As much as we try to be, camera assistants and focus pullers aren’t perfect.
There’s a million ways a take can end up out of focus and that’s OK, but the real test of integrity is how you handle it afterwards.
Your immediate reaction to a situation where a shot may have been out of focus is important because film sets move at breakneck speed. As soon as crew can move on to the next scene, they will.
So you need to speak up quickly and…tell the camera operator immediately!
Together you work as a team and this is one of those instances where you have to look out for each other.
Technically, focus falls under the responsibility of the camera operator since they watch the scene unfold through the eyepiece and you may not have a monitor nor be looking at it.
With that said, camera operators also split their attention between composition, anticipating moves, and physically moving the camera. There is a chance they won’t realize a shot was out-of-focus, so don’t trust them completely to let you know.
If you realize you missed a mark late, or an actor overstepped their bounds, or you saw on a monitor the most important line in the scene was out of focus, tell the camera operator the take wasn’t good for you.
If you are unsure about the focus, ask the camera operator how it was. Between the two of you, you have to determine if indeed the shot was out of focus, for how long, how badly, and whether it needs to be shot again.
Sometimes you get lucky and your instinct is wrong. Other times you won’t have to say anything before you hear, “you were a little soft on that one.” When you’ve been working with the same person for a long time, all you really exchange is a look.
Once you inform them, the camera operator or director of photography decides either to:
- request to shoot another take
- move on in the scene
- defer the decision higher up
- strangle you for incompetence (just kidding… sort of)
Their decision can be swayed if you directly ask for another chance at the shot and assure them you’ll get it.
You may even catch a break and something else went wrong in the scene (i.e. an actor flubs a line) so you get another take to get the focus right.
Finally, once you’ve moved on from the scene, don’t fret about it. Everyone (and I mean everyone) messes up pulling focus now and then. When you buzz a take, brush it off, hit it the next time and keep on limping by.
What do you say to the camera operator when your shot is out of focus? What terms have you heard about takes being soft (i.e. focus pocus)? Let me know in the comments!