photo credit: John Brawley
When pulling focus, clear and quick visual access to your marks is vital. If the marks are off, even by a little bit, you’ll find yourself with a take full of soft footage.
And that’s the last thing you want.
Marking on the Lens
You can make marks directly on the lens itself using a grease pencil — like these Stabilo ones — or with a thin strip of tape placed around the barrel.
Either way is acceptable, but the main idea is to place your marks next to the engraved distance markings.
Let’s look at pros and cons of this method.
- Consistency in Marks: No matter how many times you unmount or re-mount a lens, the mark will be there. Great when you are measuring by distance and add your own intermittent markings.
- Best Accuracy: By far the most accurate, unless the lens housing comes undone, in which case you have bigger problems to deal with. A more accurate mark makes pulling focus a much easier job to do because, when you mark on the lens at 8 ft. 5″, you know everytime you pull to that distance it will be exactly right.
- Less Confusing on Long Focus Pulls: A long focus pull may involve one, two, possibly even three, successive rotations of the follow focus wheel causing the marks you make on it to have no context — a mark you made for 35 feet could end up as a mark for 4 feet as well. This is a non-issue when marking on the lens.
- Can be Hard to See: Small lenses, like Zeiss Superspeeds, have a tendency to get overwhelmed by accessories around them. The result of all this crowding in front of the camera its that it can make it hard to see the marks on the lenses themselves.
- Precision is an Issue on Short Throw: A major gripe I’ve had with lens markings is grease pencils get dulled down and get tough to be precise with. With a focus pull where the pull itself doesn’t cover much room on the lens, two marks next to each other can look like one big mark.
- Lack of Color Variety: Another gripe I have with grease pencils is the relative lack of color variety. With colors you can assign them to associate with certain characters, subjects, or conditions. In practice, the only colors that show up enough to be worthwhile are yellow and white. I’ve worked with red, but it is too faded in low light conditions.
Marking on the lens is great if you can see it. It is by far the most accurate way to mark and it’s a nice bonus that the marks don’t ever get misaligned.
What I don’t like about marking on the lens is it gets crowded between all of the engravings. If you’re making more than a few marks (say for a complicated dolly move) then it becomes difficult to differentiate between them all.
Marking on the Follow Focus
Around the wheel of a follow focus is a white dry-erase disc that can be written on with special pens, like the Staedtler Lumocolors I use.
This disc is removable from the follow focus, so, if desired, you could pre-mark them and swap certain ones out. I do not advise doing this — but that’s for another article in the future!
For now, let’s look at some pros and cons of placing your marks on the follow focus.
- Better Visibility on Marks: Because the follow focus sticks out from the camera, it is much easier to see than the lens which, like mentioned above, can become buried in accessories.
- Ability to Use More Colors: Since the disc is white, you can use more colors than on the lens. This is great if you have three characters in a scene hitting multiple marks and you want to use one color for each.
- Simple and Less Clutter: While some will argue having the engraved distance markings on the lens is an advantage, at times it creates clutter and distracts you from seeing your true mark. That split second distraction is enough to miss your mark completely. With a clean follow focus disc, if all you want to have is one mark, then that’s all you’ll see.
- Changes with Each Lens: Each time you change a lens, you will have to remark the follow focus. This gets frustrating if you are constantly swapping lenses at the last minute. It also adds a bit of time to clean the disc.
- Increased Play and Decreased Accuracy: “Play” is when the follow focus will turn without actually moving the focus ring on the lens. It’s a factor of how the follow focus is built and how it is attached to the lens. Play diminishes accuracy as you could nail the mark on the follow focus, but not on the lens itself.
- Delayed Reaction Times: While staring down the side of the camera, it takes an extra bit of time to glance over at the follow focus. This extra time is all it takes for the subject to move off the mark you just compensated for and, after that, you’ll constantly be playing catch up.
Situations I’ve preferred to use the follow focus to mark on have been shoots where it’s hard to see the lens from the side of the camera. Having the ability to make multiple colored marks is also important for the way I work.
If you choose to go this route, it is imperative to use a follow focus with as little play as possible. ARRI and O’Connor follow focuses are some of the best I’ve used while the cheaper options like Red Rock microFollowFocus tend to have much more play.
Which Do You Use?
There are shoots where I’ve gone the entire time marking on the lens and others where I have marked only on the follow focus. In each case, the camera setup dictated which was more practical, and though I have a preference, I’m interested in what you think.
Do you prefer the accuracy and speed of marking on the lens or the visibility and simplicity of the follow focus disc? When you grab a mark are you reaching for a grease pencil or dry-erase pen?
Camera assistants are notorious for having a “my way is the right way” attitude, so whose way is the right way? Let me know in the comments!