Pulling focus in handheld situations is tough. You have to make quick calculations in your head about distance and be ready to anticipate unpredictable moments.
It’s not an easy task and requires a Zen-like state of mind to handle all the pressure. If you can pull focus while handheld, you’ll be able to pull focus in almost any other situation you come across.
Today I want to share with you one of the ways I help make pulling focus while handheld a little bit easier.
The Hand on the Back Basketball Defense
When I was a kid, I played basketball every winter for about five years in the local youth league. It became apparent after awhile that, though I enjoyed the game, Michael Jordan I was not. I was short, I lost control of the ball at high speeds, and my shooting was sporadic.
But I was good at defending.
And one of the things I did to help me become a great defensemen was to place my hand subtly on my opponents back while guarding them. This way I could feel where they were moving while focusing my vision on the basketball.
For the most part, my technique worked and the brilliant thing about it is that it gave me the ability to perceive two actions going on at once: the action of the player I was guarding and the action of the ball I was watching.
Getting the Camera Operator’s Back
Whenever I am pulling focus in a handheld situation, I always place my hand on the camera operator’s back like I’m playing basketball. And the reasons are the same: I get to perceive two actions at once.
The hand on the back is even part of my process when getting ready to roll camera on handheld:
- The camera operator or DP lets me know they’re ready for the camera
- “Camera coming up!” I say as I place it on their shoulder
- I set myself on whichever side I am pulling focus from
- I place one hand on the follow focus, the other rested on their back
- Hit record, “camera speed!” and the cadence begins
While drifting around the set, I always have my hand floating either on or right behind the camera operator and their back. It has gotten so habitual for me I often don’t notice it and if for some reason I can’t place my hand there — such as limited space — it becomes a distraction.
Three Reasons Why Your Hand Helps
You could benefit from using the same technique of placing your hand on the camera operator’s back.
This is something I started doing without any prior knowledge of why or how — it simply became a habit because it felt like the right thing to do. But after I became more aware of camera assisting while training 2nd AC’s, I started to realize that the action of putting my hand on the back is important for a few reasons:
1. Predictable Motion
The first major reason I continue to do this is because it allows me to predict and anticipate the movement of the camera without looking at it.
Sometimes with handheld scenes, you don’t have the luxury of a rehearsal or every take is different within a freeform floating environment. Being able to know what is going to happen next allows you to not only follow along, but follow with focus much better.
If your hand is on the back of the operator, you feel which way they sway often before their entire body moves in that direction.
Placing your hand on their back is your way of knowing which way you’ll need to walk with the camera, which direction the action in the scene is moving towards, and also allow you to anticipate rack focusing to the subjects in that part of the scene.
2. Safety Reasons
The second major reason is safety.
While operating handheld, the person with the camera on their shoulder is in a very vulnerable position. They can’t look at their feet, they can’t see outside of the frame of the camera, and, subsequently, they have to trust their motions to be clear from any hazards on set.
With your hand on the back of the operator, you are able to prevent any sudden moves that might endanger people on set. You are also telling them they are free to move wherever they want because you, quite literally, “have their back.”
It doesn’t happen often, but there have been times where I used my hand on their back to forcefully prevent the camera operator from tumbling over some cables or apple boxes strewn on the set. In those cases it usually ruined the take, but it’s better to go again on another take than to lose a crew member and possibly the camera.
Safety is a priority worth losing takes over.
This technique also works well when you place your hand on the back of the camera in tight spaces where it may be vulnerable to walls, set dressing, or a million other pointy and sharp objects waiting to ruin an LCD screen or bump a magazine the wrong way.
If done right, your hand acts as a perfect bumper between whatever object and the camera. Let the camera bump slowly into your hand so you don’t ruin the shot, but enough to signal the operator that they’re at their backwards limit.
It’s rare, but not out of the question, to have to signal the camera operator for certain actions taking place in a scene.
With your hand on their back, a quick tap of your fingers is enough to signal them to move to a new frame or start a zoom or whatever is needed for the shot. The tap of the fingers is quiet, which is perfect for sound, and is also more instant than a verbal cue.
Even if it’s not a signal within the scene, you often develop a shorthand with certain operators and maybe you turn a finger tap into something that lets them know you’re about to “Roll Out” or that a take is going bad — who knows!
The point is, having your hand on their back makes it available for quick, quiet, and effective signals for whatever purpose.
Your Turn to Give it a Try
The hand on the back is a simple and effective way to conduct a lot of business while shooting in handheld situations. It lets you predict and anticipate, keep things safe, and signal actions to the camera operator.
Remember to personalize the technique to suit your natural tendencies. The more natural it feels, the less distracted you will be during a shot and more likely not to make any focus pulling mistakes.
And to answer that burning question inside your head: Yes, I could probably beat you in a 1-on-1 game of hoops.
What sort of techniques do you use while pulling focus on handheld to anticipate the movement of the camera? Do you use a variation of this? And do you enjoy shooting handheld?