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Vince Sweeney

Buzzed focus on big movies. AC, or tech issue?

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For the pro AC's on the forum:

 

When I see a well budgeted movie, the last one of which was First Man, I often see buzzed focus and wonder how often it's the fault of the AC, or is it usually a tech issue? And if so, is it that common for new lenses to get messed up internally? This hasn't been my experience with even older or converted lenses so I'm confused as to why I see screwed up shots.

 

I loved the cinematography in that film and think it's the best of the year, but there were a more than a few shots where the focus was 100% clearly off the mark, and a couple of those were static or mostly static wides and mediums where it seems there'd be no excuses for it, and there'd certainly be no creative reason to make those particular ones out of focus. An AC couldn't screw something like that up, right? ..so are issues on those shots usually a lens that has a mechanical issue or.... what? One of them on Ryan Gosling inside a NASA hallway was very wide and from a good distance and it was way off. I'd think it would be an infinity setting on the lens and be real simple to focus, but something went wrong.

 

And I understand the tighter shots, wide open, and with movement have much more complex focus issues but this is not what I'm talk about, although even those should be mostly spot-on given the amazing focus-assist resources they have.

 

Interstellar is another one that comes to mind where there were a few screwed shots that were obvious on an IMAX screen. With all the money, top level gear, lenses, as much light as needed and great talents and carefully selected union crew, how do shots still get out of focus?

 

I've done indie films in the past where this happens just a few times at most, if barely at all, and we might have had $100K for the whole movie, a very basic set of SS primes and a AC with only a few years experience. It appears our ratio of in-focus shots is better than many big films. How is that possible? Are we just more scared of getting anything wrong on our fragile, small movie, and take more care? I find that hard to believe.

 

I'm well aware that final edits are often filled with the worst takes on a technical level, but even then, some of those shots had no excuse for buzzed focus in the first place.

Edited by Vince Sweeney

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Not seeing it. Lots of variables on how that might be worded. Maybe its time it get discussed by some pro AC's anyway. Something is really wrong out there and some blunt feedback on where the fault really lay is important.

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I saw the film last weekend and noticed the focus issues as well. After a few of them went by, I decided it was part of the "documentary" style. It's possible the camera operators were pulling their own focus just to get these effects as realistically as possible.

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It happens a lot. People aren't machines. It happens more when people want to shoot with minimal planning, which happens for both good and bad reasons.

 

The technology now exists to allow a computer to locate a finger or cursor on a screen and have the camera track that point of focus with absolutely inhuman precision, at least within reasonably short ranges. Various technological approaches exist. It probably wouldn't be appropriate for everything, but at some point this will be realised, the politics will fall away, and a lot of focus will be automated.

 

Sorry, folks, but it's true.

 

P

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It happens more on film originated projects, purely because it's much harder to see focus from a tiny video assist than it is from a large HD monitor. When you factor in wide apertures and tight schedules, it's inevitable that mistakes happen, even on the biggest movies.

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I understand those points; I'm not new at this. (Where are the pro AC's, who will have better answers?) ;)

 

I mentioned the editor thing... Regardless if an editor didn't choose the best shot, why are so many hes working with out of focus anyway? Why have the half dozen or so indie films I've worked on barely had major focus issues, especially given that we had 1/100th the resources they have? Yes maybe those projects had a ton of other issues with quality in other areas, like many small films do, but focus wasn't usually one of them. Only once can I recall having a night-time 16mm scene with unexplained focus problems that rendered the two shots useless, but the AC on that shoot was fresh out of school and we had lenses and a camera that were about my age. The other 20+ days of dailies had barely any problems I can recall and we had no assist system of any kind, no fancy Panavision testing/check out area, no modern lenses, faded barrel marks and not even a 2nd AC to help out.

 

After you've worked the trenches for many years, it's hard to agree there's an excuse for a multi-million dollar film to have a locked off wide or even a medium shot that is clearly off the mark, and it makes me believe I'm missing something else that doesn't get reported much. I think there's very few people here who've been involved at the level of movie's I'm talking about and dealt with problems like those so answers may not be of much value until one of these few AC's speaks up about some experiences.

 

It can't have been a soft lens on that particular First Man example, unless it was defective, because it was way too soft compared to all the rest of the film. That answer would have me believe they had one lens they used for one shot that was really soft. But even then, wouldn't that have showed up in their lens testing? In that case there seems to be two possibilities. The AC screwed up and almost set it to infinity and walked away without checking, or there are cases of lenses having mechanical issues that aren't well known except by rental houses. Maybe someone that works in lens service at a rental house would best answer this.

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I don't see what a "Pro AC" is going to tell you that other people can't. Mistakes happen. Sometimes it's a performance thing. Other times, rarely, it's an artistic choice. There are any number of reasons why.

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.. Why have the half dozen or so indie films I've worked on barely had major focus issues, especially given that we had 1/100th the resources they have? Yes maybe those projects had a ton of other issues with quality in other areas, like many small films do, but focus wasn't usually one of them.

 

Were any of those movies shot on 35mm, or anamorphic? Did you shoot at T1.4 much? Any IMAX or 65mm sequences?

 

After you've worked the trenches for many years, it's hard to agree there's an excuse for a multi-million dollar film to have a locked off wide or even a medium shot that is clearly off the mark, and it makes me believe I'm missing something else that doesn't get reported much. I think there's very few people here who've been involved at the level of movie's I'm talking about and dealt with problems like those so answers may not be of much value until one of these few AC's speaks up about some experiences.

 

You have no idea what the individual circumstances of a particular shoot might have been, what unrealistic demands a director may have made, what time restraints there were, whether actors missed marks or moved unexpectedly, what the technical limitations were, how many takes were done and which were chosen. Rather than finding it hard to find an excuse for their apparent failures like yourself, after 22 years in this industry my respect for the job an AC pulls off has only grown.

 

Try reading through some of the previous threads I linked to if you only want to hear from "pro ACs".

 

I work as a lens tech, so I see lens issues every day, but most get picked up before filming begins. If an issue occurs on set, it usually gets resolved pretty fast. Sometimes the mechanics of vintage lenses aren't up to the challenge of modern filmmaking styles, so that can play a role, though more and more are being re-housed now. Sometimes lenses develop wear or get knocked in transit during a shoot. I recently had an Angenieux 24-290 on my bench that had developed a tiny bit of backlash after a month on a feature. It hadn't been an issue until they started using it wide open at the long end with a doubler (so 580mm) following actors running around 90 feet away. I fixed it the next day, but those are the things ACs sometimes face.

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I've worked with enough "pro AC's" to know all the reasons for soft shots in movies... Clearly no matter how many reasons we list, you want to hear something else, maybe like "every soft shot was deliberately soft because no one makes mistakes on big movies" or "the director had a gun to my head and forced me to make the shot soft", etc. What exactly are you hoping to hear?

 

Shots are soft because the focus is off or because the lens at a certain aperture with a certain filter on a certain format does not lend optimal results optically. There can be other problems like an element getting loose over time, a mount that is out of calibration, etc. I had an exterior wide shot at a deep stop that was soft and by the next take, rotating the focus barrel wasn't changing the focus at all, something had broken inside the lens. But this problem took time to become obvious, I'm sure the day before we were probably doing extra takes for missed focus when the problem was actually the lens.

 

And weather / temperature can affect performance of a lens -- look at the problems that "The Revenant" had to solve.

 

The main reason is that people make mistakes! Why do they make mistakes? Maybe they are put into a position where it is difficult to NOT make mistakes, like shooting on long lenses at wide apertures on handheld cameras with no fixed marks for the actors. And maybe the director and DP have deliberately created that scenario either for a rougher semi-documentary look or because they feel that is the best way to capture performance free of needing to hit marks or stand in the right light or even rehearse a shot.

 

The bigger the budget doesn't always mean there is more time and care out into the making of every camera set-up. Some of these big-budget directors are still trying to crank out fifty or sixty set-ups a day even if they have 100 days of production!

 

There's a whole single-shot scene in "Breaking the Waves" that is completely soft because the remote focus stopped working at the start of the scene but that was the take that the director wanted.

 

Greg Irwin, who was the 1st AC on "Interstellar" has been on this forum and mentioned that close-up of Michael Caine in the hospital bed that is soft because the dolly pushed in slightly beyond minimum focus of the lens. And I believe the director was informed that this happened after the take was over but that was the performance he wanted.

 

He also posted about the focus problems on "American Hustle" because the Canon K35's wouldn't return to the same spot on the remote focus when calibrating, so eventually they had to switch to Super-Speeds. But that doesn't stop people from using K35's on remote focus devices.

 

You test in prep for things but it isn't possible to test for every shooting scenario and equipment does breakdown over time.

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That last paragraph is all that was really needed, the rest was useless. You assume I didn't read the other posts when I have. You also come across as having an attitude by asking me if I shot IMAX and 35mm anamorphic, T1.4 stops, etc.. Yep, done all of that except for 65mm, and I own a pro 35mm film camera kit, and a S35mm sized digital kit, and have done 1000's of shots on numerous projects over the last 12 years, starting with my own 16mm Aaton kit, and worked with AC's and alone many times. You assume I don't know how hard focus is. Wrong. What's your point Dom? Is this thread just going to be some ego thing now? An "I know it all and you don't get it" kinda thing?

 

You and others also didn't seem to read my repeated example of a wide shot that was locked off and was buzzed. None of your redundant examples have a thing to do with that kind of shot being screwed up. No time restraint matters there, no marks needed, no reason for any take to be out on a set-up like that. Again, no excuse for that being soft other than a technical lens issue, which is the focus of my posting here, OR someone needs to be fired. Simple as that. Not sure what else I'm missing other than more redundant answers from people not in the position responsible for doing that job on those kinds of movies.

 

Or maybe since I've recently spent time on 3 feature docs doing 1000's of shots where you have to move and shoot all day long and land workable shots on the fly with no planning or help, until you can barely move your arm, I have an even harder time understanding how the enormous resources of studio sets who employ people who's job it is to land focus perfectly, could get much wrong. Maybe this thread needs to be shut down before more people who have nothing to do with being an AC on big sets chimes in. I mean seriously, what good does it do?

 

Edit: My post was made while David posted and I didn't get to see his reply before posting to Dom's post. Done.

Edited by Vince Sweeney
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Different question: Is it common for some commonly used professional spherical lenses (maybe a certain brand?) to get out of synch with it's marks, and is this a possible more common reason for general focus issues, as opposed to an AC being "rushed" or ...whatever?

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Vince I think the pro AC,s dont have time to answer questions with no answer .. .. its like asking why do some big time actors miss their marks.. why does the director want to do another take when that one was perfect.. big budget has sweet FA to do with it.. you think Bourne movies are small budget.. .. do you go to every film and sit there looking at the focus and checking sound modulation .. relax man.. enjoy the film..

Edited by Robin R Probyn
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To be fair there was quite a lot of buzzed stuff in First Man, even on the 16mm stuff.

 

I think there is a question to be asked when these huge movies have repeated focus problems. If you're First Man, you're shooting 16mm, it's a straightforward interior, you have practically infinite amounts of every possible resource - get it right.

 

It's irritating that excuses are sometimes made for the high end that wouldn't be made for anyone else. Colourists who've perhaps done a questionable job on a high end show are lauded for having achieved something with difficult material (why was the material difficult? It's a high end show!) Focus pullers are lauded for having got the best out of a difficult circumstance (why was the circumstance difficult? it's a high end show!)

 

On a smaller show, excuses about available light, time, gear and crew are much more legitimate, but it's more often simply assumed that everyone involved is incompetent, possibly because the people involved don't have the standing in the industry to shout back. They're often doing extremely difficult work under extremely difficult circumstances - circumstances that might completely drown crews whose diet is wall-to-wall international blockbusters which work on five setups a day.

 

I guess the conclusion I'm reaching for here is that the concerns of large and small productions are often startlingly similar, and once you mine down through the layers of narcissism, unionisation and money, it's a person twiddling a knob marked "distance."

 

P

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Its not my market at all.. but I do know people working in big budget stuff.. and from what I hear the days they do sound the same as lower/small budget.. maybe the idea that they only do a few set ups and have all this time drinking tea and eating donuts striving for perfection.. is a bit out of date..its the usual bun fight .. I haven't read any reviews of this particular film with the authors throwing up their hands saying a great film was ruined by buzzed focus on a static wide.. wasn't there alot of comments about out of focus shots in LaLa Land... I thought it was a great film ..money well spent.. I didnt notice any out of focus shots.. . I was taken in by the story.. if someone is sitting in the cinema and thats all they notice.. thats probably the least of the that films problems..

Edited by Robin R Probyn

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Sometimes a lens is just soft in a wide shot, the focus isnt off but it just isnt tack-sharp at that stop.

Many years ago I was operating on a movie that used old Cooke lenses for a "vintage" look. They were not great lenses and the effect on the wider shots was to make them look like they were focused too close. They weren't. It's just that when nothing is quite "sharp enough", closer objects seem to have more detail than objects further away. In "First Man" I noticed some shots like this as well. The "tell" is that the background is not less focused than the face, but some closer detail seems more focused. Lenses just don't focus simultaneously on a distant point and a close point at the same time. Shooting in smaller formats like 16mm can sometimes give this effect when the depth of focus is large. It's anti-intuitively different when a similar shot is shot at a wide aperture, with limited depth of focus, and it's more clear where the best focus is.

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You don't see how an AC that works on multi-million dollar films might know something more about this... ok.

 

I work with 'pro ACs' every day, and I just don't see how they would be able to offer you an answer any more detailed than any of us have.

 

 

You and others also didn't seem to read my repeated example of a wide shot that was locked off and was buzzed.

 

That's a very specific example, and you'd need to ask the AC who was actually there why it is soft (which they may know) and why it is in the movie (which they may not know).

 

 

You also come across as having an attitude

Is this thread just going to be some ego thing now? An "I know it all and you don't get it" kinda thing?

 

No offense, but right now, you're the one that seems to have an attitude. People here are just trying to answer your question.

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i find these threads a bit mind-numbing, in the way of "this is a song that never ends, and it goes on and on my friend"

there was an earlier thread about some films at a festival that had a lot of soft shots...

 

 

the main thing to remember is that by the time the audience sees the shot on screen, it has already been watched and approved by many pairs of eyes.

on big budget projects, an experienced focus puller will usually know what he missed before they even call "cut".

in addition, on digital shoots there are many people watching the shot live on 24" or bigger screens.

a DIT or a 2nd AC may watch the shot for "quality control", some 1st ACs even like feedback on the walkie during the shot.

 

so vince is technically correct. if you boil it down to the basics, the issue is always either technical or human error.

however, it is not up to the focus puller to decide what shot makes it to the cut. we, as technicians, pass on the information, and the adults decide what to do with it.

 

 

also remember that the multi millions on big projects don't really go to camera department... other than it usually buys them much sharper lenses :)

the budget doesn't make it easier to have a wide open master prime or a leica

 

a soft lock-off wide shot... could be anything - maybe the lens didn't calibrate properly on the remote focus, maybe it was an un-tested daily lens, maybe this was a hastily thrown together 2nd unit shot. but you can be sure that this shot was seen, noted, and went up the ranks as soon as the dailies came in

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Different question: Is it common for some commonly used professional spherical lenses (maybe a certain brand?) to get out of synch with it's marks, and is this a possible more common reason for general focus issues, as opposed to an AC being "rushed" or ...whatever?

Given that having accurate and repeatable focus marks is one of the primary functions of a professional cine lens and a large factor in their astronomical cost, the short answer is no. The only brand I can think of were Red Pro Primes and their compact zooms, which had notoriously poor focus marks, and in my experience sometimes developed focus backlash, but I wouldn't classify them as professional, and I doubt they're commonly used.

 

Shooting lenses wide open introduces aberrations that can lower edge contrast and make an image look out of focus, even if the resolution is technically at its highest. Fast lenses can sometimes be set so that at maximum aperture the image has best contrast rather than resolution, and so when stopped down the aberrations reduce and the point of best apparent sharpness shifts. But it's usually covered by depth of field, and not really noticeable. Some Panavision lenses have two witness marks for this reason.

 

I'm not saying this is a reason for soft shots in movies, but it's part of the complicated array of issues ACs deal with.

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Some of the problem today happens when the production is shooting film but the focus-pulling is done using modern techniques used for digital shoots, i.e. having a high-definition image to judge focus on.

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Is anyone shooting for big feature films these days (on film) and doing all the focus via the optical viewfinder and groundglass? Not saying that's a mistake proof option by any means, especially in lower light.

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