How to Improve your Focus-Pulling Finesse

What is a Focus Puller?

On a film set, one of the main jobs of the 1st AC - or 1st Assistant to the Camera - is to keep the image sharp while the camera is rolling. This is colloquially known as focus pulling. It may sound like a simple job, but pulling focus is actually a rather calculated skill; it requires the oddly specific talents of being able to accurately estimate distances by looking at them, understanding the idiosyncrasies of non-linear focus/iris/zoom rings on lenses, anticipating minute movements of both the camera operator and the talent on screen, and lots lots more. The best focus pullers are those whose work goes completely unnoticed.

Helena works with DP Dave Stewart to make sure their focus and iris control is set for a complicated shot.

Focus on Focus

Although pulling focus is only a fraction of the 1st AC's job, it is a rather important one. Camera and G&E can put countless hours into creating a breathtaking image, but that image is only as good as it is sharp. Missing focus is one of the best ways to pull your audience out of an important moment and leave them thinking instead about the technical side of movie magic: a fatal mistake.

Here are a few of the ways I’ve learned to improve my focus pulling skills, so you can too!

1 | Home, bored? Measure stuff!

Looking for a pandemic-proof way to improve your focus skills? Invest in a tape measure (you'll need one anyway)! Pick objects in your room and guess how far away they are from each other, then double-check your guesses with your tape measure. The goal is to consistently estimate as close as possible to the actual distance. It may sound boring, and that's because it is, but it will make you better at pulling focus!

2 | Adapt, react, readapt, anticipate

Keep your ear to the ground and learn to anticipate! Anticipate what shot is coming next, where the camera will be going, which lens you'll be using, whether or not the crew is getting hangry, etc. 1st ACing is all about becoming a master of anticipation, but because this article is specifically about pulling focus, I'll stick to using anticipation just as a tool in your proverbial focus pulling fanny pack.

Anticipate the movements of your camera operator and subjects during takes. Being able to anticipate when your talent or op will move based on the script, blocking, acting style, shooting style, etc. is an invaluable skill for keeping things sharp. Pair this with a solid (ideally, second nature) understanding of the mapping and direction of the focus marks on the lens and follow focus, and you’ll be unstoppable.

The best takes are sometimes ones where talent improvises. Try your best to nail focus every time, even without marks, so that every take is usable. This can be tricky, and usually takes some time to master, but learning to be anticipatory instead of reactionary is a life lesson everyone can use!

3 | Know your Gear. Love your Gear.

Knowing the ins and outs of all things camera gear is a vital part of 1st ACing, but knowing your focus tech is especially critical. How do you quickly troubleshoot issues with your motorized gears? What do you do when your wireless feed goes down? What's the best way to know whether or not your image is sharp? Do you like focus peaking? Assist? Image sharpening? I'm a zoom-in kind of person myself, but it's entirely up to you. How does your DP take their coffee? I digress.

If possible, get your hands on the gear you'll be using before every shoot -- camera, lenses, follow focus, monitors, wireless transmission system, etc. If not, do your homework. Read articles about gear setup and maintenance. Watch YouTube videos about common technical issues and troubleshooting. Dive into Reddit forums of arguments over 0.1 milliseconds of latency or actual versus documented distances of transmitter range. This isn't high school. The geekier you are, the more people will want you around. Just don't be a d*ck about it.

4 | Know your style. Love your style.

While we're on the subject of understanding your gear, it's a good idea to understand yourself as a focus puller. What information do you need? What information only gets in the way? Some 1st ACs insist on using wireless monitors to pull off of (myself included), others trust their eyes, the actors, and the focus marks on the barrel of the lens. At times, the information you need can vary based on the setup and situation. As long as the shot stays sharp, your prefered method of pulling focus is entirely up to you. Just make sure that you're not still trying to figure it out on the day of the shoot.

5 | Take marks, but trust none of 'em

It's easy to think of rehearsals as a time when you can finally relax for a moment. Unfortunately, it's a mistake to think that ACs can ever relax. Our job thrives on anxiety. Did I say anxiety? I meant anticipation.

Use every moment as a chance to improve your practice. Rehearsals are no exception. They're a great time to get marks on your follow focus and on the floor.

Speaking of – marks are a good start, but trust them only as far as you can throw (to) them. Keep the specifics of every pull agile and spontaneous. Although it may sound ridiculous, try to stay in the mindset that every second of every shot could always be sharper. Avoid hunting, but keep that wheel on the move! I've found that subtly rocking back and forth over your focus mark is a great way to maintain sharpness, without drawing attention to the fact that in this life you're never 100% sure of anything.

6 | You're allowed to be imperfect! (even if it doesn’t always feel like it)

If you didn't catch marks during the rehearsal (or if there wasn't a rehearsal at all), don't be afraid to ask for a moment to take marks. It’s in everyone’s best interest that when the time comes, you’re ready to roll. That way you won’t miss focus on an otherwise perfect take. As you get better at pulling focus and you become more comfortable with your gear, you’ll soon be able to confidently pull without marks; but take your time learning the ropes.

On that note, if you miss focus, speak up! You may feel embarrassed, but it’s so much better that the crew finds out about it on the day, and not weeks or months later in the edit.

Understanding the technical side of optics and focus planes – and the choices you and your op can make to better your odds of nailing focus – will always be beneficial. Asking your operator to close down a stop so that your plane isn’t so razor-thin is definitely a valid request, even though it will more than likely be met with an “umm no.”

7 | 90% Science, 10% Art

Understand that pulling focus is both a science and an art. You will likely be told to redo a pull from time to time, even if it was perfectly sharp. Maybe it was too slow, or too jumpy, or too soon. Seize this as an opportunity to lean into the artistic side of 1st ACing. When applicable, get creative and work with your DP to design stylistic focus pulls that enhance the mood, tone, or aesthetic of the project. To me, this is the best part of the job.

8 | Focus.

At the end of the day, pulling focus is a hands-on skill and the best way to get better at it is to get lots and lots of experience doing it! Expect a learning curve, but once you start nailing it, you’ll only get better from there.

Best of luck, young focus fanatics!

For more information about 1st ACs, check out my upcoming article on tips for becoming a better 1st AC.

by Helena G.

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