Director Jason Reitman pays tribute to legendary camera assistant Zoran Veselic
Zoran Veselic, who died Tuesday after a prolonged illness, worked as a camera assistant for nearly 40 years, guiding the lens on such films as Edward Scissorhands, Get Shorty, and Cast Away. Most recently, he worked on Black Panther, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Argo. He was an innovator who earned the respect of filmmakers and crew alike.
In this tribute, director Jason Reitman explains how Veselic influenced the movies you know and love — and how he literally and figuratively helped cinematic storytellers sharpen their focus.
This week, the film business lost a man you probably don’t know. His name is buried deep enough in the credits that it might only be noticed by the kids cleaning the stray popcorn under the seats if they took a moment to look up, but he earned the respect of Scorsese. His name was Zoran Veselic. He died Tuesday night.
He was a first assistant camera man. It’s a job title that sounds relegated to grabbing lattes and humping lenses, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. A 1st AC is the backbone of the camera department. Think Tenzing Norgay. The precision of every lens, gear, and motor. The fluidity of the personnel. The focus of every frame that is shot. These fall squarely on his shoulders. Zoran lived amongst an elite few. Desired by every cinematographer. Booked for years in advance.
To hear him speak for the first time, you might think Zoran was related to Gru from Despicable Me. He seemed to almost delight in his own Croatian approach to English, though his vocabulary was equally dominated by curious eyebrows that raised if he thought you were screwing with him.
His compact and athletic frame was built for his job that requires invisibility while standing directly next to the camera. Keep in mind, that until the recent advent of remote focusing, the closest person to the actors at all times has been the 1st AC. Imagine the soldier loading the bullet belt into the side of the machine gun. This is where the first assistant camera assistant stands. Watching the actor’s every move, gauging every inch back and forth for focus, while trying not to make the movie star feel as though they’re being watched. A sniper.
Amongst his own team, he was ruthlessly specific in his approach to order and cleanliness. There’s a way to carry a lens. A method to hand a filter. An order to pack a case. A camera truck should be clean and efficient. Conversation amongst the team should be quiet. You might be shooting in the jungle or in an abandoned refinery, but the camera truck, under Zoran’s eye, was like a surgeon’s theater.
His gallery of equipment was kept oiled, organized, and up to date. At the heart of his collection was “Finder” — a beautiful director’s viewfinder of his own creation and manufactured with his precise instructions. Only one was ever made and lived in an earthquake-safe waterproof case, also of Zoran’s creation.
“Finder” has the ability to beam whatever image is lined up directly to a monitor so the rest of the crew can see the shot. This is a far cry from the days of a director simply holding up their thumbs and index fingers to the landscape as the crew attempts to interpret what lens that might entail.
Above, you see Zoran on the right with second assistant photographer Craig Bauer tuning up “Finder” on the set of Up in the Air.
I have held “Finder.” The handle is both soft and firm like a tennis racquet. The optics are clean to the eye like a new pair of glasses. The angle of the handle is completely adjustable depending on the user’s grip and arm length. I have never seen Finder in any state but spotless. I’ve watched camera assistants present Finder with more care than a mother swaddling her first child. Finder has been at the eye of Martin Scorsese, Spike Jonze, Cameron Crowe, Oliver Stone, Sofia Coppola, and my own father Ivan Reitman.
I learned of Zoran’s passing when my lifelong friend and cinematographer Eric Steelberg called me in tears. As my ears went numb with the news, I was struck by the intimacy in which Eric spoke about his 1st AC. It’s hard to explain to people who don’t work in our business what it’s like to go on the road and make a movie. We abandon our lives and create new families amongst the hotels and ten ton trucks. It’s a circus of technicians, performers, and strongmen who need each other on this strange island of filmmaking. I can’t articulate how integral Zoran was to so many of these families and how much he will be missed.
Towards the end of production on Up In The Air, we had a small scene in which George Clooney had an apartment key duplicated for Vera Farmiga. The scene wound up on the cutting room floor, but can be found on the DVD. We needed an actor to operate the key grinder. When I told George that we were casting Zoran, he lit up. “He’s perfect!” When I wrapped Zoran’s close up, the crew applauded. Zoran leaned past camera and asked his 2nd AC, “How was the focus?”
Zoran Veselic died on Aug. 14 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. His passions included tennis and the ocean, but more than anything he loved making movies.