The post I wrote yesterday – about pulling focus off of a monitor and why it’s a bad habit – stirred up some dissent from readers. It turned into a great discussion about the advantages of using a monitor that’s worth repeating here, starting with the first dissent from Jon Howard on Facebook:
Try sharping without a monitor when you’re on B camera and (a) the DoP sometimes doesn’t have time to line up until you’re already turning over, AND (b) the wheels on the dolly are always unlocked, AND (c) he’s also using a slider, AND (d) you almost never have a rehearsal, AND (e) the director almost always wants to move on after take 1. Oh and you’re always on the tight lens while A camera has the wide, so you can’t put any marks down. I wholeheartedly disagree with the idea that it’s a bad habit. Sometimes it’s the only way, and if I couldn’t do it, I know I’d have been off this job weeks ago.
Gary Huff added in the same thread:
You should bring your own monitor. As Jon pointed out, his incredibly specific scenario aside, there’s really no time to bring out the tape measure, and if you attempt to do so, you’ll be seen as slowing down the shoot, thus costing the production money, and you’ll quickly be replaced by someone who can focus pull on the fly.
“Freelancing” on the monitor is a great way to train the logarithmic muscle memory that is very helpful between marks. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m one of the young firsts who loves pulling off the monitor. Not universally, but for commercial and product work I’m buried in the screen more often than not.
Lots of cases for and against. If you are familiar with the pull and range of a lens (higher that 2.8 stops, common cine lenses) then off monitor is good and most of the time better to react. But lots of cases need monitors to work. Did a gig on leica still lenses WFO. Leicas have a very short throw and untrustable marks. I don’t know how you’re going to focus without a monitor. You can get close but close is not good enough on an ECU. I don’t care how good the talents ears look the eyes should be in focus instead!
Since rehearsals have disappeared when film did, I think a monitor is now the only way to help an AC. Making marks is a bonus, especially when you don’t have a 2nd AC. So yes, it’s a bad habit. But it’s now how it works.
The discussion on Twitter provided some push back as well:
@evanluzi I think calling it a ‘bad habit’ seems snobby to AC’s who work in less cinematic fields or w/o access to well-calibrated gear.
— Michael Bell (@mgbesq) March 27, 2014
@evanluzi it should be a combination of both. Measure and monitor. In Holland, the actors never hit their mark…:))
— Rozemarijn Stokkel (@StokkelR) March 27, 2014
@evanluzi On lenses without adequate focus marks, I’d say a monitor is necessary.
— Lee Clements (@phemiusthebard) March 28, 2014
But it wasn’t a one-sided push for monitors – Jonathon C. Hout agreed with the premise of the post:
I don’t think Evan is advocating a position where you should never pull focus on a monitor so much as he’s coming down a bit on people who rely on it as their sole tool. In my experience, a lot of times an AC will have time to get marks if they’re on top of it, but instead uses a monitor as the lazy way out.
Obviously there’s no one technique that applies to every single situation, but I and other DPs I know have definitely been burned by an AC who relied solely on a monitor to pull focus. IMO marks are far and away the best method for getting critical focus, but it all depends on the job.
I’ve only been 1sting for about a year, but I recently evolved my game beyond looking at the monitor. I cannot tell you how much my ability to keep the subject in focus has improved now that I primarily use marks over the monitor! I wish I had been doing it the whole time!
I’ve only pulled focus on a handful of shoots so far, and based on those I’ve found that using a monitor is sometimes the best option. But, even when I pull off a monitor I try to get some reference marks whenever possible to help me out if I lose focus. It’s a useful and often necessary tool, especially on fast paced digital shoots where movement is more or less improvised and you aren’t given rehearsals.
Also, a lot of people who have experience shooting with large sensor cameras, such as DSLR’s, and pulling their focus are well adapted to using a monitor.
Finally, I thought these tweets captured the spirit of the post well:
@evanluzi A monitor is like a Cinetape. As a confidence checker it’s great, buy if you rely on it you’re fucked.
— Jason Cuddy (@jasoncuddy) March 27, 2014
@evanluzi Using a monitor is great for FOLLOWING focus. ;)
— Ryan E. Walters (@ryanewaltcine) March 28, 2014
Why It’s OK to Use a Monitor and I Do It, Too
So now that you’ve heard both sides, let me clarify some things as I try to walk this tightrope…
First, it’s OK if you want to use a monitor to pull focus from. In the last post, I even talk about using a monitor myself to pull focus in situations when we’re using still lenses without witness marks:
If I do have time to grab some marks – using 1:1 zooming, peaking, and my eyes – then I find it frees me from the monitor. I can go back to staring down the side of the camera and hitting my marks on the follow focus. Otherwise, without that bone thrown at me, the monitor, through all its faults, is the one thing I can trust without distance markings to let me know where my focus is during a shot.
At no point in my last post did I say you should never use a monitor or that it’s an unhelpful tool or that it doesn’t serve a purpose. Because you should use one when necessary, it can be helpful, and it serves many purposes. Instead I was encouraging you not to rely on the monitor as the sole tool if and when you have other means available.
I completely understand that camera assistants get put in positions where the monitor is the best and, like Jon Howard said, perhaps the “only way” to keep a shot in focus reliably. Sometimes estimating distance without rehearsals, a moving camera, and a moving subject on a long lens is a Sisyphean feat conquerable only by using the monitor.
In this case, using the monitor isn’t a habit – it’s a technique used in a situation that demands it. But it can become a bad habit when you ignore other available tools and methods that aid in pulling focus.
Nobody knows that more than myself.
All it took was one shoot early in my career when the DP told me to lose the onboard monitor so his rig could be lighter and I realized just how much I was relying on it. I felt naked without it… and afraid. It was incredibly stressful. By relying so much on the monitor, it crippled my ability to pull focus reliably without it. I had transformed it from a helpful tool into a bad habit. Since then, I have tried to move away from staring at a monitor when possible.
I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to use the monitor (such as the aforementioned still lenses scenario), but I try not to use it exclusively against more traditional distance marks which I find are more accurate and easier to adjust should a camera’s position change right before rolling on a take.
Additionally, I like having a monitor to check during a take after I’ve landed on my mark or, as Max said in his post, when having to perform a rack focus to something entering the frame. And focusing by eye on the monitor when popping off B-Roll is much faster than whipping my tape measure out.
These are acceptable and encouraged uses of the monitor to aid in pulling focus.
I’m not advocating that all AC’s should throw away their monitors or pretend they don’t exist. I’m saying that doing the opposite of that – gluing your face to the monitor, using it exclusively, and not being able to pull without one – is a bad habit. It should be a balance. Use the monitor to check measurements and your pulls. Rely on it when you’re left without marks or it’s too difficult to estimate.
“Everything in moderation,” they say and that includes the temptation of using a monitor as the main tool to pull focus when distance measurements, though harder, provide several advantages once you get past the learning curve.
(Now, if you think pulling off of a monitor is fundamentally better than measuring out for marks regardless of time constraints or production limitations, then that is a different discussion to have.)
All of this is best summed up by Michael Kubaszak’s comment on Facebook:
If you are consistently in focus no one will give a fuck about how you did it other than other camera assistants who will always tell you that their way is better.
The key being “consistently in focus.” If, for your situation, with your gear, with your skills, and your circumstances, that means using a monitor, then so be it. Just be prepared, at some point, to have to pull focus without it – to be consistent with or without a monitor. That’s what I was getting at.
And since that attitude wasn’t reflected clearly enough in the last post, I apologize. That’s my fault as the author. While I share my thoughts on how I think camera assisting duties should be performed, I’m not egotistical enough to believe my way is the only way. I believe my way is a good method, but I’m also pragmatic – if you have a different method that delivers the same results and works for you, then stick with it. I might even try it myself.
For me, I don’t like to find myself stuck to a monitor. It’s a bad habit I try to catch myself from doing when I can avoid it. For you, maybe it’s how you earn your paycheck. And if that means a production pleased with dailies and some phone calls for more jobs, then ignore what I’m telling you because you’ve obviously got something good going.
And if you’re just starting out and aren’t sure which method is right for you, try them both to get personal experiences with the pros and cons of each. Eventually you’ll learn which situations are best for each method and maybe develop a few tricks of your own.
P.S. How many camera assistants does it take to screw in a light bulb? Five – one to do it and four to tell you how they did it on the last job. More self-deprecating jokes here.