'Get as much experience as possible' Eastenders camerawoman Joanne Nellis on shooting TV and more
Joanne Nellis is a key part of the camera team on legendary UK soap opera Eastenders, which is now in its 33rd year and still enjoying viewer ratings of 4 million per episode – minimum. Starting out in documentary and commercials, Joanne took a BBC camera traineeship and worked her way up the ranks until she landed Eastenders. Here she talks to Mandy News about how she got started, what it's like working on Eastenders and what it takes to work on such a highly successful show.
Joanne, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into camera work?
I worked in theatre when I first came to London. Then I did a film degree. I majored in camera. I studied at the London College of Printing. It was a degree in film and video.
Was there any provision for you to go on to your next role at the end of that course?
No. When I was there I created as much as possible and got as much experience as possible, then I found my own way after that.
What was your first job after university?
I think I worked on some documentaries and then I became a camera trainee on some feature films in Ireland. I worked on some commercials in London as well. At some point I saw an ad for a camera traineeship at the BBC.
Do you have a preferred kit that you like to use, if given the opportunity?
Well I now work at the BBC and I’m provided with all the equipment. I’m a multi-camera operator so it’s a team of cameras that are linked to a gallery.
In that situation, is there a control room where the director is, giving commands and going from one camera to the other?
Depending on the show, the director might be on the floor. Usually there’s a control room where there’s a vision mixer, a live editor. You may be following a script so that you know when your camera will be used.
There’s also someone recording in the gallery, which is what we call it, checking for continuity or following script. So there’s a number of people that sit in the gallery, the director may be in the gallery or they may be next to you on the floor.
How did you get involved with Eastenders?
I joined the BBC traineeship and I worked my way through the BBC and ended up on Eastenders. I started off in television and I worked on music and panel shows, all kinds of things, then I worked on outside projects for a number of years, doing mainly sports, then I ended up on Eastenders.
How long have you been involved there?
On and off for about ten years, I think.
We just interviewed the brilliant new cast member Lorraine Stanley about her career.
Oh. She’s lovely!
Does it feel like a family at Eastenders? Is it a big crew that stay the same for quite a long period of time?
Yes, I mean there’s a ton of people. You’re not working with exactly the same people every day but there’s a ton of people that you see come and go, so it’s quite familiar, yes.
What’s a typical working day like on Eastenders?
Well, on Eastenders normally crew need to be there at about 8 o’clock. Then we start filming at 8:15. We do a number of scenes before lunch, break for lunch and get back to work. I suppose the average day is 8 till 7.
How far in advance of the actual storylines that people are seeing on television do you shoot?
It’s approximately two months in advance.
Presumably there a lot of NDAs and measures taken to ensure no-one’s leaking stories?
Yes. Sometimes the scripts are edited and names are blanked out. The leaks still happen.
There can be such camaraderie on set and it can be an amazing feeling. Do you have a crew that you normally use outside of Eastenders, or that is your crew?
Multi-camera is a bit different than single-camera. We’re a pool of people and we work in an equal role, so we shoot more than one camera on a scene and we do everything. We don’t have focus pullers and we don’t have assistants.
Usually, there’s three to four cameras used on a scene, all at once. Rather than shooting one from one side and then from another, as you would with single camera, you shoot the whole scene in one go. One person on the left, one person on the right, one in the middle. So we’ll have a rehearsal before.
How do you go about planning the multi-camera shots?
It’s complicated. The directors will have preparation time and generally come on set with plans for where the cameras should go, then we’ll talk through what works and what doesn’t. They come out with an approximate blocking: where the actors will go, where the cameras will go, and then we work from that and change it if necessary. It takes a while for a director to switch from single camera to multi camera.
When you started to become a multi-camera operator, was that something that you learned in your university degree or was that taught perhaps at the BBC afterwards?
Yeah that was entirely on the job, when I joined the BBC.
You pick things up slowly, you learn what the different cameras are. You’re given an easy camera initially, less complicated shots. Then you build your craft from there.
What advice could you give for any up and coming camera operators in the industry?
I suppose, be nice and try to get as much experience as possible. You’ll probably have to work for nothing for a little while. I suppose just be observant and if somebody gives you a tip, follow it.
For example, you might start as an assistant, so find out what’s required of an assistant on each team, and fulfil that. People are always happy to help somebody who is helpful. People are generally nice and want to pass on their skills, so just be attentive.