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Pulling wild focus


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 When watching videos of focus-pullers/1st ACs work, a lot of the time their eyes are often not on any monitor. They are on the action—which is technically the “correct” way? (Taking measurements and whatnot). With a camera on sticks and pre-measured marks it’s simple enough I suppose. Guy stands here, talks to some other dude. He moves to his 2nd mark, and you get there with the focus. 

But where I get a little confused, and what I would like to get a glimpse into, is how they do this with more kinetic shots...lots of movement, handheld, some whipping around, etc. And especially with a wider aperture, where it’s not necessarily gauging a distance of one or two feet, but maybe inches. 

Even if they’re pulling using a monitor. Is there a groove or specific nuanced technique to this? 

Any good videos/tutorials/demos on this? YouTube only yields quick how-tos like measuring distance, marking the disk, and the ‘basics’.

Also, somewhat related, I was shooting some stuff yesterday, operating and pulling focus (shouldered). I was at 2.8, I believe. And the subject was in the middle of a circle of people, preaching. As he moved and shifted around (not too animated but like one would if they were telling a really cool story) I could see the focus going a little soft here and there. So I would pull and sometimes over-throw it a tad...then back.

I know a lot of it comes with experience and muscle memory, but I just want to see the actual method...if there is one. 

Thanks guys 

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That’s just the way focus pullers used to work in the days before video cameras and HD monitors. They had to measure focus distance and estimate by eye. There are measurement aids like the ubiquitous Cinetape which gives real-time ultrasonic distance readouts from the camera that could be used as a guide.

Some of the most experienced focus pullers still work this way, since they’ve honed their skill at estimating distance by eye over many years. But I think you’ll find that when shooting with digital cameras, most focus pullers even at the highest levels now work from an HD monitor and use a wireless focus device. 

If you want more specific info about focus pulling by distance measurement, I suggest that you read the threads in the Camera Assistant section of this forum - especially the older topics from about 2004-2010, when this way of working was still the standard. I remember some good discussions we had back then about the merits of pulling by eye versus the monitor. Really, it was the Red One and its successors that changed things. 

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When I pull focus, I pull without monitors. I usually have 2 sometimes 3 marks for reference but honestly, pulling focus is about feeling the move and pulling at the same speed. When you work with different set of lenses, each has its own feel to them in terms of travel etc. It is always good to get a good feel of the lenses you work with during prep so your hands sort of get accustomed to its feel. 3 fingers on the focus wheel is good too for shots like getting wild random stuff - pov shots for example. I space my fingers accordingly so when I turn the wheel and if I landed my middle finger at 12 o"clock position for example, it would be at my x mark vs index finger at 12 o'clock position at my y mark etc. This way you can snap back and forth between different targets easier. Also, you get used to estimating distances. I use my arms too. If open my arms, that's 6ft. From the middle of my chest to my finger tip is 3ft. Arms is good for really quick, on the spot estimation. Of course, these are some of my preferences. Some may find it absurd or great. I hope I made some sense.

Edited by Giray Izcan
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Here’s an old thread from 2008 about one of my first jobs pulling focus from a monitor: 

I was taught how to pull focus on film with eye marks, floor marks, numbers on the lens, and a tape measure. But once out of school, most of the jobs in my local market were 2/3” video, then later digital single chip cameras. So I guess I was ahead of the curve a bit. I developed a hybrid approach trying to use the best of both styles. I think pulling focus via monitor is essentially the same experience as pulling your own focus thru the viewfinder. It’s a totally different skill than standing next to the camera and pulling focus thru marks and intuition.

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Basically it was a nightmare .. sleepless nights and anxious calls to the labs .. it was a FP back in the day for Barry Ackroyd BSC for a few years .. moving up from loader ..  almost everything hand held ..   16mm is alot easier but 35mm long lens ! ..sometimes you literally had to go with some gut feeling but like any job you get "better" at it over time ..also it doesn't have to be pin sharp all the time on a move, sometimes looks better not.. but when they stop it has to be sharp..  the only good thing about it was to realize being an operator was by far the easier job.. and move up ASAP 🙂 .. before a nervous breakdown .. I read that Clint Eastwood actually changed a films schedule to get one focus puller he always used .. the most under appreciated person on set basically ..  look at a film like 1917.. that focus puller .. he made the whole thing possible..  mind blowing .. balls of steel .. 

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1 hour ago, Robin R Probyn said:

look at a film like 1917.. that focus puller .. he made the whole thing possible..  mind blowing .. balls of steel .. 

1917 was extremely impressive technically, but I don’t know that the focus puller had an especially hard time of it. It was all shot on a fairly wide lens (40mm FF, 28mm equivalent s35mm) and I believe Deakins likes to shoot day exteriors at quite a deep stop. Of course, long takes and a constantly moving camera require a lot of concentration from an focus puller, but I think pulling focus on something like Joker would be more challenging.

Full disclosure: I hated focus pulling, and couldn’t get out of it fast enough...

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When I first moved to LA, I worked quite a few jobs with a 1st AC called Tony Magaletta. He was kind of old school, and insisted on measuring every distance with his tape. Younger ACs used to make fun of him for it, preferring to wing it off the monitor. The difference between them was that his first take would be near perfect, and theirs would be virtually unusable.

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33 minutes ago, Stuart Brereton said:

1917 was extremely impressive technically, but I don’t know that the focus puller had an especially hard time of it. It was all shot on a fairly wide lens (40mm FF, 28mm equivalent s35mm) and I believe Deakins likes to shoot day exteriors at quite a deep stop. Of course, long takes and a constantly moving camera require a lot of concentration from an focus puller, but I think pulling focus on something like Joker would be more challenging.

Full disclosure: I hated focus pulling, and couldn’t get out of it fast enough...

.Yeah but the very long takes .. being far from the actual camera .. or stumbling along next to it.. and keeping out of shot !  .. one mistake and the whole thing has to be done all over again .. that takes bolas de acero..  a massive reset for your "mistake" .. the actors and the operator all having to do the those massive scenes again.. I think that pressure is more than the depth of field aspect..  but yes Joker was unbelievable too...  its the devils work that only a few people can really excel at ... 

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Thanks for the feedback guys. I really appreciate it. 

I would’ve gone to the camera assistance section, but I didn’t want to post the question there. I’m self taught, and pretty new, so I wanted to kind of stay in my lane here. 

So my take away here is

1) It’s pretty much the norm (to the dismay of purists maybe?) to use monitors. Which I get. Either way, when the subject is moving it still seems like you’d be chasing focus—as I mentioned in the original post...handheld kinetic shots, aperture wide open, etc. where pre marked spots don’t really mean much when the dof is more shallow. 
 

2) it’s ok if the focus isn’t tack sharp with every move. As long as it’s on point when they land.
 

3) 1917 was, in fact, a cinematic and technical masterpiece and the focus pullers have balls of steel. I couldn’t shut up about that movie for like a week. I watched it twice, pretty much back to back. I don’t care if critics call it gimmicky. 

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1 hour ago, Stuart Brereton said:

I wouldn't stake your career on that. I know plenty of directors who will go again for even a slight buzz on a move.

Yeah thats true .. probably  I was lucky Barry Ackroyd and the directors he worked for, actively didn't want sharp focus at all times like a machine..  that would make them go again .. the advantage of being a shite FP.. 🙂   I was sometimes told to rack past and back on purpose ..  or he would physically move to achieve it..  of course its a style he's known for.. but it certainly wasn't a job I wanted to do for long with other DoP,s either..  and got out to operate asap..  

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I agree with the other lads, it's all about practice when it comes down to it. Focus pulling is also a very stressful job because it's one of the few camera related jobs that's very easy to mess up. A skilled focus puller is worth their weight in gold, especially one who doesn't need a monitor, which I think it's the most skilled of them all. 

I will say for the record, digital cinema has made focus pulling easier for sure, but it has not changed the skills required to do it properly. 

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12 hours ago, Stuart Brereton said:

1917 was extremely impressive technically, but I don’t know that the focus puller had an especially hard time of it. It was all shot on a fairly wide lens (40mm FF, 28mm equivalent s35mm) and I believe Deakins likes to shoot day exteriors at quite a deep stop. Of course, long takes and a constantly moving camera require a lot of concentration from an focus puller, but I think pulling focus on something like Joker would be more challenging.

Full disclosure: I hated focus pulling, and couldn’t get out of it fast enough...

Personally, I always found pulling focus on a constantly moving camera like a crane, Steadicam, vehicle rig, etc. to be the most challenging regardless of focal length and stop, simply because there are very few reference marks you can rely on. I always thought the 10-25’ distance was deceptively difficult, as it was easier for me to accurately judge distance at closer range. Of course you do have DoF on your side at those distances. 

Combine that with the physicality of walking or running alongside the operator and boom op on uneven ground, ducking around to keep out of the shot take after take, day after day, that would be a formidable challenge for any focus puller I think. Glad I don’t do it anymore. 

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4 hours ago, Tyler Purcell said:

I agree with the other lads, it's all about practice when it comes down to it. Focus pulling is also a very stressful job because it's one of the few camera related jobs that's very easy to mess up. A skilled focus puller is worth their weight in gold, especially one who doesn't need a monitor, which I think it's the most skilled of them all. 

I will say for the record, digital cinema has made focus pulling easier for sure, but it has not changed the skills required to do it properly. 

It depends... Sure, there are more tools to make sure the focus is on with focus assist etc but also HD seems to be either in focus or out. I think there should be a different circle of confusion for video. The acceptable focus range doesn't translate well to HD. 

Edited by Giray Izcan
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8 hours ago, Satsuki Murashige said:

Personally, I always found pulling focus on a constantly moving camera like a crane, Steadicam, vehicle rig, etc. to be the most challenging regardless of focal length and stop, simply because there are very few reference marks you can rely on. I always thought the 10-25’ distance was deceptively difficult, as it was easier for me to accurately judge distance at closer range. Of course you do have DoF on your side at those distances. 

Combine that with the physicality of walking or running alongside the operator and boom op on uneven ground, ducking around to keep out of the shot take after take, day after day, that would be a formidable challenge for any focus puller I think. Glad I don’t do it anymore. 

I’m not suggesting that it was easy. Focus pulling is a hard job, even on apparently easy setups. I’m saying that I think the challenges on 1917 were probably less to do with actual focus, and more with logistics and coordination.

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I’ve always thought of focus pulling as a kind of athletic ability. There’s a lot of hand-eye coordination involved that some people are just better at than others no matter how much or how little they practice.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the best focus pullers out there are also pretty good pool players.😊

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20 hours ago, Giray Izcan said:

It depends... Sure, there are more tools to make sure the focus is on with focus assist etc but also HD seems to be either in focus or out. I think there should be a different circle of confusion for video. The acceptable focus range doesn't translate well to HD. 

IDK I find focusing on digital cameras MUCH easier than film cameras. Remember, the operator is pretty useless on a motion picture camera because the shutter drops the brightness of the viewfinder substantially and being able to tell something is in focus or not, can be challenging through the viewfinder when the camera is running. With digital, you can tell if something is right immediately, which makes it much easier. With film ya never truly know. 

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10 hours ago, Tyler Purcell said:

IDK I find focusing on digital cameras MUCH easier than film cameras. Remember, the operator is pretty useless on a motion picture camera because the shutter drops the brightness of the viewfinder substantially and being able to tell something is in focus or not, can be challenging through the viewfinder when the camera is running. With digital, you can tell if something is right immediately, which makes it much easier. With film ya never truly know. 

Isn't that a pretty big draw back to using a film camera then..  " ya never truly know"  if its in focus as an operator ..  !!!  .  how can you shoot a documentary .. you need a focus puller working on the fly at all times next to you..   but a digital camera you can tell immediately...  if that job was paying my divorce settlements ,I think the Digital camera would avoid me getting sacked after the first rushes are viewed .. or is being able to tell if a shot is in focus a negative (see what I did there ).. in a camera .. Im confused ..

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11 hours ago, Tyler Purcell said:

Remember, the operator is pretty useless on a motion picture camera because the shutter drops the brightness of the viewfinder substantially and being able to tell something is in focus or not, can be challenging through the viewfinder when the camera is running. With digital, you can tell if something is right immediately, which makes it much easier. With film ya never truly know. 

The camera operator is the ONLY person who knows if it was sharp. Operators used to get fired for not calling out the buzzes when they saw them. Saying “you never truly know” wasn’t an option. It was their job to know.

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13 hours ago, Stuart Brereton said:

The camera operator is the ONLY person who knows if it was sharp. Operators used to get fired for not calling out the buzzes when they saw them. Saying “you never truly know” wasn’t an option. It was their job to know.

Nobody is saying otherwise. I'm merely pointing out that working with a film camera, especially when stopped down, is a bit tricker because you really never know what the focus is once the mirror starts spinning. Sure you can see the ballpark, but no way can you tell the type of perfect/crisp focus through the viewfinder that you can on a digital camera. Focus assist (focus peaking) and extremely bright/crisp digital viewfinders, have entirely changed the way focus is done. This is partially why the Panavision XL2 with HD tap and digital viewfinder is so nice and impressive. I don't know if you've had a chance to mess with it, but it's a game changer in my opinion. 

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10 minutes ago, Tyler Purcell said:

Nobody is saying otherwise. 

Actually, you said otherwise. You said the operator was useless.

12 minutes ago, Tyler Purcell said:

working with a film camera, especially when stopped down, is a bit tricker because you really never know what the focus is once the mirror starts spinning. Sure you can see the ballpark, but no way can you tell the type of perfect/crisp focus through the viewfinder that you can on a digital camera. 

I’m not talking about digital cameras. Anyone within 6 feet of a monitor can tell whether they are sharp. I’m talking about film cameras. The operator was literally the only person on set with a good enough view to see focus, and it was their job to call buzzes if they happened. A focus puller could get fired for bad focus, but so could the operator if they didn’t speak up. No excuses about ‘never truly knowing’, it was their responsibility.

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14 hours ago, Robin R Probyn said:

Isn't that a pretty big draw back to using a film camera then..

It means ya gotta be very careful with your stop and measuring. It makes the act of shooting more challenging. 

14 hours ago, Robin R Probyn said:

how can you shoot a documentary

With 16mm (what people use to shoot documentaries) you have much less of a problem. I've been shooting doc's non-stop with my 16mm package for 4 years now and sure, my focus is soft on some run and gun stuff, where I'm literally running with the camera OR using it on Steadicam tracking someone fast, but the bulk/majority is sharp as a tack. 16mm is WAY more forgiving than 35mm especially when using wide-angle lenses. 

14 hours ago, Robin R Probyn said:

but a digital camera you can tell immediately

Yep, for sure and it's one of a myriad of reasons why the television and documentary industry moved away from film so fast. It wasn't about quality or longevity it was about cost and instant results. 

14 hours ago, Robin R Probyn said:

I think the Digital camera would avoid me getting sacked after the first rushes are viewed


I was recently on a show where that happened. I was brought on as a loader with my package, so I wasn't part of the AC or DP crew. I never got to verify the focus through the lens and the AC's used the wrong witness mark guide on the lens, even after I explained the right ones to them a few times. It really pissed me off because had I been operating, I would have insured it was perfect since the focus never changed from start to stop. 

I do get soft focus quite a bit when shooting personal 35mm projects that don't really matter. It's my own damn fault for pushing shallow depth of field (all the way open) in settings where I have shitty glass,  no crew and am very rushed for time. I love being able to experiment without the financial burden over my shoulder and with film, a lot of people don't mind soft focus I guess. I for one am not a fan of soft focus. 

 

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9 minutes ago, Stuart Brereton said:

Actually, you said otherwise. You said the operator was useless.

Yea they are pretty useless, but you're accurate in saying they are the only person who truly knows. But do they really know? 

If you're dealing with a tracking shot that's wide open and you're shooting in low light, do you really know if the middle of the shot is in focus? Not really... you know the head and tail are because you can check those two, but do you REALLY know the middle is? Not really. So yea, the person looking through the camera, really doesn't know in that situation, which is by the way, a lot of filmmaking. Shit happens when the camera rolls; an actor changes their relative position to the camera just a tiny bit for instance. I've had that happen so many times in my life, when actors "start" acting, they shift and if you're going for a shallow depth of field look, especially with longer lenses and in situations you're running as open as you can get, it's tricky. 

You know these things, so I have no idea why you're trying to fight me on them. 

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8 hours ago, Tyler Purcell said:

Yea they are pretty useless, but you're accurate in saying they are the only person who truly knows. 

This is nonsensical.

8 hours ago, Tyler Purcell said:

You know these things, so I have no idea why you're trying to fight me on them. 

Please don’t presume to tell me what I know or don’t know. I’m disagreeing with you because your assertion that an operator cannot see accurate focus is wrong.  Before high def video assists were available the operator was relied upon to see focus. It was as much a part of their job as composition and framing. Did they spot every buzz? No, of course not, but they most certainly were not ‘useless’. Perhaps you find it hard to see focus, but that doesn’t mean that professional operators suffer from the same problem.

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