The Survival of the Camera Assistant through Digital Evolution

As digital cinema cameras continue to evolve, will pulling focus become an obsolete skill? At what point do the cameras start doing it for you? And if that's the case, what are you -- as a camera assistant -- left to do?

If I asked you to define the responsibilities of a camera assistant (AC), would you list “pulling focus” in your top three?

I bet you would. You’d be crazy not to!

No other task you do is so blatantly noticeable to everyone else on set. The camera operator sees it through the eyepiece as well as those at video village every take. In post-production, the editor watches subjects go sharp or soft.

But as digital cinema cameras continue to evolve, will pulling focus become an obsolete skill? At what point do the cameras start doing it for you? And if that’s the case, what are you — as a camera assistant — left to do?

Auto Focus and Focus in Post: The Future?

Though I appropriately touched on this subject last week, I felt compelled to return to it when I was tweeted yesterday about someone upset the new Canon C300 camera didn’t have auto-focus. It occurred to me, at that point, that auto-focus for high-end cameras is likely inevitable given the cheapening of those tools and the democratization of them.

It was also a natural reaction to be taken aback at the announcement of Lytro’s digital camera, which allows you to focus after a picture is taken on a computer.

“How long until this is capable in video?” I thought to myself, “What happens then?”

And so the existence of the camera assistant is brought into question: “If you don’t need to pull focus, why do you need focus pullers?”

Simple: focus pullers and camera assistants do infinitely more than just turn a knob on the side of the camera to keep subjects crisp and clear.

As a camera assistant, your responsibilities extend way beyond your ability to pull focus — you live and breathe cameras.

While we try to stay quiet about it, we also organize and prep all the camera equipment, establish and watch over an efficient workflow, and keep the director of photography (DP) from having to lug equipment so their efforts are devoted to creative challenges like lighting and composition.

The Need for Camera Assistants

I don’t know if or when cinema cameras will all have auto-focus or focus-in-post like the Lytro cameras, but I do know that there is always going to be a need for somebody to watch over those cameras and maintain the high-end technology a production pours thousands of dollars into.

There’s always going to be a place for a camera assistant-like crew member who not only can operate a camera, but understand it enough to troubleshoot through technical issues.

When nobody else knows how to get the auto-focus to work or to calibrate the focus-in-post feature of our future cameras, it will be the camera assistant who saves all their asses.

Sure, the responsibilities of the job may morph over time, but the true spirit of what we do — run the camera department — is going to survive no matter what form the camera and its crew members take.

Not every production is going to appreciate this. At a certain budget, ACs become a commodity. We’ve already seen this in the current state of the industry. And just like those productions today that choose not to hire an AC, they will be a bit more cumbersome with their camera.

That’s fine. That’s OK. I’m not worried.

I’m not worried about the future of the camera assistant because I realize we offer so much more to a film set than a keen eye for distances.

And if there is anything the best AC’s are good at, it’s being resourceful. So maybe we don’t stand next to the camera during every shot. Maybe we won’t have to pull out a tape measure with ninja-like reflexes.

So we camera assistants will find ourselves somewhere else on set contributing.

As the tools we use for our jobs continue to evolve, we will too and, ultimately, survive the notion that a crew can be without an AC.

  • Roma

    If you yourself were a DP , would you prefer to have an auto-focusing type camera (if it really were as efficient and slick as the hands of a solid 1st AC) or would you opt for a top notch 1st AC to do it ? 

    (either way you, would still have a standby technician to prep, maintain, lug equipment)

    I somehow find it comforting knowing there is a 1st AC with experience pulling focus, i don’t know about anyone else though..

    • Evan

      Well, I am extremely biased but I would go with the 1st AC. There’s something organic about a manual focus pull that an auto-focus camera won’t be able to replicate. 

      Look at a motorized zoom vs. a manual zoom. Each has its purpose, but they have drastically different feels. And in the case of focus pulling, I believe the manual focus pull is a much better aesthetic.

  • Roma

    I agree with you 100%. Do not let machines take over man! 

  • Phillip Jackson

    Just because cameras now have built in waveform monitors doesn’t mean I don’t carry a light meter. Just because the camera can auto focus doesn’t mean I don’t want a focus puller.

  • Paulo

    I don’t think this post focus will become a reality and I say this because it’s either done on set, like you said there will still have a need for an AC or pay another person to do it before its handed down to the editor. Perhaps it should be used as a tool when a shot is a little soft just like you can do a lot in color grading. 

    • Evan

      True. Good points. And like color grading, the effect will probably be best when it is subtle and unannounced.

  • Jamin

    one day cameras will change lenses with the same ease and simplicity with which is seen when my 4 month old niece changes her own dipper.

    • Evan

      One day! But until then, I don’t mind someone paying me to do it :-)1

  • JW

    how does an auto-focus anticipate the movement of an actor? surely you would have to programme the camera to follow a certain actor it would need to keep in focus (meaning some sort of no doubt expensive cinetape would have to be invented).

    some sort of electronic tag on the actor would do it, but it would then need programming to perform a rack focus. pointless. as the ac who will have to programme can just pull the focus, plus they will have to anyway on film cameras which still exist and will still exist for the next few decades.

    and the dude who thinks lenses will change is well off mark. film to digital is one thing, but doing away with the big quality lenses that are more important than the format is rubbish.

  • Ethan

    It’ll never happen, no matter how good technology gets, nothing can replace the human brain, this auto-track focus nonsense will be directed at amateur film makers that cant focus themselves and cant afford a focus puller and those are the jobs you dont want to be working on anyway. 

    • Evan

      While I agree it won’t be used by feature filmmakers, it could actually find a good use in documentary work or one-man-band operations where, like you said, you can’t afford a focus puller. But I agree — technology won’t replace the human brain.

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  • Brian

    “As a camera assistant, your responsibilities extend way beyond your ability to pull focus — you live and breathe cameras.” AMEN!  Thats why I got into ACing, because I think cameras are hands down the coolest and most important piece of technology ever invented.  You keep hitting the nail on the head man.

    • Evan

      Thanks Brian! I guess I just get lucky everytime I swing the hammer ;)

  • Gertschn

    Without words!

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