6 Tips to Make You a Better Focus Puller!
1st Assistant Camera
I love my camera assistants! I am very grateful to David Elkins for the training I received as a camera assistant while I was in film school, and, over the years, I’ve also had the opportunity to train many of my ACs.
The 1st AC is responsible for focus, in addition to building the camera, changing lenses, adjusting settings, customizing camera configurations for the operator, and generally overseeing care for the camera package with the help of the 2nd AC.
A great 1st AC is invaluable. And a great 1st AC has to be skilled and efficient at, both, the technical set up of the camera AND pulling focus.
Here are My Top 6 Recommendations to Tune-up
Your Focus Pulling Game:
1. Play the Game.
Specifically, play the game that I like to call “Guess the Distance.” An accurate and efficient focus puller is great at judging distances by eye!
Pick an object, guess how far away it is, measure it. Whoever gets it right wins. Simple, and useful. 🙂
During downtime on set (with a measuring tape on your belt) is a great time to play the game with yourself, or your other ACs… PAs… whoever is down.
But don’t stop there, get in the habit of sizing up familiar objects and guessing distances everywhere you go.
The better you are at judging distances, the better you will be at pulling focus!
2. Get a DOF Chart and/or Calculator!
…and actually calculate Depth of Field for every shot you help set up.
I know a lot of ACs who have DOF apps on their phone, but they never use them. Mainly, this is because they don’t really know why they need them, and if the DP never asks what his or her DOF is, they figure they don’t need to use the app.The DOF calculator is actually for YOU. Focus is your job, right?
Use it to determine the most efficient way to pull focus within a scene.
For example, if a character moves 5 feet toward you in the scene, from a distance of say 10′ to 5′, and you are able to find a focal distance where the DOF includes the area from 4.5′ – 10.5′, then you can set the focus to that distance instead of following the actor during the shot.
In addition to letting you do a tiny bit less work, having less hands touching the camera makes for smoother operation and, if the lens breathes at all, you help avoid unnecessary breathing!
“Consolidating” your focus-pulls like this can be especially helpful if you are pulling focus in an action scene, or one of those carefully choreographed, roaming, steadicam shots that shift attention between multiple people at multiple distances.
If you calculate DOF and it is too shallow to hold all of the characters in the scene, you should mention this to your camera operator or DP, so that they may find a solution. (Hint: The solution will require referencing your DOF charts! You will help them determine which factor they should adjust in order to increase DOF…Tstop, Focal Length, or Focal Distance!)
Having your DP’s back will make you invaluable!
3. The Tron Grid.
Once the cameras start rolling, anything might happen. The actor might improv, the dolly might miss its mark, you have no idea… and if the director doesn’t yell cut, you are still expected to keep the shot in focus. The trick is to be ready for “anything,” and I suggest you do this by creating what I call a “Tron Grid” of the location in your head.
What the hell does that mean?
Start to look at the set as a collection of shapes with definite measurements.
The camera may move and the people may move, but chances are that most of the objects in the room will not!
Once you know where you are shooting, you can start taking measurements, and begin creating a sort of grid of distances in your head. Look for landmarks in the room: a window or table that the actors might stand next to, or tiles on the floor, a couch… If you know the length of the table is 8 feet and the actor walks from one end to the other, then you know that he has walked 8 feet. No measuring tape required.
If the tiles on the floor are 1′ x 1′, you can quickly calculate or verify your distances on the fly. You will still want to get final marks for what the camera and actors are supposed to do, but this helps you plan ahead for the times when they do something else, or when the the director and DP decide to “roll on the rehearsal.”
And when things don’t go as planned, but the performance is magical and you save the take with your advanced focus pulling skills, you will be the hero. And you’ll keep getting hired. 🙂
4. Be Proactive.
Don’t wait for the AD to get everybody together for your first rehearsal. Often, you can rehearse on your own!
Always try to watch the blocking and listen to the director and DP (or operator) when they are discussing the scene. Once you have marks for the actors, you can practice the muscle memory for your pull as you play the action back in your head.
If the camera is moving, you can ask the dolly grip and camera op if you guys can get a little rehearsal without talent. If it’s a steadicam shot, either walk the move yourself, as you practice pulling on the RC unit, or ask the op to walk you through his move while you practice. Even if you can’t have the camera up for these “rehearsals,” just stepping through the action in your head, while physically turning the knob on the follow focus will help you prepare. If you need to, ask your 2nd AC to be a stand in.
Between creating the “Tron Grid” in your head, and staging your own mini-rehearsal, you should be way ahead of the game by the time the AD calls for a full rehearsal.
When we say rehearsal is up, you shouldn’t be running your tape out to get marks. Unless something has changed, that should already be done.
5. Pay Attention to the Story!
What? Yes! For all of these logistical preparations, technical details… the calculations and execution… we are still filmmakers shaping a story! Your instincts will set you apart from other focus pullers.
Read the script, listen to the rehearsal (don’t just watch), discuss the emotional/visual priorities of the scene with the DP. If he or she gives you cues for focus, practice them in your head, if not, then use your best, story-based judgement for when to shift focus.
You are directly telling the viewer where to look! It’s all on you!
Additionally, it’s important for you to be in sync with the story and style that the director and DP have created so that you are ready to react to an improv moment, or so you’l know what to do at the end of a shot. Sometimes the shot just dies at the word “cut,” but often there is an opportunity there at the end of a take for a stolen moment, or a transition, either of which could rely on the focus puller to pay attention and know who to follow in the scene, or when to rack focus to that foreground object, or just slowly take the scene out of focus… all based on your observations and dramatic instincts. Get in tune with your DP/operator so that you will know when these opportunities arise.
Everyone on a movie set contributes to the story; as a focus puller you can often have direct impact on how the audience experiences a moment or scene. Paying attention and valuing your story contribution will make you invaluable, and keep you getting hired!
6. Don’t Fuck It Up.
Ha. But seriously, it’s all on you.
Practice. Be proactive. Do all of the things on this list.
Your job is a little unusual, in that if you are doing your job well, no one will notice you in the moment, but if you make a mistake, it’s immediately obvious to everyone.
That’s a tough place to be in, but you have thick skin, a cool head, and higher standards for your work performance than anyone else could place on you. That’s why you chose to be a camera assistant. 🙂 That’s why you are the right man or woman for the job. And that’s why I’m going to keep hiring you. The pressure is high, but you thrive on it. We all do.
We all live for that one moment of magic to show up, and we make it our business to keep the technical stuff rock solid so that when the emotions are right, we can look up and say “we got it.”
Now, don’t fuck it up. 🙂
Best of luck! And let me know how it goes! Subscribe to this blog for email updates!
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