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Alejandro Gonzalez

How to keep Focus

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As I watch movies I notice how the camera keeps it focus on an actor as he moves from one position to the other, moving closer/further and left to right and the camera keeps focus on the subject. I notice its a little off sometimes. On some movies it looks like the focus was way off but the shot was so vital that i guess they had to leave it in.

 

Anyway, my question is how is this done??? Is it done manually? Or does the camera auto-focus? Film cameras and digital alike.

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Done manually, generally by someone called a Focus Puller/ 1st Assistant Camera, either with a follow focus (a geared mechanism allowing them to move the lens focus without their hand touching the lens) or a Wireless Follow Focus (same idea but not they don't have to right next to the camera grabbing this geared mechanism; but it's done with a wireless control and motors)

 

There are no Autofocus film camera which I am aware of.

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And it takes years for these guys to get good at this job. Unsung heroes who only get noticed when they do a bad job. Especially with the popularity of shallow dof and handheld.

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For the last couple of years I've been practicing with a 5D and 50mm & 80mm manual lenses. I also try to practice whenever our Steadicam guys practice. It's been quite honestly the hardest thing I have ever tried to learn. I think the hardest part has been trying to not get discouraged. Not being able to afford to own the FF gear, I have to fit my practice time into a regular production schedule at work. I have to find a way to make time for practice between my regular duties. I don't know if I'll ever get beyond mediocre at it because I think it's very much a God given talent, but it won't be for not trying.

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Guest AndreaAltgayer

Do you work in TV or film? It also depends on what model camera you're working with.Most digital cameras have anautofocus function, which needless to say makes things easier. I work in a TV studio environment, so I'm not sure if you will find this helpful, but I'll give it a shot.Unfortunately the cameras that we use don't have autofocuses, and our presenters often get up from their desk to do stock market updates on the videowall. In our viewfinders, our focus point is expressed as a number on the top right corner, which helps a lot!:)I get my focus points before I go live, and then I pull focus as the presenter moves along. On my camera I have found that the distance from my camera to the presenter's ending position on the videowall is exactly the same as the distance from my camera to the position at the desk. The more I think about my approach, the more it reminds me of my old focus pulling days on film sets!:))Whether you work in film or TV, the humble measuring tape is your saviour!:) I'm looking forward to hearing other people's responses, especally the steadicam operators!

I'll try to get back to you later about the principles of focus puling for film. I didn't go to film school, I learnt on the job, so there's a lot of stuff that I know, but struggle to explain.

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Sadly, I haven’t had the pleasure of working with film since the early eighties as the industrial film community went to video. At my current job we use HPX2700 Panasonics as our main cameras and augment those with a Canon 5DII with Zeiss manual hard lenses. Our focus pulling is done wirelessly. Auto focus isn’t available for either obviously, and wouldn’t be of much help anyway as our focus points are rarely the closest thing to the camera. We just recently added a sonotape(??) device that does speed things up when working with the Steadicam operators, but for the most part it’s just a matter of guesstimation and constant practice. We predominantly shoot WFO for paper thin DOF, and 90% of what we do is on location in environments where we can’t stop the work being done. It’s been a very humbling experience, but extremely satisfying. As I previously stated, I’ll probably never have big league, feature film abilities but I try to get better every chance I get.

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Hi Alejandro,

I'm a focus puller in the industry, and can tell you a few basics. During rehearsals (if we get a rehearsal anymore), we take measurements of where the camera is in relation to the marks that the actor hits. It's a choreography if you will. As the actor and camera moves through the set from mark to mark, we have measured each of those distances to know in relation, where the subject is from the focal plane of the camera, using a follow focus or wireless FIZ (Focus Iris Zoom) controller to match those distances on the lens. We have an onboard monitor that allows us to see what the operator is pointing at, at any given time, and must make minor adjustments to the best of our ability to compensate for an actor or camera op, missing a mark.

Anymore though, with the onslaught of the digital revolution, we are not given rehearsals as much because a lot of young DP's, directors, and producers don't understand how focus works, and we are expected to pull off the monitor because so many 1st AC's now pull off the monitor. There's this myth that we don't need a rehearsal or marks anymore with pulling from the monitor, which is completely false. This usually leads to the first take having a few buzzes here and there, especially if the 1st hasn't had a ton of experience pulling off the monitor. More experienced DP's will make sure we still have our marks before allowing the scene to roll, especially on longer lenses. For those of you in the video game generation, monitor pulling becomes much of the same eye-hand coordination that you use when playing your favorite video game. Knowing where you are on the lens, either with the follow focus or FIZ, becomes muscle memory after awhile, and getting a feel for the movements and distances becomes second nature. On larger shows, there has been times when I'm not even in the room of the camera. I will sit in the next room at a 17" full 1080 OLED monitor (full 1080 is important, because there is no degradation of the image, and allows us to see full sharpness) and wireless Preston FIZ. Before that can happen though, I still go in and take measurements of the room and grid it out. Measuring the size of the room, and objects in the room such as a couch or table or counter, help to give spatial awareness and make sure you don't pull to 15' when it's really only 12' away, etc. Also with HD, critical focus is so much more apparent, and the roll off of the depth of field is substantially more noticeable than on film. It's either in focus or soft. There is no "kind of sharp" anymore that you could get away with occasionally on film.

One problem that many people experience is not using proper cinematic lenses with good, clear, witness marks. This can screw over even the most talented of 1st AC's. I've turned down jobs because they were using canon still lenses before (the barrels continuously spin with no hard marks). In that situation, there is no way for me to guarantee focus to someone, and it makes me look like a terrible AC if everything is in and out of focus. I would rather turn down the job, than not be able to deliver quality, in focus images. People know you by your work in this industry, and the last thing you want is a show you worked on, playing in a theater, and half the movie is soft, followed by your name in the credits.

Hiring a good 1st AC is critical in the digital world of cinema. We are usually one of the least noticed and hardest working people on set, as we rarely get to leave the camera, and are responsible for knowing everything about how the cameras works, how to fix it, as well keeping the image sharp. A good 1st can save you missing that critical take where the performance was incredible, but you missed it because it was soft, or even get the camera back up and running ASAP after it has had an issue (though some glitches and failures are not repairable on set). We may not get the credit and fame of cinematographers and directors, but we are an important part of the filmmaking process. Visually, you'll only know we are there if it's out of focus, which if we are good, should rarely happen.

 

Keep Focused,

Joshua R. Turner

1st AC - IATSE Local 600

Edited by Joshua Turner
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If you dont have a focus puller, couldnt you open up the aperture all the way so you have a deep depth of field, or shoot wide? I mean it would work for some shots but not the tracking ones.

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You have that reversed. The more open the aperature, the less the DoF. Backing up and going to a wider lens will also give you more DoF but then you loose your shot. And with Aperature closed down you start loosing the visual details you may or may not want in your scene, or introducing noise if you're just upping the ASA.

There is no free lunch.

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You have that reversed. The more open the aperature, the less the DoF. Backing up and going to a wider lens will also give you more DoF but then you loose your shot. And with Aperature closed down you start loosing the visual details you may or may not want in your scene, or introducing noise if you're just upping the ASA.

There is no free lunch.

 

your right i did have it backwards.

 

but i see what you mean.

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Hi Alejandro,

I'm a focus puller in the industry, ...

 

We may not get the credit and fame of cinematographers and directors, but we are an important part of the filmmaking process. Visually, you'll only know we are there if it's out of focus, which if we are good, should rarely happen.

 

Keep Focused,

Joshua R. Turner

1st AC - IATSE Local 600

 

Thanks for the excellent explanation and history of current developments . Do you or anyone know what is the current union rate for a 1st AC ?

 

I mean someone willing to work at the basic rate, not someone with a rep who is able to command more. Although of course maybe you can't get a union person for the basic rate...

 

TIA

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Hi Alejandro,

One problem that many people experience is not using proper cinematic lenses with good, clear, witness marks. This can screw over even the most talented of 1st AC's. I've turned down jobs because they were using canon still lenses before (the barrels continuously spin with no hard marks). In that situation, there is no way for me to guarantee focus to someone, and it makes me look like a terrible AC if everything is in and out of focus. I would rather turn down the job, than not be able to deliver quality, in focus images. People know you by your work in this industry, and the last thing you want is a show you worked on, playing in a theater, and half the movie is soft, followed by your name in the credits.

 

 

Wow! That is the absolute truth Joshua! I have been a focus puller for many years and I recently found myself in that exact position with non-cinematic lenses. The DP insisted on using Canon K35 lenses on the upcoming David O. Russell movie, "American Hustle" where the entire picture was shot on steadicam. Thus, I lived on the Preston. These vintage lenses were deemed artistically appropriate to photograph a period piece story. The K35s would never return to a mark if the barrel would even respond to the Preston's commands. It was an all out disaster! We finally switched to Zeiss High Speed primes (we shot at a T2) and the results were vastly improved. But that was only after some unfortunate footage was committed to the movie. I found myself fighting to protect the integrity of my profession as well the interests of the production itself. It was a classic example of ideological artistic thinking vs. the practical application of proper technology. As 1st ACs, we are not in the business of dictating policy to the cinematographer but we do hold a responsibility to deliver excellent quality images that we get paid well for.

 

G

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Working as a freelance cinematographer/dop, I had to learn how to properly pull focus on video. I noticed that I'm better at it during lowlight because I can easily distinguish whether a shot is in focus or not rather than during daytime. I'm in nowhere near perect in focus pulling, I am actually planning on buying a better follow focus system to make my life easier because some follow focus systems just don't work properly. It does take time to practice, and I'd rather learn it than have a second focus puller unless necessary for a shot that requires two person to operate.

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And it takes years for these guys to get good at this job. Unsung heroes who only get noticed when they do a bad job. Especially with the popularity of shallow dof and handheld.

 

I don't think it is that difficult. I found it one of the easier things to learn and do. The point that is neglected is the responsiblity of the DOP to light at a level which gives a working depth of field. I cannot understand how the industry has tolerated such a high procentage of soft shots. It must be the major technical fault in movies. Failure to view rushes projected being one of the major reasons.

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Unless the director and producers want to go for a super shallow DoF Look. which is quite envogue. Or they don't have the money or the time or the power to light to a higher level. Or the DoP just wants razor thin DoF. I would argue it is the responsibility of the 1AC to work with what the DoP can give them to come to the look which production wants. Does it make sense all the time? No, of course not--- but often there are things, well beyond one's pay grade to consider.

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You have that reversed. The more open the aperature, the less the DoF. Backing up and going to a wider lens will also give you more DoF but then you loose your shot. And with Aperature closed down you start loosing the visual details you may or may not want in your scene, or introducing noise if you're just upping the ASA.

There is no free lunch.

And God knows, Camera men will always take a free lunch if offered.

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wow, this was a great thread. I loved the advice on rehearsals and blocking and stuff, autofocus vs manual, lighting I have a Bell and Howell 2709 with original lenses and will be using all the old manual stuff later this year minus a FF. So I will have to block/ rehearse and use focus tape on the lenses.. stuff like that. Great input from experienced cameramen though. Awesome. ( Bell and Howell 2709/ Arri BL16/ JVC Evario/Bell and Howell 70DR)

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Unless the director and producers want to go for a super shallow DoF Look. which is quite envogue. Or they don't have the money or the time or the power to light to a higher level. Or the DoP just wants razor thin DoF. I would argue it is the responsibility of the 1AC to work with what the DoP can give them to come to the look which production wants. Does it make sense all the time? No, of course not--- but often there are things, well beyond one's pay grade to consider.

A good 1st loves the thrill, simple as that. If he or she whines, well, he or she is no good and should stop using an undeserved job title.

 

BTW, an 18mm at T2.8 is dull. To me, it's where an S4 mini shows it simply doesn't cut it.

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Guest Jackson Blake

I am in great admiration of the Focus Puller! Must be akin to the Zen archer who has perfected his craft.

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Technology is out there using RFID tracking or range finding. I know Redrock Micro has been developing a technology based on some of the sensors they are using for self driving cars that recognizes people in the scene and will auto focus pull for that target, and you can switch targets. You can read more about it here, but no I don't think any high level cinema cameras will have auto-focus built in any time soon.

 

http://store.redrockmicro.com/halo.html

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This might sound utterly, hopelessly clueless, but I just had to ask: Will there ever be a film (movie) camera with autofocus capabilities? Or perhaps it already exists? :ph34r:

When considering theatrical release films or television, one would not want auto focus since the focus is a story telling mechanism. It requires a manual touch in order to make creative choices on where the focus is played instead of simply what's in front of the lens.

 

G

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This might sound utterly, hopelessly clueless, but I just had to ask: Will there ever be a film (movie) camera with autofocus capabilities? Or perhaps it already exists? :ph34r:

 

c300 mk ii is definitely a cinema camera and its have an autofocus. still in cinema there will be a focus puller but as the technology will be advanced it would be used more especially in the indie film industry and low budget film.

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Im not sure... could be useful on a crane wide shot etc.. but fundamentally auto is that... its automatic.. it cant make artistic choices.. how does it know where you want to focus and then do you want to change that focus.. no doubt you could probably program that all in .. in some time consuming, laborious way.. but then why not just have a focus puller.. its a handy thing to have and if the technology can do it.. sure have it in the menu.. but it will never take the place of doing it manually.. because it cant make decisions for itself..

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