Camera assisting can be an art, a career, and is almost always difficult (especially on those long lenses), but it’s not impossible. Each situation an AC will have to deal with will be slightly different and sometimes you get caught in awkward positions.
As you see towards the end of this video, the camera assistant knows he has blown the focus. At first glance, I felt bad for him knowing what it’s like to get put in a situation where a focus pull is difficult and not being able to pull it off. Then I watched it again and noticed that he simply handled it poorly.
Besides not using a whip (as a commenter pointed out), the AC also puts himself in the worst position he could for the focus pull. While it may have been uncomfortable, the best position he could’ve put himself in would’ve been directly behind the camera operator, almost hugging him, with his arm reaching around to grab at the follow focus. While not ideal, it’s certainly more ideal than blindly pulling focus from the ground where you can’t see the camera, the actor, let alone the markings on the lens.
It annoyed me. I can’t understand why he would approach this shot with this method. No wonder he failed. Now don’t get me wrong, I understand I am viewing this out of context, but I can’t help but feel there was a more practical approach to this focus pull and the AC simply didn’t recognize it.
Even IF this was the only way he could do the focus pull, he should’ve spoken up for himself and had the operator do it. There’s no shame in that. Everyone on set would much rather get the shot in focus rather than not.
Or why not move to the dumb side? The ways to accomplish this same focus pull without getting on the ground and blowing it are numerous. Oh well. I guess that’s how you learn by making mistakes? Just make sure if you’re pulling focus for the first time you don’t ever do something quite like that.
The advice I can give for this specific video, besides my ideas mentioned above, is to make sure that you can see your markings to pull the focus or have the operator do it for you. You shouldn’t have to deal with being in a position to fail. There’s always alternatives. Find a way to do it or let the camera op/DP know you won’t be able to. Part of being a professional is knowing what you’re capable of and what you aren’t.
For those new to AC-ing, more advice can be found over at Pro Video Coalition’s Advice to a Camera Trainee. It’s an old article, but one that is thoughtful and concise advice for those new to the profession of camera assisting. And if you enjoy that one, check out my 10 Things Every Camera Assistant Should Know About the RED Camera.