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?
How to Get Better at Pulling Focus, Slating, and Being a Badass AC
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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.
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.
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.
As a camera assistant, you’ve probably had to explain what you do to a friend or family member, but have you ever had to explain it to somebody in production? Sometimes there’s a disconnect between what production asks of an AC and what you’re trained to do.
Do you know the difference between flying a Steadicam in high mode or low mode? What about Don Juan and missionary? In this post, we put the dirty bedroom jokes aside and look at basic Steadicam positions and the terms used to describe them from a beginner’s perspective.
Netting a lens is a great and simple way to add style to a scene using cloth material mounted on the rear element of a lens. While netting lenses won’t happen on every job, it’s a technique camera assistants are expected to be familiar with – and can learn how to do in this video.
Have you ever wanted to sit down for coffee with an industry pro just to ask them a few questions about their experience and their life as a crew member? That’s exactly what a Reddit AMA (ask me anything) is like – a virtual version of a coffee meet-up. And though it won’t get you that latte you’re craving, this AMA with a union camera assistant may help you answer a few questions.
Have you ever been pulling focus and found yourself off the mark during that split-second in which you glanced between the actor in a scene and your marks on the follow focus? It only takes a split second for the focus to go soft. By that time, the camera operator mutters, “Buzzy” and you know you’re going to need another take.