A Really Simple, Really Difficult Job
This is a collection of notes, tips and theory that I have written down, discussed with colleagues, and tried to pass on to my loaders and trainees. It's aimed at people who are already in the camera department and probably already doing the job, so I assume you'll understand the jargon. You are free to pass it on subject to the conditions at the end of the page.
Summer 2012: A note on the changes to these jobs since this article was first written
A huge change has occurred since I wrote this piece: while film may not be dead, it's completely possible that anyone calling themselves professional camera crew has not shot film for a long time. Now that digital acquisition has made such huge inroads into cinematography there is quite a lot of information below which is redundant or superfluous. The biggest change for focus pullers is the capacity for instant replay of any shot, at a resolution high enough to tell whether something is actually sharp or not.
On the admin/technical side, it's the sheer quantity of new cameras and accessories available for any job. Keeping on top of the knowledge required to get the best out of them all is much harder than when there were six types of film camera, and you could happily use one older than you were.
Rather than re-write the entire article, I'll leave it to the reader to update the relevant things in their mind as they go along. The fundamental priorities of time and bomb-proof systems remain the same: think of them as the 'first principles' from which everything else can be deduced...
In these notes, I use Director of Photography (DoP), cameraman, camerawoman and cinematographer to mean the same thing. In American credits, 'Focus Puller' is 1st Assistant Camera, 1st Assistant Photographer or 1st AC, 'Clapper Loader' is 2nd Assistant Camera
Now I'm behind the camera myself, after 12 years as a focus puller, I can reflect on what an impossible job it is: unlimited responsibility with no power, nobody takes any notice until you get it wrong, and nobody knows until the next morning - at the earliest - whether you really got it right. Whenever I was asked by someone outside the film industry to describe the job, I would say that the Focus Puller looks after all the technical aspects of the photography so that the cinematographer is free to deal with the artistic aspects. However, it's important to realise:
THE DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY IS RESPONSIBLE FOR FOCUS
For two reasons: The DoP is the Head of Department, so they’re responsible for everything that goes on in that department. That’s why they get the big pay packet. Also, they set the parameters of every shot - if they want to shoot the entire movie at T1.9 and hand-held, then they can’t complain if there’s a high percentage of soft material and they should stand up for their team if this becomes a problem.
I'm going to throw in various loosely-connected topics covering the various aspects of the job, this isn't meant to be exhaustive and I'll come back to it as new things occur to me (if you've got something you'd like to add, you can send comments using the 'contact' page of this website). I hope you get something useful out of it...
You can save yourself endless problems with effective testing. In a way, the testing part is the biggest difference between working on commercials, music videos and other short form material, and working on long projects: I'm sure people will disagree with me, but I think you can’t call yourself a focus puller until you’ve done a movie or a long TV drama. Focus pulling is hard in any setting, but on a film you're not just trying to get it sharp and be on top of any situation, you're working within a system you've designed yourself that’s bulletproof but accommodates all foreseeable situations. Testing is when you design the system. Your object is as always to limit any damage to the equipment, but also to limit the effect of any damage if it happens. You're not going to get a replacement lens on a bike if you're in a jungle in Borneo, so you need to weigh up the amount of time you're willing to accept as a delay against the precautions you take against the problem: do you ask for a complete set of primes to sit in the truck because the rental cost for them might be offset against the loss of one day's shooting?
Write a memo - if you're unhappy with a situation you've been put in (not enough testing time; no confidence in a piece of equipment but no alternative available; sadly the potential list is much longer...) make sure you put it in writing and copy it to Production and your Department. It won't fix the problem but it will make it clear you did everything you could to avoid it.
In the morning
All film transport systems work better dry - clean the gate and pressure plate every morning with a de-greaser, and never put your fingers on the surfaces. Unless there’s a burr causing hairs by scratching (in which case your problem is already much more serious than just hairs in the gate), a hair will not stick to a dry surface. With a camera that has to be oiled, do the lubricating routine first, run the camera a little while without film, then clean the gate and pressure plate. Running any camera, without film, for a while first thing in the morning doesn't do any harm, and if anything has developed because it's travelled 200 miles in a truck overnight, it's good to find out before the 1st AD says 'Turn Over!'
Also, I liked to start the day with a cleaned eyepiece and a fresh eyepiece cover - that hasn't changed now I'm looking through...
Of course the tension is now between setting up the camera and already being on set with finder and lenses so the first shot can be set up. You'll have to work out your own solution to that one.
On the floor
This is the strange part: it's a really simple job. You only have to keep on top of a few things:
Camera Speed (and appropriate compensation)
Errr... that's about it
So, what's the other nine tenths of this page about?
Shooting Drama, time is the most expensive thing on the set. This goes for everyone in every department, but if you can save time as a focus puller you're certainly going to be asked back.
(Aside) If you have a good relationship with someone in production, ask them (casually - you don't want to push them over the edge) what the daily cost is. Realising that they're spending between 25,000 and 100,000 of whatever currency you're being paid in every day explains why so many of them stand around on set the whole time looking terrified... (And that's a normal day - 400 extras in costume in central London, which you've closed and dressed in period, explains why they don't find your joke '...Looks like rain...' particularly funny)
If you can save five minutes in every hour then in 10 hours you can save fifty minutes - that’s an extra shot for most movies, or wrapping fifty minutes earlier for the well-organised ones. Every time you have a selection of jobs to do, ask yourself which one is the most time-efficient for the making of the film. For instance, at the end of a take the cameraman asks to have his eyepiece cleaned, the 1st AD asks to check the gate, and the loader wants to show you a possible chip on a filter: nothing can happen on the floor until you have checked the gate, so do that first
There are lots of little things you can do to save time - you can build them into the way you perform every job, teach them to your loaders and trainees, and have them suggest new methods. Some of these are going to seem absurdly picky, but in the dictionary under "Anal" it says "see: Focus Pullers".
When changing a lens, minimise the number of lengths of support bar - changing rods should only be necessary when going from a prime to a zoom. I was never too keen on marked-up focus discs, either: it's another thing to change, and it's another thing to check - if you're out by one tooth on the focus cog and you forget to check your datum it might be sharp for the operator looking through but soft in rushes.
If you're changing from one prime to another, most modern lenses have the same diameter focus gear - there's no need to swing it away, the new lens should slot right in. Even on non-Panavision systems I tried to have the cog underneath the lens and never move it - resting the new lens on the cog helps to guide it into the port
Everybody has their own way of doing the actual focusing part of the job, but as I got more experienced I tried not to make marks on the lens or the focus discs. I found that if I memorised the distances in feet and inches, I could react to changes in the shot much more quickly. If the actor or the B Camera wanted me to work the other side of the camera, I didn't have to transfer marks, and if the lens is less than ten years old it'll have a scale on both sides so there'll be no need to turn it around. Also if the grip was six inches short on the track, or the actor three inches back on their mark, I found it easier to make the calculation in my head than look at a lens mark and wonder how much extra to tweak it and in which direction. But that's the way my mind works, so it might make no sense to you...
Also every time you make a mark with a pen or a Chinagraph, you'll have to wipe it off!
Try and check the gate through the front - it saves time, and there’s less chance of introducing dirt every time you open the camera door. With a bit of practice you can check through the lens as wide as a 25mm and it’s the best magnifying glass there is to show you any debris
There are as many ways to arrange things on the floor as there are camera crews, but a fresh battery should never be more than a couple of steps away from the camera. Personally, I liked to have the lens boxes as near as possible too, and bring the whole box to the camera. Similarly for filter boxes - anything made of glass should spend as little time between the box and the camera as possible. While this might seem time-wasting, imagine how long it would take to wait for a new lens to come from the rental house because it was carried across the set and met a flag arm going in the opposite direction...
Try and get your measurements in early. If you can be ready to go at the same time as everyone else, asking for some time when you do have a difficult shot makes it clear that you're holding things up for a good reason.
foolproof most effective method for focusing a long lens (>about 180mm) shot, especially for a subject coming towards or going away from the camera (taught to me by David Johnson, long before he was a BSC).
You’ll need some time at the eyepiece, this is the exception to my ‘not looking through’ recommendation. And you’ll need to ask the DoP for the approximate stop.
- Send a loader/trainee with a bunch of marks to the furthest point of the shot. You might both need walkie-talkies. Get a focus mark (as above, my preference is always on the lens barrel) for that point, wide open, looking through the lens.
- Stop the lens down to the shooting stop, or somewhere around it. Looking through again, bring the assistant forward until they go unacceptably soft. Stop them at that point, get them to drop a mark (they’ll need to number them, because they’ll be calling them out to you during the shot), open up the lens and get a focus. Stop the lens back down to the shooting stop.
- Repeat the above, stopping the assistant each time they go unacceptably soft, until you have them as close as you’ll use the shot (for safety, get just one more...). Obviously as they get closer, you’ll be stopping them more and more frequently.
- On the barrel of the lens you’ll now have a bunch of numbered marks, each pair closer together than the previous two. Concentrate on these marks during the shot, with your assistant leaning over your shoulder watching the subject and whispering the numbers to you (or if they can’t see all the marks, standing somewhere where they can and relaying them to you on the walkie-talkie). If the subject is moving at a constant speed, the marks will be called to you faster and faster, but you’ll feel the speed increase in a natural way. Getting the assistant to say 'and...' before each mark sometimes helps with the rhythm of it. It's harder to do this with a shot of a subject going away, because you have to start fast and slow down, but console yourself with the thought that unless it's an actor backing away from you, it's hard for the audience to see their face so you've got more leeway - if there aren't any eyes to look at, humans will generally look at the brightest part of the shot, then the part that's moving, then the part that's in focus (score!).
Running the Department/Admin
This has the potential to be the most boring topic of all, but you can always go to YouTube instead.
As well as all the other things waiting to bite you in the arse, there's stuff like equipment going missing between the set and the rental house, and Production complaining that a camera problem cost half an hour last week. The simple answer is to write everything down, or get someone else to. All incoming and outgoing rentals which aren't part of the basic kit should be logged in and out, as well as replacements for anything that's had to be returned. Get as much information as possible, especially serial numbers if there are any. One of my 'trainees' jobs' was to write a daily log of all that traffic, as well as collating all the stock info and the slate number each camera had reached. If there was a problem that had cost time, we would record how much time and for what reason (another good tip is to make sure the Script Supervisor has as full an account of any camera-related delays as possible in their daily diary - this goes straight to Production and they don't even have to ask you for it). Nobody likes writing reports for Insurance Companies, but if you've got this information already written down it saves time and confusion when the Production Manager asks for some back-up for a claim two weeks after the incident happened.
The biggest change that happened between the beginning and end of my assisting career was that from having film rushes every day, we went to having selected takes a couple of times a week, if we were lucky. This is a really big problem which isn't really being addressed, because it's often the size of the screen that makes the difference. All I can say is, if you get the chance to see rushes, you should go. That goes double for projected rushes. It's the single quickest way to improve your focus-pulling. Not just because you can see when you've got it wrong but because you can learn what you can get away with, while the details of shooting are still fresh in your memory. Depth of field charts are mostly theoretical, watching how a lens falls off from its point of focus gives you a much better feel for how it behaves. Also motion blur is your friend - if something's moving above a certain speed you can't tell if it's sharp or soft, this is how you find out what that speed is...
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