How to Nail the Timing of Your Next Rack Focus

Pulling focus is arguably the 1st Assistant Camera's most important duty. A shot can be beautifully lit, impeccably framed, and feature Oscar-winning acting, but if it's not in focus, it's likely to end up on the cutting room floor. That's what's at stake for the focus puller.

When you’re asked to perform a rack focus, the pressure couldn’t be higher.

That’s why you want to make sure you nail it — and not just focus wise. You also want to perform the rack focus with the right style and the right speed.

Which is why you should watch the video above if you’re interested in doing just that.

Video Notes

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Video Transcript

Hi everybody it’s Evan Luzi from The Black and Blue and today I want to talk to you about rack focusing.

Usually when you hear people speak about pulling focus, they’ll mention how it’s both an art and a science. The science part is measuring your distances, calculating them on the fly, and being very precise in your measurements. The art part is the “touch” you put into pulling focus — how fast do you do it, how long does it last, when do you perform it.

And that’s very important in terms of rack focusing.

Now if you don’t know what a rack focus is, it’s when you have two subjects in the frame and you shift the focal plane from one to the other during a shot. Essentially when you do that, you’re also shifting the audience’s focus between the two subjects.

And it’s a very effective tool. It’s one of the most effective tools in a filmmaker’s toolbox when used appropriately.

When used appropriately, it’s so engrained in our cinematic language that even though it could draw you out of the movie and say, “Hey, you’re watching a movie didn’t you just see that focus shift?” that we just accept it when done right and when done with subtlety.

And a very important part of doing a rack focus right is the speed at which you do it. In my mind there are three things that you need to take into account when determining the speed of a rack focus.

There’s the action in a scene — whether it’s character action or some other type of action. There’s camera movement/composition. And then there is the tone of the scene, the tone of the story, or even the tone of a particular shot.

So I want to show you some examples of rack focuses from different projects I’ve worked on and sort-of explain how those three things played into it. Hopefully you can take that back with you on set and help give the DP [Director of Photography] a stronger shot to fulfill the director’s vision.

So let’s go ahead and take a look.

Part 1: Action In a Scene

So this first shot I want to show you is going to demonstrate how action affects the speed of a rack focus. This shot is from a commercial that I worked on that I actually wrote about on this blog.

You maybe remember it was about a tennis player who goes into a baseball batting cage to practice for Andy Roddick’s serve at the Australian Open. I actually wrote about, in the post, this particular shot where I mentioned how the tennis player goes into the batting cage and the door shots. And I had to rack focus from the actor’s face to the door of the batting cage.

And in my first couple takes, I botched it — I didn’t hit my marks, I didn’t do a very good job. The director, knowing we were on such a tight schedule, was ready to move on, but I spoke up.

I said, “Chris just give me one more take I promise I can nail it.”

Thankfully he did and I did nail it and that’s the particular shot you’re going to see right now.

So one thing to notice is how the rack focus is almost invisible. The reason it’s invisible is because it’s hidden inside the action. When the actor steps in his face is in focus, as the door is swinging — because there’s motion blur you wouldn’t be able to notice that it’s out of focus — but by the time it shuts, boom, it’s in focus and you can see the sign.

And so this is one of those cases where the action in a scene dictated the speed of my rack focus. It would’ve been weird if the door shut and then I got it in focus which is what was happening those first couple takes that everybody was sort-of wishy-washy on.

Now this doesn’t have to be a physical action all the time. Sometimes the action in a scene could mean dialogue. So you have two characters in different perspectives — this one speaks and then you rack focus to this one finishing their sentence (or something like that).

But the important thing is for how long that action takes place in the scene is how long your rack focus needs to be.

Because if you land it late it is not as effective and it is going to be noticed by everybody watching — including the audience.

Part 2: Camera Movement

The second thing — and probably the most prevalent scenario that influences the speed of your rack focus — is composition/camera movement.

It’s a very popular shot to have either a dolly or steadicam or jib or a crane or some type of camera movement device move a shot along and, all of the sudden, something new gets revealed into the frame.

Now in this shot that I’m showing you right now, you’ll see a mailbox. You can read the name on it and then as the dolly keeps moving it’s revealed that there’s a man walking up to his front door. And so we get a connection between this man and, presumably, what is his name or his mailbox. And if it’s not him, then we’re going to find out who “M. Dooley” is.

So the speed of this type of rack focus is dictated by the reveal.

How quickly does the new thing come into frame? If it comes in very quickly, you’re going to have just as quick a rack focus. If it sort-of creeps in, you can slow it down a little bit.

But you don’t want to slow it down too much.

Some of this is affected by your depth-of-field and also the production design, the shot itself.

If there’s a lot of empty space between your old focal point and your new focal point, you don’t want to take a lot of time getting to the new one because you’re going to have nothing to focus on in between them — there’s just going to be dead space. And you’re going to have some excruciating few seconds or even half-seconds where everything’s out of focus and that’s not what you want.

On the other hand if you’re shooting, say, down a hallway and you’re rack focusing from — let’s say there are posters along the wall. You’re rack focusing from one poster at the end to one poster in the foreground.

You don’t necessarily need to make it so quick, unless that’s what the director or DP wants. But you can slow it down a little bit because you’ll have so many posters between the other ones that, as the focus is happening, the audience’s eye can follow along.

But usually it’s pretty obvious when it’s dictated by the reveal.

Most of the time that I’ve done shots like this, the reveal happens very quickly.

And you want to be on top of the rack focus before the audiences sort-of catch on to this out-of-focus thing in the foreground or in the background — because they’ll see the movement of it. You want to get the focus to it as quickly as possible — without rushing it — to make sure they can find out what “that” is.

Part 3: The Tone of a Scene

So the final thing that’s going to affect your rack focus is the tone. The tone of the story, the tone of the scene, or even of a particular shot.

Is the scene tense? In which case maybe a quick rack focus is better.

Or is the tone somber? In which case a slow, methodical rack focus might be more appropriate.

You know, I can’t give you any particular advice on which one to use because it’s so circumstantial. It plays so heavily into the particular project that you’re on or, even within a project, which shot you’re on.

My advice would be — if you don’t instinctively know — is to ask the DP.

But I’ve never really been in a situation where I haven’t instinctively known how fast to perform a rack focus. Because usually I watch rehearsals, I get a feeling through the dialogue what’s the scene about, or I simply ask the DP or the director. If you watch enough movies, you really get a sense for what’s appropriate.

And if you’re too quick or you’re too slow, I guarantee you the DP will probably tell you.

But as an example for this type of tone affecting the speed of a rack focus, I want to point to a very popular shot that you see a lot. And that’s the point-of-view “wake up” shot. You see it a lot in war movies where like a grenade goes off and all of the sudden you’re at the point-of-view of the guy who’s been hit by the grenade. He sits up and everything’s out of focus and then it comes into focus.

That’s where tone of the scene is affecting the rack focus of a shot.

Like I said, I can’t give you any particular advice on how to approach it except that you’ll know what to do — and, if you don’t, you’ll be told what to do.

Part 4: Rack Focus Recap

So as I said before, the rack focus is one of the most effective tools in a filmmaker’s toolbox when used with subtlety.

It’s a really cool thing as a focus puller to be able to do.

Normally we just try and keep things in focus and keep it invisible, but with a rack focus, you’re actually bringing the focal plane to the awareness of the audience. When it’s done right, they may notice it, but it’s a really cool trick and master filmmaker’s have been using it for years.

Now when you’re on set pulling focus, you want to make sure that you do it with still some level of subtlety otherwise it’s not nearly as effective. So just take into account the action of the scene, the camera movement of the scene, and the tone of the scene and you’ll be well on your way to keeping those rack focuses invisible to the eye.

Thanks for watching guys, I hope this was helpful to you! And make sure to check out the rest of my “How to Pull Focus” series on The Black and Blue.

And I’ll see you back at the website — thanks!

  • http://www.diyfilmschool.net/ DIYFilmSchool.net

    I really appreciate this post, Evan. I don’t do any AC work unless I’m shooting my own project. I’m typically a producer or AD. Finding your blog and reading (and watching) the posts so far, I’m learning quite a bit about the art of being an AC. This video is going to help me with focusing in general, which has not been a terrible issue, but I have noticed slip-ups that I can correct for the future.

    I liked this video because of your descriptions and breakdowns of the scenes. It really goes to show how integral having an understanding of the story of a film, the understanding of what’s going on, is to people who may not be traditionally viewed as having much involvement in the story itself.

    One of the interesting things about this particular video, to me, was that it was like we caught up with you during downtime. Some people try to make demos and tutorial videos a major production (I’m guilty of that), whereas you seem to speak from a place of minimalism. “Here’s what we’re going to talk about”, then you talk about it.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Thank you! Some videos lend themselves to be major productions, but I don’t have the time nor the skills to make anything like that. It’s easier for me to just set up a camera and talk. I do spend a lot of time beforehand, however, outlining what I will talk about and practicing. It’s still hard not to ramble though :P

      In terms of focus pulling, it’s a lot harder to do it if you’re also shooting at the same time. It can be very difficult. But with a locked off camera, you could focus completely on doing a rack.

      • http://www.diyfilmschool.net/ DIYFilmSchool.net

        I agree, It seems the issues I’ve had have been when going handheld. Maybe for stability’s sake I should finally break down and build a simple shoulder rig when not using a tripod.