Any camera assistant worth their salt can pull focus using nothing more than a few measurements, their eyes, and a follow focus. But it’s become increasingly common to look at a monitor – instead of a subject – when pulling focus. So why is that a bad habit?
Filmmaking Tips and Advice
Framestore, the VFX house that did effects for Gravity, says 4K is coming faster than you think:
You might think the switch to 4K sounds a long way off, especially as the first 4K TV sets were only recently launched, but there is a good chance it will happen faster than the switch from standard to high definition. The TV sets have become affordable much in a much shorter time – HD sets remained at a premium for years, but 55” ultra HD televisions are already available for less than £2,000.
The real question is: will it make an impact?
But will the viewer notice the difference? Well, yes. As our Head of Engineering, Andy Howard, describes: “If you’re looking at someone shot in the correct light and you’re at the correct viewing distance from the 4K display, which is quite critical, then you’ll see detail such as the hairs on their arms, the precise texture of their skin.”
“Correct viewing distance,” being the operative phrase here. As Stu Maschwitz at Prolost explains, the closer you sit to a display, the more that resolution becomes discernable:
If you bought a 60” television, you’d have to sit about four feet away from it before you’d perceive the full benefit of 4K over good old 1080p.
Most people won’t be sitting that close to such a large television. For projectors and theaters, however, 4K may be a different story. Normally I’d chalk this article up to marketing hype, but I respect Framestore a lot after seeing Gravity and all the behind-the-scenes work it took to execute.
Cinematographer John Brawley explains why slating is important and also how to do it the right way:
I’ve been chatting with some of my own crew and some directors about slating technique and protocol and it seems in this digital age some discipline and technique has been overlooked…. and it occurred to me that it takes a huge amount of subtle knowledge to be able to slate properly. One director was bemoaning the fact that they had to keep staring at the loader’s face on the split right before every take during an important emotional scene. They also took an interminably long time to actually announce the slate as well, totally distracting the beginning of the take. ”Doesn’t anyone know how to slate ? Don’t they know how they can influence the beginning of a scene ? That they can set the tone for the actors ? Why are they taking so long to announce the slate and get out of there ? What ever happened to the discipline of the film days where you’d get the slate and only the slate in shot and get the hell out of there ???” It was a full blown rant…..
Like a butler, you need to be totally present yet not noticed. The way you speak, the manner with which you slate can greatly affect actor performance and the on set ambience. You’re also a constant visual representative of the camera department.
Spot on post with some great tips. Make sure to read the comments also where others contribute their own thoughts and experiences. Finally, check out my own series of posts on slating.
Focus puller Alice writes some thoughts on the Movi from a camera assistant’s perspective:
Much like when a steadicam is bought in for the day the Movi needs a dedicated assistant to build it and continually adjust the settings according to the operator’s needs, change lens etc…each change needs a rebalance and a steadicam rebalance is quicker. Trying to build one and shoot in between with another camera is just too much, it’s counterproductive on set.
Shots on a Movi should be treated with as much respect as a steadicam. At the moment I don’t believe its ‘quicker’ and focusing on a complicated Movi shot is much harder than with an experienced steadicam operator. I say this because with the best will in the world the majority of people holding and operating the Movi cannot physically hold the rig and repeat the shots the same two times in a row. Trying to get focus marks today was just out of the question, I had to wing it and pull off the monitor which is not my style and it didn’t look the best.
Linda Essig takes a stand against a donut shop company that sent a mass-email looking for film students to shoot a promotional video in exchange for “some good experience” and “a dozen free glazed doughnuts every week for an entire year”:
The email was sent to a long list of faculty members at film programs in the region. I hit reply all with the question “What is your pay rate for these skilled services?”
Predictably, there was no pay-rate – unless you consider a dozen donuts a week for a year payment.
(Side note: why not just take the cost of free donuts and make that the rate? Cost of a dozen donuts is $5 – $8. Assuming the profit is about $3 per dozen, that’s $150 right there. An extraordinarily low rate, of course, but these are students who are looking for experience and it can at least help pay the bills.)
There was no payment because it was a “volunteer/intern opportunity.” That triggered Essig to push further and she replied with US Department of Labor rules of an “internship,” but it fell on deaf ears.
Notably, Essig doesn’t rule out freebies or internships as a viable pathway to gain experience. Instead she’s speaking out against companies using them purely for free labor and not as a partnership in which the gains are less lopsided between the parties.
And so, to bolster that point of positivity, a few days later she wrote a post about saying “yes”:
Just – or even more – important than knowing when to say “no,” is knowing when and how to say “yes.” Giving builds community; giving builds friendships; giving builds social capital (although one need not think of it in those terms); giving lifts the spirit of both the giver and receiver. We may give of our time, we may give of our money, we may give of our things, we may give of our talent. Related to giving is sharing – we may share knowledge, share food, share an experience (good or bad), without any exchange of material goods.
I’m glad she wrote the second post because there are some genuinely good opportunities that unfortunately offer little to no-pay. I started off my career as an AC this way and have built several connections in my network with pro-bono work.
The key is knowing when you’re getting hosed and when it’s an investment in a relationship that could pay off later. That’s something I talk about in my post “Pay Me, Teach Me, or Create with Me” in which I basically say a project has to offer me money, worthwhile experience/networking, and-or creative satisfaction. The interplay between these things drives my decision to accept or reject a job.
Unfortunately, the donut project had no money, didn’t sound that interesting, the learning opportunity seemed limited, and it was a one-time thing with no tangible promise of networking.
Working in a rental house has always been pitched to beginners wanting to get into the camera department as a solid entry-way into the biz. The caveat is that you’re giving up some of what makes the film industry attractive – like a freelance schedule, working on set, making movies – in order to get your start. This rental tech, after close to 3 years on the job, agrees:
I’ll be honest, it did change me. I wanted to be a DP for the longest time, and I wanted to work from the bottom up over 20 years. Now, I’m not so sure. It definitely is a place you can get stuck. Remember the people that come in there are ACs already on shows not hiring, and if they need an extra hand, they don’t immediately think of the prep tech from the rental house.
That said, he does get work as an AC:
Lastly, I do get to set fairly often. I usually work as a 1st AC and am pretty well prepared to that affect, have a wireless FF, etc.
The rest of the AMA has great info on how consigned gear works, what cameras go out most often, and how camera assistants can work better with the rental house staff. Being a rental tech isn’t the most glamorous position, but it provides a stepping stone for a lot of people and they can be an AC’s best friend in a pinch.
Speaking of pulling focus, I watched American Hustle the other night and couldn’t help but pay close attention to the focus since it’s something others kept bringing up in discussions about the movie across the web. In fact, the film’s focus puller, 1st AC Gregory Irwin, offered an explanation for the focus issues in one such discussion thread at Cinematography.com:
You’re right! Much of the movie had focus issues. The cinematographer insisted upon using old Canon K35 lenses for their 1970’s look, the time period that the movie takes place. Unfortunately, the K35’s have 1970’s technology as well. Since AMERICAN HUSTLE was shot entirely on steadicam, the use of Preston FIZ remote focus units were necessary. Since the K35 lenses have a compressed focus scale and are known for “loss of motion,” they could neither respond to the Preston transmitter commands nor return to a prescribed focus mark. There wasn’t much chance for success in the focus department with these lenses. About half way through the shoot and against the cinematographer’s wishes, the First AC insisted on switching the Canon K35 lenses for the Zeiss Hi Speed lenses which were made for cinematic use. After the switch, the focus issues were eliminated and the integrity of a period look was mantained.
Without this knowledge, you might assume the focus issues were related to such a loose shooting style – constant camera movement on Steadicam without rehearsals. Irwin himself confirmed that’s how director David O’Russel likes to work, saying, “David does not rehearse, there are no marks and we haven’t a clue to what’s going to happen during a take till after we have shot it.”
But Irwin refutes that the style of shooting played any role in the sometimes buzzy focus:
It’s interesting to note that Geoff (“A” camera and Steadicam operator) and I are very accustom to no rehearsals or no blocking of a shot. In fact, we kind of enjoy that challenge. We had a tremendous success with David’s THE FIGHTER which was shot in the same fashion. The movie is in frame and completely in focus. The difference was that we did not use the Canon K35 lenses. We shot with Zeiss Master Primes at a T1.3 and it looked fantastic! Hoyte van Hoytema was the cinematographer on THE FIGHTER where as Linus Sangren was the cinematographer on AMERICAN HUSTLE. His choice of employing the Canon K35s was fatal to our success when referring to the focus pulling challenges. Those lenses simply could not perform to the level we required. Thankfully, after we changed lenses to the Zeiss High Speeds, our focus issues were put behind us. I only wish we had made the change earlier in the shooting schedule.
Overall it’s an extremely interesting thread to read from a camera assistant’s perspective.
After a little more than four years, The Black and Blue has published its 500th post – the one you’re reading right now. It’s a big milestone for this tiny website. I’ve written about everything from RED cameras to water bottles to being a tape measure ninja and now it’s time to celebrate the variety of filmmaking topics that we’ve discussed here. And maybe share $500 with some future filmmakers…
NPR, as part of its series on Hollywood jobs, wrote a couple brief articles on camera assisting – one on pulling focus and the other on slating. While those two tasks don’t cover nearly everything camera assistants (ACs) do, they are easily the most visible and accessible duties for an AC.
The article about pulling focus highlights first AC Larry Nielsen as he readies a crane shot:
“She’s starting at about 16 feet,” he explains. “She’s gonna walk towards the camera, and we’re gonna catch her at about 9 feet, and the camera’s gonna swoop around and get as close as about 5 1/2 feet. It’s my job to make sure she’s in focus, frame for frame, 24 frames a second.”
It’s like a slow-motion mental exercise before the real thing begins.
Once the director calls “action,” there are only two people walking as the scene is being shot — Banks and focus puller Nielsen, coordinating the changing camera distances with his remote. Walk of Shame director Steven Brill says he’s depends 100 percent on his first assistant cameraman to keep the scenes in focus.
“If they are not sharp and in focus,” he says, “the film isn’t usable, and we cannot go forward.”
Even Director of Photography Jonathan Brown is in awe.
“It’s a mystical art,” he says.
And the second article about slating also features Nielsen introducing the idea of a slate:
“Miki’s hitting the sticks on this one,” says assistant cameraman Larry Nielsen, pointing to his assistant.
Take after take, day after day, some Miki or other on a movie set “hits the sticks” — to synchronize the sound with the pictures. In the silent-film days, it wasn’t an issue. But once movies started talking, they needed to figure out how to make the lips and the spoken words move at the same time – because the sound is recorded separately.
So someone thought to take two rectangular pieces of wood, hinge them together and then snap them shut in front of the camera before the action began. Later, the sight of the clapper and its distinctive sound on the audio recording could be lined up perfectly.
Both short pieces, but still nice to see camera assistants like Larry and Miki have a chance to talk about their craft and be featured in NPR.
Exactly how big is a Hollywood film crew? Producer Stephen Follows proposed a similar question to some students in Malaysia he was training to be production assistants:
In order to give the students a sense of the scale of these productions I asked them to guess how many people worked on the movie ‘Avatar’. Guesses ranged from a few hundred up to a thousand. The actual figure (according to IMDb) is 2,984.
This got me thinking about what the number of crew members could tell us about a production.
The figures Follows comes up with are interesting (though include caveats such as IMDB’s dependency on self-reporting) and reiterate that crews are like one giant organism slowly lurching towards a creative goal. Like organisms have organs, there are different departments that each have their own role and Follows manages to break down each department’s numbers as well.
Because of how IMDB is setup, the camera department is lumped together with grips and electrics under the heading of “Camera and Electrical.” So the top three films between 1994 and 2013 with the biggest “Camera and Electrical” crews were Now You See Me (334), Iron Man 3 (260), and Titanic (230). Looking at those movies’ credits on IMDB, a lot of this is due to the fact that crew were sourced as locals from several locations and their shoots also demanded additional units for stunts, VFX, etc.
But even when accounting for IMDB’s misgivings and a healthy margin of error, Follows’ breakdown gives you a real sense of the scale Hollywood films operate at.