’s important to like them. That importance of finding good collaborators is a lesson that camera operator Lainie Knox has learned time and again throughout her career.
Knox has worked her way up from a PA on set to operating the “A” camera on shows like CBC’s Workin’ Moms. In addition to the comedy series, Knox also just wrapped shooting Season 2 of ANNE and will soon return to Killjoys, where she served as “B” camera operator last season.
Knox also recently spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries to further discuss her career. She recalled for us how she has found herself at times as the only female technician on set, but has been lucky to surround herself with supportive colleagues, regardless of gender. She also talked about working on shows with female showrunners and how she thinks more women are getting into tech roles.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: Can you share some about your background with us? Did you always want to work behind the camera?
Lainie Knox: Yes, I think I always wanted to be behind the camera, I just didn’t really know how to go about it. When I was in university I did a double major in communication studies and environmental studies, and I really really wanted to make nature/travel/human rights documentaries. David Suzuki was my hero and I wanted to work on shows like that quite badly. I went to school in Montreal, which was quite economically depressed at the time, and I wasn’t a francophone so I never really imagined myself staying there. I always knew that I would move to Toronto. The industry was busy and the economy was booming. It felt like the place to be. So I moved right after school and did anything I could in the industry. None of it was any actual production and it was actually very challenging to get any experience on set at the time. I just did admin/PA work until I got a job on a TV show as a 2nd assistant editor, logging footage for a kids’ wildlife show.
There I got to see how “it” all worked. While doing the job I was hired to do, I made it clear to the producer that I was very interested in camera. The crew came back to Canada and I was hired as the PA, driver, gear humper, slater etc. I worked 18-20 hour days all summer and was happy as a clam doing it. After a season or two with that show, I took The CSC Camera Assistant course — the only course back in the day — and sponged up all the info, met some great people I still know and work with, and learned a lot. I started 2nd assisting for someone I met there on shorts, music videos, low budget shows and then my focus puller went into the union so he was sending me his non-union work to focus pull, so I upgraded myself and taught myself how to do it, quickly. [laughs]
Later, I joined the union as a 1st and did about a film a year, but I mainly lived in commercials and music videos. The DPs I worked with were just in that world, which I am grateful for because I think being in those realms can be more creative in many ways. Music videos are/were especially more free and creative. There’s less at stake. All that time I was always working on my own projects and trying to DP/operate more. Then I got a call to operate from a DP I had focus pulled for numerous times. He knew I was driven to operate and he is the one who offered me my first show, Season 1 of Killjoys. Now I shoot 2nd unit on the show for him and I get to play and learn and it’s a lot of fun.
TTVJ: Things are starting to change, but traditionally there haven’t been a lot of female camera operators. What has it been like over the course of your career being a woman in a position where there’s so many more men? Have you often found yourself the only woman?
LK: At times I’ve been the only female “technician” on set other, but often hair, makeup and wardrobe are stacked with women. Coming from music videos and commercials, where a lot of people are typically younger than TV/film, there was less of that old school division of labor along gender lines. I also feel like I chose DPs well. [laughs] I guess we chose each other, but I worked pretty solidly with about five DPs almost religiously my whole career and they are really wonderful men. They’ve had successful careers and have been supportive of me. Those relationships have to be pretty amazing to spend 60+ hours a week next to someone for most of the year. You have to really like who each other are to the core. I wouldn’t have lasted long working for DPs who weren’t supportive of giving me breaks.
TTVJ: I’ve been hearing things are starting to change, but what’s your point of view on that? Do you see there being a lot more women operating cameras in our future?
LK: I see some more women operating cameras for sure. A lot? I don’t know. It’s pretty uncharted territory, right? I hope so. I often forget I’m doing something “unusual” and that there are younger women starting out in camera as trainees who see me as a role model. I try to be approachable to them. I came from assisting, so I feel like I’m “one of them” and don’t get weird or precious about hierarchy. I rather like smashing that up a bit. It’s so old school and often more of a power/ego trip than for any functional reason.
My current assisting team are both women. We work together. We all have our jobs, but I really try to pay attention to what they are dealing with and help when I can — pushing carts or grabbing a battery or whatever. I’m usually just in their way, but they see I care and am trying at least. Being aware of other people and respectful of all the jobs on set goes a long way. It’s a team sport. I like to think of it as a ballet actually.
TTVJ: Obviously, you’re a camera operator so I have some idea of what you do, but can you describe what a typical day on set is like for you?
LK: I try to get there a little early so I can get a tea and the sides for the day — the scenes we are going to shoot. There’s a crew blocking with the actors. I discuss with the DP, Director and other operator what the plan is and then formulate a plan with the assistants and dolly grip. Then, we line things up with the stand-ins and make sure the actor positions work for the camera positions. If we’re lucky and there’s time, we get a rehearsal, do tweaks and then shoot. Hopefully, everyone does their thing and then we move on once the director is happy, and we do it all over again from different angles.
Every job and set is different, but I feel my main role is that of a communicator. I’m always trying to make the best shot for those two people sitting at the monitors. It really is a ballet and when it works it is truly magic. I’ve been very blessed with great teams — people who care and have great temperaments. True professionals.
TTVJ: Do you notice any differences working on shows that have female showrunners like Killjoys, or that are a predominantly female crew like on Workin’ Moms?
LK: Well, Workin’ Moms is about 50/50, which feels like more women because people just aren’t used to so many of us. [laughs] It’s hard to explain, but I think women in numbers bring out the best in guys. Does that make sense? If you’re the only woman it’s harder for sure, but if there are a few or many women around, everyone seems to be on their best behaviour. It’s slightly more civilized. Maybe I’m crazy, but that’s been my experience.
The “vibe” tends to come from the top though. So if it’s good people up there, everyone seems to enjoy themselves. The three main shows I’ve been on the last few years (Killjoys, Workin’ Moms, ANNE) have all had female showrunners, so I guess maybe there really is something to that.
TTVJ: What is your favorite part of the job?
LK: I love the collaboration. I love watching the actors perform and disappear into that, whether it’s a comedy or drama. They are really what makes it magical, and I love being around the good ones. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some incredibly talented actors who are also great people to get to know. We start Killjoys Season 4/5 soon and I’m really excited to see the cast. The days are long, so it’s your family. I also love laughing most of the day. Most of the crew on set are pretty hilarious characters.
TTVJ: Having worked on a lot of successful jobs, what do you think the most useful skill you’ve developed is?
LK: Communication and I want to say patience, but someone who knows me well may laugh at that. I’m getting better at that part. It’s a real diplomatic position being the liaison between director, DP, actors, crew It is really important to be decisive and clear. You can be wrong but at least be clear about it.
TTVJ: Directors like Patty Jenkins have previously worked as camera operators. Is that something you’d maybe like to explore one day?
LK: I’d love nothing more actually.
TTVJ: What advice do you have for other women looking to work behind the camera?
LK: Keep at it. Practice. Shoot your own stuff. Shoot for other people. Find good collaborators — DPs, producers, writers and directors — who believe in you and give you opportunities! Find your people! Not everyone can be your people, but they are out there. Don’t get stuck doing a job you don’t want to do just because you’re good at it. Know you want to do it, the rest will come. Shadow someone. Push yourself. Embrace the butterflies. No one knows what they are doing the first day. Surround yourself with good people who want to succeed with you and make good work. Also, try to have empathy and respect for everyone on set. You never know what someone is going through.
TTVJ: Can you share what projects you have coming up that we can catch?
LK: I just finished working on Episodes 1-5 of ANNE Season 2 with creator Moira Walley-Beckett and DP Jackson Parrell. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had on a set in every way. It was super creative, fun, respectful, and magical with incredibly talented writers, actors and directors and crew. I’m very proud of our work on this. It was technically very challenging and we kind of nailed it. [laughs]
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Workin’ Moms airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. ET on CBC. ANNE and Killjoys will return later in 2018. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV serieshere.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.