photo credit: Brian Finifter
Pulling focus is hard. Really hard. It’s certainly no walk in the park.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
For those who are good at it, it is. Nothing is more satisfying than keeping an actor’s eyes in sharp focus throughout the entirety of a 30-foot-dolly shot.
But that kind of skill has to be earned — forged in the fires of experience by tapping into and improving certain qualities necessary to pull focus in a seamless way.
So today I want to talk about three of these must-have skills for focus pullers and show you practical methods to improve them so you can panic a little bit less when the DP sets the stop to T 1.8.
1. Ability to Predict Movement
It doesn’t matter how many marks you make on the floor, on your follow focus, or on the lens barrel because I guarantee that, eventually, unpredictable things will happen in front of the camera — actors improvise, directors start “side-coaching,” and the proverbial shit can hit the fan pretty fast.
It’s like the camera has a magic beam that turns on when it’s filming that transforms the behavior of everyone in front of it.
My point is that you can — and should — anticipate movement in a scene with marks and rehearsals, but there is always the wildcard of the live environment.
Even a simple change such as an actor leaning in a few inches on one line instead of the other can drastically effect your focus pulling, especially on longer lenses.
While you can’t be expected to read minds and know everything that’s going to happen exactly as it’s going to happen, you should be able to anticipate movement to some degree.
This isn’t as hard as it seems.
People have natural tendencies and motions and — because you’re also a human — you’re programmed to recognize them.
So when an actor leans forward and braces their arms against a chair, it means they’re probably going to stand up. Or when someone leans against a wall, I bet they’re coming to a stop. And if a person is pacing back and forth, the twist in their abdomen indicates both where and when they’ll be turning.
Think about it like you’re listening to music: the tonal changes in the song follow a pattern that, even if it’s a new song, you have some idea of where it is going. There’s a rhythm and a melody that is predictable.
Not every unpredictable scenario has indicators, but by tapping into expectations for motion, you’ll be able to pull focus much more accurately when those indicators do pop up.
This becomes incredibly important when you start “winging it” with handheld shots, steadicam moves, or shots where you aren’t given any rehearsal. Having the subconcious ability to realize when someone is and isn’t going to start moving will help you mentally start compensating for that movement on the follow focus.
How to Practice and Improve Your Ability to Predict
There are a few exercises you can do to help with predictability. The first will help you learn and gauge movement within people, while the second will force you to become quick at adapting to the sudden changes of those movements.
Gazing at others in public places is not only natural to humans, but one of our societies’ favorite past-times.
It’s also perfect for helping you learn more about human motion.
Go to any large public area — mall, park, city street, restaurant — and start studying people. Watch how they lean when they talk, how they shift when they’re sitting, and how they change directions as they stride. Notice how their weight shifts, which body parts lead their movements, and how this all changes in terms of speed.
For bonus points and more effective practice, pretend you’re holding onto an invisible follow focus and pick a subject to mimic pulling focus to.
Focusing on Animals or Wildlife
Like most dog owners, whenever I’m bored I like to rile up my miniature schnauzer and get her excited. I’ll play tug-o-war with her toys and chase her around the living room.
One day while doing this, I noticed how crazy she got — juking me out and running at incredible speed to one end of the room only to shift directions entirely and bolt to the other. I tried to get my camera to take a video, but had an incredibly hard time pulling the focus on my DSLR.
That’s exactly why this is such a useful exercise.
You’ll need a camera with a manual focus lens and an animal subject. Once you have both of those, point the camera at the animal and start shooting while manually pulling focus. Make sure you do this with an animal that is active (if you don’t have a pet, look around outdoors for birds, squirrels, etc.).
Trust me, if you can manage to keep a hyper dog in crisp focus as it does laps around a room, you’ll be in great shape when you step on set.
2. Spatial Accuracy
At the core of it, pulling focus is incredibly
easy simple: you adjust the lens to match the distance your subject is at.
Measure, adjust. Rinse, repeat.
It’s not very complicated in its most basic form, but where that simplicity breaks down is when you start throwing in things like camera movement, talent moving, and depth-of-field that varies according to format, distance, and exposure levels.
But despite all those complexities, pulling focus is still about measuring and adjusting focus to those measurements. So it would follow that having a good sense of space, distance, and the spatial relationships to the world around you is important.
And it is — perhaps the most important!
The best focus pullers are the ones that can look across a room and confidently proclaim the distance from them to the wall without more than a moment’s notice.
That’s not just a great party trick, but essential to their abliity to pull focus successfully. They can leverage those quick calculations to know when an actor is at 10 feet, 8 feet, and 5 feet (or about 3, 2.5, and 1.5 meteres for my non-US readers).
Not only is knowing how far something is important, but also knowing how it relates to objects around it. For instance, in a scene you may measure the distance to a chair and find it is 10 feet (3 meters) away. The talent for that scene pauses just behind the chair and you have to focus to them. You can do one of two things:
- Determine outright how far away the talent is standing
- Figure out how far apart the chair and the talent are and compensate for that
The 2nd method is much more accurate since you already have a measurement — simply add the perceived distance betweeen the chair and the actor to 10 feet and — voila! — perfect focus.
Of course, the key word in that sentence is perceived distance.
You have to have an accurate sense of spatial relationships. If you are terrible with guessing distances either to objects or between them, pulling focus is going to be much more difficult.
Luckily there’s a very good way to improve your ability to conceptualize distances in the real world…
How to Practice and Improve Your Spatial Accuracy
For this exercise, you’ll need to grab your favorite tape measure.
(Seriously, go grab it right now. I’ll wait until you get back.)
Got it? OK, good.
First, pick an object close enough to you that you could touch it with your fingers without straining or leaning.
Now pick an object that’s far enough away that you can’t lean over and touch it. It can be a wall, a doorknob, a poster, or that stuffed animal you slept with as a kid that has too much sentimental value to throw away now that you’re in your mid-twenties.
Once you have that object in mind, look at it and determine how far away you think it is from the closer object — and be specific.
(Pulling focus via distance is an incredibly specific process. At times, you are dealing with depth-of-field that is a half-inch wide and you don’t have the ability to round-up with acceptable focus.)
Once you have a specific and finite number, use your tape measure to find out whether or not you’re right.
And don’t lie to yourself about the results.
This is about getting better, not feeling better. So if you were off by a foot or more, keep going until that whittles down to inches. And if you were off by inches, get it down to half-inches.
This is a great exercise to do when you have free time on set or at home and it’s useful regardless of your level of experience.
A handy variation on it is to use an actual camera with a lens: pick the object, set the lens’ focus to the distance you think the object is at (without peeking at the display), take a photo, and judge the focus for yourself.
3. Touch and Finesse
In most shots, your focus pulling will be dictated by the action in a scene. A character moves forward or to the side; One actors turns to the other; A football sails from one end of the room to another. In all these situations, the point of focus is determined by what’s happening within the story and the shot.
But every so often, a shot appears in which focus pulling is a stylistic element — and that’s where touch and finesse come in.
(I realize focus is always a stylistic element in regards to depth of field and cinematic visuals, but the act of pulling focus isn’t always and that’s what I’m stressing here.)
Touch — the ability for you to add that extra bit of flair to a focus pull to make it seamless and invisible as well as crisp and sharp — is the hardest skill to learn.
It comes into play during shots like a rack focus from an important to prop to the eyes of the character staring at it. Or an out-of-focus crowd suddenly coming into sharp view. Or a point-of-view shot of a dizzy character who is in an alternate mental state.
These are the moments where your focus pulling is more of an art than a technical ability.
And these are the moments where having the right amount of touch — of flaire and finesse — is crucial to the success of the shot. A rack focus executed too quickly evokes a different feeling than one that creeps along the lens. And timing a focus pull to coincide with a precise moment in a scene will put the shot over the top.
It’s one thing to keep a shot in focus when you’re told who to focus on, but it’s another skill to do it in a way that appropriately serves the visuals and the story those visuals tie into.
Out of all the skills listed here, “touch” is the most elusive and the most intangible.
How to Practice and Improve Your Touch
Have you ever watched a movie and studied the focus? Not the cinematography, or the direction, or the story. But literally only the focus?
Sometimes the best way to learn about an aspect of filmmaking is to watch the masters at work.
Because “touch” is more of a mental skill that you translate physically, the best way to improve it is to get an idea of how others perceive focus in their films.
It’s time for film study!
But don’t pick just any film to watch — choose a movie that you know extremely well (so you aren’t distracted by the story) and that is recognized as visually significant (so you don’t get mislead by poor cinematography). Pop that sucker in your DVD player and press play.
As you watch, pay attention to how focus is used to advance the story and give particular attention to stylistic focus moments like rack focusing, split focus, or which characters are left out-of-focus in certain shots.
Do this for as many movies as you wish.
At the end of your screening, you’ll have a better idea in mind about which situations demand quick, reactive focus pulling while others call for a more relaxed and subtle feel.
The Hardest Mind-Game You’ve Ever Played
There is no better practice for pulling focus than, well, doing it. You’ll find your skills jump exponentially when you are thrown into the fire and have no choice but to nail a shot in crisp focus or else inform the operator you buzzed the take.
But in lieu of the pressure-cooker of a set, you can start to hone these three very important skills — predicting movement, determining spatial relationships, and adding touch — with practical exercises.
And though pulling imaginary focus in your living room is different than grasping the rough surfaces of a real follow focus or lens gear, it starts to build your mindset and get you prepared.
Because once you learn the technical skills of pulling focus, it’s 100-percent the hardest mind-game you’ve ever played.
Learn more about how to pull focus like a pro and read the rest of this series.