How to Pull Focus like You're a Master Musician

How to Pull Focus like You’re a Master Musician

Camera assistants and master musicians are not so different – both contribute to a large creative endeavor with highly specialized technical prowess. So it would only make sense that there are ways you can become a better focus puller by taking a cue from the musical maestros themselves.

It’s said after Beethoven performed his famous 9th Symphony for the first time, he turned around to see the applause of the audience which, literally, fell on deaf ears. By this time in his life, Beethoven was almost completely deaf and could not hear the music he conducted nor the praise for its performance.

Yet despite this setback, the conductor was intensely committed to his craft and his deserved legendary status is a reflection of that.

Beethoven would’ve been good at pulling focus, too, had the technology existed back then. For camera assistants and master musicians are not so different — both contribute to a large creative endeavor with highly specialized technical prowess.

So it would only make sense that there are ways you can become a better focus puller by taking a cue from the musical maestros themselves.

Practice And Prepare Voraciously

When you show up to a concert — or even a stage play — you usually hear the sounds of instruments warming up. There are strings being bowed, trumpets being blown, and drums being beat.

It’s a short, mini preparation that takes place before the audience is given one iota of the performance.

Sitting in those chairs warming up the instruments are some of the best musicians. And whether they’re softly dancing on the keys of a piano or steadily running a bow along a violin, they got a seat in the orchestra pit by practicing without prejudice.

They voraciously study music, play on their instruments, and challenge themselves to be better. They know with a musical instrument, there is a constant need to repeat, refine, and reinvent.

If you want to become a better focus puller you need to take a similar approach — you have to be willing to practice focus pulling, whether in rehearsals or during downtimes on set. You have to watch dailies to see what went wrong where and why it happened that way. You can’t shy away from the chance to pull focus, but have to relish in the opportunity.

And don’t forget those musicians prepare everything.

Mentally they go over the notes, physically they get their mouths, hands, or fingers ready, and they also prepare their instruments — cleaning them, tuning them, and repairing them.

As a musician, you would never show up and simply expect a violin to be in perfect tune. So keep your gear “in tune” by constantly servicing it when it has problems and checking everyday that it works like you want it to.

Tap into the Rhythm of the Piece

Some of the most exciting moments in music are when we, as an audience, find ourselves attached to its rhythm. The musical cadence flows so appropriately and so easily that we just know what’s coming up next, even if we’ve never heard the song before.

Rhythm is the guiding force in music and, without it, a song would sound chaotic and without purpose. Rhythm focuses the instruments and binds them towards a single goal of a piece of music.

As a focus puller, you are also working towards a single goal — whatever shot you’re shooting — while having to stay in rhythm with many other crew. The way you turn the follow focus is partly dictated by them. The camera operator, the dolly grip, the actors themselves, they all contribute to how you do your job.

And believe it or not, there is a rhythm to all of this. It is why rehearsals are so crucial to getting a take right.

Each shot and each scene has its own rhythm that, when tapped into, helps every crew member and actor nail their mark and create that elusive movie magic.

Rhythm is not the only musical device that filmmaking is subject to. Music dictates moments like crescendos where the music gets louder and time signatures that define the pace a piece moves at, sometimes creating a more lethargic pace than the movement before it.

Focus pulling is like that too. In certain scenes you will have to pull focus much faster (crescendo) at different points and slower at other points. The camera may move quickly in one part of the scene, but creep in the next.

There’s a rhythm, a purpose, to give order to those working in tandem to shoot the scene.

If you tap into it, if you “use the force” as one commenter put it, you’ll find yourself pulling with ease.

Feel the Emotion and Exploit It

A director once told me how he watched a focus puller keep a Nascar vehicle, traveling around a track at over 200 mph, in sharp focus. His look of amazement said it all as he remarked, “It was like watching a ballet.”

Ballet, at its core, is a visual representation of a musical accompaniment. Despite all the snobby connotations, it is a timeless art relished because of its graceful beauty.

One essential component of ballet is musicians. For the audience to enjoy the ballet, most will agree they need to feel emotion. And the best way to deliver emotion is to pass it on. From the musicians, to the dancers, to the audience, emotion has to swell from the ground up until it transfers to those meant to receive it.

The music musicians play, and how they play it, dictates both how the performers move and how the audience perceives their motion.

“All that theoretical stuff is great,” you may think, “but how the hell does that help me with pulling focus?”

It helps because you have to feel the emotion of a scene to dictate how you pull focus.

This is most prevalent in scenes where you are doing an important rack focus. Is the tone of the scene dark or bright? Happy or sad? Frantic or calm? These questions help you decide the style in which you pull.

A slow, brooding scene would be ruined by a quick rack focus — unless it’s a cue for the pace to pick up — while a frantic scene demands a punchy focus pull.

See what I mean?

It’s not just enough to know where to focus, but you have to know how that fits into the story. What emotion does your rack focus convey? I know it sounds silly, but it’s the small details that really sell the larger narrative.

It’s the loud scream of a trumpet or the sad slow death knell of a violin at the end of a solo.

Musicians understand this: that no matter how small or insignificant their instrument may be, that without it, the music isn’t the same.

The same is true for focus pullers and what they contribute to film. Their movements must contribute to the emotion and transmit that to the audience — like watching a ballet.

Play a Show They’ll Never Forget

When music is done right, it flows. It makes sense and people forget about the technical abilities of the musicians, instead feeling the full emotional impact of the song.

Pulling focus, done right, has the same effect. The audience fails to see the technical achievements of the camera all while watching the story, the characters, and the film on the silver screen.

As Beethoven turned around to silent applause the night of his concert, he was humbled by a series of five standing ovations. His 9th Symphony was the last complete symphony he ever composed, but many agree it is also his best.

No doubt, Beethoven left the concert hall that evening knowing he gave an exceptional performance.

And like Beethoven, master musicians hope one day to play a show others will never forget — and that’s not a bad goal to have for yourself either.