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Pulling Focus


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#1 Nick Ouellette

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Posted 29 March 2009 - 01:52 AM

I've been a 1st for about a year now, so I'm relatively new to the position. As far as pulling focus is concerned, I'm not bad, but on more complex shots (longer lens, less stop, etc.) I won't always get it right on the first take, especially on low budget, fast paced indie work where a camera rehearsal doesn't always happen. So my question is, do most DPs expect the focus to be sharp and perfect every time, or is there a little room for the occasional error?
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#2 Chris Keth

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Posted 29 March 2009 - 03:06 AM

I've been a 1st for about a year now, so I'm relatively new to the position. As far as pulling focus is concerned, I'm not bad, but on more complex shots (longer lens, less stop, etc.) I won't always get it right on the first take, especially on low budget, fast paced indie work where a camera rehearsal doesn't always happen. So my question is, do most DPs expect the focus to be sharp and perfect every time, or is there a little room for the occasional error?


Depends on the DP. Some things like, wide lenses and/or deep stops, it's pretty much expected that you nail it because it's an easier situation. If you're screwing those up as a matter of routine, then there's something wrong. Bad day, too much caffeine, mind not on the job, something.

If you're wide open shooting walkups into a choker with someone who can't hit a mark and leans a lot, then you're going to make mistakes. A reasonable DP knows that and will do one of a few things: 1. Give you a bit more stop, if possible. - 2. Ask for a little help from the director in the movement of the actor such as "can she just take one step into her mark for this one?" - 3. Make sure you get the rehearsals you need. - 4. Live with some buzzes and do enough takes to get everything that's needed.

Remember that getting enough marks and rehearsal time is your responsibility. You need to ask for it because it's rarely offered freely.
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#3 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 29 March 2009 - 03:14 AM

Depends on the DP, the kind of pressure they're under at that moment, and the size/type of the show. If the DP has been a focus puller before, then he or she will know what you're up against on a difficult shot and will probably cut you some slack. On no-budget indie shoots the DPs usually know your predicament and will stand up for you, it's the ADs who are usually breathing down your neck. I've found DPs who shoot a lot of broadcast/corporate video to be more hardcore. A lot of that is just the nature of those types of productions - everyone's getting paid union rates and getting overtime, so they move very quick. The producers, not having worked with film, do not understand the time-saving value of rehearsals.

That said, the bigger the stakes are, the higher the expectations get - you ultimately want to be known as "the guy who can get the shot no matter what," not "the guy who always needs another take." If the DP is under pressure from production to get the shot quickly and move on, then you're putting more pressure on him by blowing a take. So yes, you do your job the best you can, but you also should be aware of the situation and be able to up your game accordingly. I had a commercial shoot with guys who shoot a lot of corporate where I was expected to get remote focus on a 25' jimmy jib shot with a 35 adapter and wide open superspeeds when I had no idea where the camera was going to be. The jib op was "finding" the shot while we were rolling on rehearsals and kept changing camera positions on his move. The "rehearsals" (if you can even call them that) were for him, not for me. I ended up getting the shot by pulling from the tech's HD monitor.

Anyway, do your best, don't complain, but do stand up for yourself when you need another take. And have fun!
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#4 Chris Keth

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Posted 29 March 2009 - 04:40 PM

Anyway, do your best, don't complain, but do stand up for yourself when you need another take. And have fun!


One of the best summations of our jobs I've seen yet!
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#5 Nick Ouellette

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Posted 30 March 2009 - 12:08 PM

One of the best summations of our jobs I've seen yet!


This is all great advice. Thanks! This is what I was hoping to hear. Often I'll be hesitant to ask for rehearsals, etc. on the first day of a new show, but that's usually a bad idea. I always do the best I can and that seems to be what is expected, as long as you're not a total screw up, which I like to think I am not. Thanks again everyone!!
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#6 Chris Keth

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Posted 30 March 2009 - 02:29 PM

This is all great advice. Thanks! This is what I was hoping to hear. Often I'll be hesitant to ask for rehearsals, etc. on the first day of a new show, but that's usually a bad idea. I always do the best I can and that seems to be what is expected, as long as you're not a total screw up, which I like to think I am not. Thanks again everyone!!


Never hesitate to ask for something you need. They may not give it to you but you did what you could.
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#7 Bob Hayes

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Posted 31 March 2009 - 11:03 AM

I think focus pulling has become a much harder job of late. More and more DP’s shoot wide open on long lenses. The "lets go with out a rehearsal" attitude has become prevalent. Cameras often move randomly to different actors creating the toughest possible challenges for the AC. But many ACs are up to that challenge amd DPs who were firsts are much more sensitive to these challenges.
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#8 Chris Keth

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Posted 31 March 2009 - 08:01 PM

I think you're right Bob. I wouldn't mind a periodic deep-focus trend to come back around so I can rest during my day a bit. :D
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#9 Jean Dodge

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Posted 16 April 2009 - 01:17 PM

Setting a professional tone and getting into a good rhythm on set can help you when the time comes and you are WFO on a long lens action shot. Setting marks for actors on obvious and easy scenes can condition otherwise clueless thespians that you're making the movie happen, too. Don't slow down the work, don't get in the way and don't piss anyone off but having your second on hand to invisibly put down chalk marks, tape, etc most every time as the show begins can be a great habit to get into, so when you really do need the time it isn't like you've somehow jumped out from the front dolly seat and shut the production down to a crawl. Remember, almost everyone on set has no clue what your job entails, or what the f-stop is until right before you roll. To the casual observer you are simply doing the same routine for every shot.

In a perfect world the routine of block, light, rehearse shoot allows you to do your real work at stage one. Don't hold your breath for that to happen, tho - but act "as if" and you will get ahead of the game when things start moving at panic speed. Experience is the key, and practice makes perfect but be crazy like a fox, too if you have to. It's a mind game at times. I've had moments where you can get a point across clearly to a stand-in, knowing that the lead actress is watching out of the corner of her eye, that have completely saved my bacon. Just a simple friendly question like, "oh, i noticed that on rehearsal Kate kind of pauses here naturally, don't you since the rug ends here? Then we don't need a mark for you at all, really... I'll just put this here for the dolly grip to see as we pass by..." You know what I mean. (Usually I keep my frickin' mouth clamped shut)

Do your work but be a ninja about it. If there are natural marks like seashells scatted on a beach, feel free to set them up at zone distances BEFORE the rehearsal begins, or the on-set dresser gets back from craft service and the director gets used to the look. (Better yet, train your second to do it first, silently!) You will be surprised how often the director will end up saying, hey, stop right there next to that starfish and say your line. Then, smile like the cat that ate the canary and set your witness mark to exactly 20 feet!
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#10 Dan Diaconu M

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Posted 16 April 2009 - 02:36 PM

why carpet the whole world when you can put some sleepers on? ;)
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