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Getting better at pulling focus


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#1 Angelo Lorenzo

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Posted 09 August 2009 - 05:39 PM

Right now I'm working with a Canon 5DmkII with a Canon to Panavision lens adapter and Panavision Follow Focus or FIZ remote focus unit.

Because focus is so critical on 35mm, are there any tips for improving my accuracy?

How are you focusing? Via monitor? Marks? Or by eye, judging the distance of the camera to the subject?
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#2 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 09 August 2009 - 07:28 PM

All of the above, depending on situation. Marks for a 1ac is preferred, I am told, by eye when i am shooting and pulling myself, and judging when you can't run tape, and sometimes from a monitor when you're talking HD/RED (not ideal for a S35 sized chip...)
Getting better becomes both a matter of practice and, I think, some natural hand-eye coordination with the ability to judge distances.
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#3 Tom Jensen

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Posted 09 August 2009 - 07:59 PM

D, all of the above. You have to use every tool available to at a moment's notice. The tried and true method is a tape measure. Practice is the only way to get better. Always guess the distance before you run your tape. If you go soft during a shot, it is probably because you got ahead of the actor. Utilize depth of field but always try to be spot on. I always marked the barrel whenever I could in case the follow focus unit came off. Use whatever works for you.
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#4 Chris Keth

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Posted 09 August 2009 - 08:33 PM

Tom's advice is spot on. There's a guy who has done it all before.

Pulling by monitor is not ideal. Sometimes you have to do it, but I hate it. The reason is that once you see you're going soft, it's too late. It's also very hard to judge what someone is going to do by watching a monitor. A big part of getting those shots without buzzes isn't reacting to what the actor does, it's predicting what they will do based on your knowledge of rehearsals and their body language.

One thing that just develops naturally is your ability to hit marks without looking at them. The more you can watch the talent and just feel your way through your marks, the more "on" you can be.
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#5 Jamie Metzger

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Posted 10 August 2009 - 12:45 AM

trying to learn on a Canon 5D isn't the best way either.
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#6 Chris Keth

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Posted 10 August 2009 - 12:57 AM

trying to learn on a Canon 5D isn't the best way either.


Probably not. Doing a lot of red work is a pretty good focus pulling school. Rather than one operator telling you the shot was soft, you have a whole room full of people around a monitor. :lol:
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#7 Jamie Metzger

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Posted 10 August 2009 - 01:07 AM

Probably not. Doing a lot of red work is a pretty good focus pulling school. Rather than one operator telling you the shot was soft, you have a whole room full of people around a monitor. :lol:


best way to learn.
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#8 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 10 August 2009 - 02:07 AM

trying to learn on a Canon 5D isn't the best way either.

Exactly. Have you been able to check if the FFD is accurate on the camera with the adapter? Otherwise, tape focus is useless. Which means with that with the 5D your only reliable option to check focus is to use the magnifier in the LCD (not good!). Once you're 100% sure the flange is correct then you can start working.

All of the above is right. Every situation calls for a different approach. I like pulling from a monitor with a FIZ if I have large HD monitor, no 2nd AC, and we're just winging it all day. That way, I can grab eye marks for myself very quickly. This is especially true with cameras and lenses that have finicky back focus issues.

I think one of the hardest situations is a long lens CU where the actors are doing something slightly different on every take. In that case, you really just have to watch them closely and feel the focus with your hand on the FF. Sometimes, for very slight adjustments, like a long lens CU tracking sideways on a dolly where the distance should be very nearly the same (if everyone hits their marks) it sometimes makes more sense to block the actor and the lay dolly track very precisely measured out so that you don't have to pull at all.

Of course, winging it on Steadicam, handheld, or on a crane can be a nightmare. That's where practicing on your distance estimation skills and knowing your DoF can save your butt. I feel like every AC has a bag of tricks they can pull out in really desperate situations, and the more experienced they are the more tricks they have. It takes years to put it all together.

Last thing, you have to be your own worst critic as far as focus goes. Don't rely on the operator or someone at the monitor to tell you if you're soft. And don't argue with a DP if he or she tells you it's soft. If you think you missed it, tell the DP and ask for another take right away. If there's a little moment between takes or setups where the DP is talking things over with the director, I'll put the camera into playback mode and check the last take to make sure I got it. That's the best thing about the Red and HD data-based capture, the ability to watch HD playback right away. Much better than waiting to go to dailies the next day to find out if you're going to be fired or not...

Edited by Satsuki Murashige, 10 August 2009 - 02:08 AM.

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#9 Chris Keth

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Posted 10 August 2009 - 02:28 AM

Don't rely on the operator or someone at the monitor to tell you if you're soft.


To be fair, that is part of the operator's job.
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#10 Annie Wengenroth

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Posted 10 August 2009 - 10:33 AM

I don't know if anyone brought this up yet, but as much as pulling on a RED or even a Letus adaptor (aka something not very forgiving) will technically give you more "practice", IMHO, it's still a completely different feel from pulling on 35mm or on a Super 16 job with Zeiss Super Speeds, etc. In other words, beyond the act of pulling focus itself, there are other differences which I think are hard to get a sense of until you simply experience it more...I don't know how better to explain it and I know it makes it sound like I either 1) smoke too much pot before the job ("focus is mysticalll maaaan...") or 2) have been doing this for 50 years. But upon reading this thread, I thought I'd throw it out there.

Then you've got wireless focus, handheld, cranes, circular dolly track, etc. Plus if there's play in the follow focus, you have to learn to feel it from the lens. I first thought that this meant literally pulling OFF the lens, which I think sucks, but it just means that instead of referencing the follow focus marking disk, you're still using the follow focus to physically do the job, and yet making your actual marks on the lens itself.

You also have to learn where to be so that you won't get in the way or f*ck up the operator. If you make a triangle between the camera, your body, and the subject, it becomes easier to visualize. Know the dialogue...ask for sides...if it's far away and you can't hear them, ask for talkback...you can rely on audio and physical cues to get a sense of timing too, not just visual/spatial. And always remember that you have to account for what everyone else is doing too.

I'm also a musician and DJ and I think of pulling focus as a sort of visual mixing. As a DJ, the idea is to weave a seamless beat which keeps the floor moving. You can take creative liberties and make transitions between songs a bit more obvious but it all still has to land on a beat that people can dance to...and the whole time, you're watching the floor and listening to the booth with one ear, and listening to your cue channel in the other. To me it's the same sense of splitting your mind to make something happen.

...I guess that's why I like it, too!

:D
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#11 Tom Jensen

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Posted 10 August 2009 - 05:56 PM

Thank you for the kind words, Chris. Focus is something you can learn and get better by doing. I can't stress enough that you shouldn't be a jerk or take yourself too serious. A lot of AC's burn themselves by thinking their job is more important than the next guys. You have to have a good attitude and be helpful to the other departments. Also, always pay attention and be on the set. OK, focus. When you have a close-up on someone get three marks. The obvious distance mark where the actor is standing sitting, get the lean it and a back mark behind the plane of focus especially if someone is sitting into a shot or answering a phone or reaching for papers. Also, I have short arms and would occasionally bump an operator. They hate that so I got a short whip and used it. Speed cranks are also great. If you're in a hurry on a long lens, you can grab marks off the ground. Be careful not to use water puddles that are evaporating. I pulled focus on a Red Hot Chili Peppers video called Under the Bridge. Anthony Kaiedes was running in the LA river basin and I had not time to get marks so I pointed it at different water puddles on the ground. We were on a 150-600 zoomed all the way in at 120fps and after the first take, I noticed the water puddles were half the size. We did another take and the water puddles were gone after that but we got the shot in two takes and moved on. It goes a little soft at the end. You do what you can. Also, don't get rattled if you get all the time in the world to get your marks and the operator moves the camera at the last second. It's all part of the job. Never let the crew move on if you think you made a mistake. Also at the end of an important close up, run your tape out to see if you got it. Some actors are very accommodating, others not so much. Don't be afraid to ask for what you need. I was doing a shot on Tombstone where Val Kilmer was twirling a tin cup and I couldn't see the floor because there was a pool table in the way. I didn't want to be a pain because I just came on the film. Bill Fraker asked me what was wrong so I told him I couldn't see my marks and in two minutes he had a crew of five dismantle the pool table and take it out of there. It's good he had the power to do that because AD's will hang you out to dry when you need something that takes time. But, you need to be assertive at times because you have a very important job to do. AD's have a tendency to butt heads with AC's. They can't take their hostilities out on DP's so they look for someone else in the department.
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#12 Angelo Lorenzo

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Posted 10 August 2009 - 06:49 PM

We do have a HDMI video signal buffer that powers signal across a pair of CAT5 cables. I am pulling focus off a large HD monitor when I'm not pulling from marks. I am not pulling from the camera's LCD, but I am loving the other advice given.

Edited by Angelo Lorenzo, 10 August 2009 - 06:50 PM.

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