Film Art and Cinematography : Focus Puller

Focus Puller

Is the focus puller on a given film chosen by the cinematographer, director, studio, or someone else?

For overall photography, is there a ranking in importance (from most to least) of the people who perform in that craft?

Other than good eyesight, what talents are needed by the focus puller?

E pluribus unum

Re: Focus Puller

1) The cinematographer. DPs like to work with focus pullers they know and trust.

2) I'm not sure of any ranking system, but I would assume there needs to be a certain minimal level of skill, technical proficiency, to even be considered by the DP for that job. There are big bucks on the line.

3) The ability to read distance numerical markings on the lens. Typically, unless the focus puller is also the camera operator, they're two separate jobs, and the focus setting(s) of the lens, at least on film, maybe it's different in digital, is predetermined before the camera rolls by running measuring tape from the end of the lens to the actor's face. Also, a sense of timing, a feel for the script, from which line of dialogue to which line of dialogue or from which action to which action to change focus on is essential. This is determined and communicated ahead of time by the director.

Re: Focus Puller

FP's are still used , but with the advent of digital cinematography , not as much . Generally the FP is the assistant cameraman who is training to be the main cameraman , but in independent filmmaking may actually be Hangover Jack , the brother-in-Law of the Producer , who survives on Coke and is trying to get the attention of the actresses , and his hand is a little shaky !




Re: Focus Puller

Thanks to both of you! I'm a fan of classic movies (for me, generally 1930s to ~1950) and interested in how such great photography was obtained. I'm not in the business.

I assume Coke you mention was not Coca Cola®.

Focus is important in any film. I don't know if Greg Toland "invented" the deep focus technique, but it generally seems to be attributed to him. Watching Inside Llewyn Davis recently, I was impressed by French cinematographer Delbonnel's sharp focus with blurred background.

With rapid camera movement, maintaining focus seems like a real task. Digital imaging may have taken a lot of that work out of human hands, as digital anything appears to have almost removed need for humans to do anything complicated.

E pluribus unum

Re: Focus Puller

Intentionally ambivalent JB ! There are still cinematographers or videographers who prefer manual control of the cam , occasionally on large movies too . I'm not an expert in the field , but I believe Mike knows a bit . The best period of film for technique for me was 1940-1950 . The modern style probably started in 1960 which has it's own appeal too .



Re: Focus Puller

As a professional, union focus puller (or 1st Camera Assistant) I can tell you that the job has only gotten much more difficult as digital cinematography grows. Nothing on the focus side has been automated. it is always manual focus with a 1st AC pulling focus on the scene.

The job is basically the same as with film. We maintain the camera gear, order appropriate gear for any given shoot situation, and pull focus during the scene. With digital image capturing not having a gentle slope and fall off of focus like film, new ultra sharp lenses and the ability/desire to shoot at very wide open stops (thus minimal depth of field), the focus job has become incredibly difficult. Compounded on to that, since it's just 1's and 0's, directors want to "shoot the rehearsal", we lost our chance to "warm up". the studio doesn't know that take 1 was really a rehearsal. They just see mistakes.

So just to drive the point home, focus and camera operating has not been automated. It is still all manual operation that requires professional, skilled and trained people to make it work.



Never go with a hippy to a second location.

Re: Focus Puller

Is the focus puller on a given film chosen by the cinematographer, director, studio, or someone else?

It all depends. Many times it is the cinematographer who chooses their AC's based on a relationship or reputation. Sometimes it is the studio or producer who decides, again based on reputation or relationship, especially when the cinematographer is foreign and doesn't know any local AC's, and/or cannot bring their AC on the project.

For overall photography, is there a ranking in importance (from most to least) of the people who perform in that craft?

We all work together to get the job done. Obviously it DP is the most important as the implementation of the visual narrative comes from that person, but below the DP the Gaffer, Camera Operator and the 1st AC all play essential roles to make that happen.

Other than good eyesight, what talents are needed by the focus puller?

Patience, knowledge of the cameras, lenses and accessories being used on the shoot, ability to judge distances and pacing.



Never go with a hippy to a second location.

Re: Focus Puller

It's great here to have someone actually in the business, like you Arriflex.

As an amateur still photographer, I understand your feeling about digital being more complicated. I used a Minolta SLR 35mm film camera for many years and loved it, taking many great shots with it under difficult conditions. However, it was a lot more work to use that Minolta, what with manual focus and other things to take into consideration.

I hate taking stills with a digital phone, because they usually turn out cruddy, and I have to pick out the best from a group of the same image. A monkey can point and shoot a digital still camera and hope for the best.

With the rapid camera movement and use of the Steadicam in modern day action feature films, maintaining focus seems like it can be a real chore.

I liked your comment about "shooting the rehearsal". With talented actors, actresses, and crew, that may yield a scene that the studio accepts. But, I can see where something slightly off could occur and make the suits unhappy.

E pluribus unum

Re: Focus Puller

Here's the thing. We used to get a rehearsal for marks, or technical rehearsal, with the 2nd team (the actor's stand-in's), and then get a full speed rehearsal with the real actors to get the pacing of the shot. If we were lucky the 2nd team knew the pacing and could do the scene the way 1st team would do it. They would also be the same heights as the main actors because that matters a lot. Will Smith's stand in is fabulous in that respect. He watches the rehearsals and knows the scene and how Will does it. that is so helpful when it is go time for us.

Now we rarely get any of that and have to wing it to some extent on the rehearsal, which is now mostly take 1. Not to mention that most actors now cannot hit a mark to save their lives. Want to be in your correct light? Want to be in focus? Hit your damn marks!





Never go with a hippy to a second location.

Re: Focus Puller

Were the older actors and actresses better at hitting their mark because they often had prior stage experience where they'd hit the right stage location in the play at a given time each performance?

E pluribus unum

Re: Focus Puller

Not necessarily the stage training. It was more that they understood that they needed to hit their mark to be in the right light and be in focus. They understood the technical aspects at the medium and what was their part to make it work.



Never go with a hippy to a second location.

Re: Focus Puller

Thankfully, Steadicam shots are typically performed with wide-angle lenses. Using a wide-angle lens, it's much easier for the Steadicam operator to even keep the subject in the frame than using a medium focal length or long focal-length telephoto lens, where the subject would be drifting in and out of frame during a floating Steadicam move, not to mention following focus. Even at a wide-open aperture or T-stop, focus in a wide-angle lens is nowhere near as critical as it would be in long telephoto or even medium focal-length lenses, at least until the subject is within 3 feet of the lens. This is especially true for ultra-wide lenses under 20mm, just above fisheye.

Auto-focus sure has made focusing easier, pretty much a non-issue, in digital STILL photography, unless you're selectively framing the subject off to one side, and even that can be controlled by appropriately setting the auto-focus mode in the DSLR camera, but in MOVING digital CINEMATOGRAPHY, manual focusing is still a must! Auto-focus, especially in a DSLR, is way too quick and twitchy, not to mention frequently inaccurate, for movie work, especially in low-light, wherein AF likes to wig out, blur in and out, as it frantically searches for a subject to focus on! In a shot where the camera and/or subject is moving, manual focus, to slowly, smoothly, elegantly follow focus with the subject is an absolute necessity.

Hey, anyone familiar with Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon? It came out in 1975 I believe, when all movies were shot on film, film stocks of the time were much slower than today, and he needed a special Zeiss f/0.4 lens I believe to capture images in just candle-light! Imagine trying to follow focus in THAT scene in such extremely shallow depth-of-field! "Um, which of the actors' eyes would you like in focus, Mr. Kubrick?"

In a more recent example of spot-on focus pulling during one shot, J.J. Abrams sure worked his DP's focus puller in Star Wars-Episode VII-The Force Awakens, especially during a shot in the bridge of Starkiller Base, when focus was pulled near-to-far and back to near again I believe 4 times between First Order officers' lines of dialogue! I found that shot, in the words of a certain Dark Lord in previous Star Wars movies, impressive...most impressive.

Re: Focus Puller

Just a little add on to your already informative post... If you rewatch Barry Lyndon, you'll notice that there's not much movement on the actors' part. This is because the slightest tilt back or forward on would have put them out of focus while shooting with the aperture wide open. You can briefly catch this in the final film. It's barely noticeable unless you're looking for it, but it's there, most notably during a certain dinner scene. The good news though? As Kubrick's intent was to recreate many famous paintings of the time period while composing the shots, the actors locked-in positions only added to the "real life painting" vibe of the film.
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