The best way to learn how to pull focus is to be thrown into the fire, but there are ways to get better without a cinema camera setup at home — all it takes is some dedication and a bit of time on the weekend.
1. Guess and measure distances
The easiest way to become a better focus puller is to become exceptionally accurate at guessing distances. You should strive to become a human measuring tape. The best 1st AC’s will walk into a room and have a real, tangible sense of the space they’re in.
Start by going into a room with any measuring device and sit in the corner of it. Pick an object, write down your best guess for its distance and then measure to it from where you were sitting. Once you know the true measurement, compare it against your guess then really try and get a feel for how far away it is. It is important not just to guess, but to evaluate after the fact to get a sense for what 5, 10 or 15 feet looks like to your eyes.
Once you get good at this you can even move on to guessing depth-of-field by choosing an object, a random focal length, and go through the process of guessing and checking with a depth-of-field calculator. Knowing distances are good, but also knowing how much play you have with depth-of-field is a big part of focus pulling as well.
2. People watch in public places
You may not always know what is going to happen in a scene because of rewrites or improvisation. Being able to anticipate the natural movements of people can help you subconsciously prepare for unexpected moments in a scene.
Go out to a public place like a park, a mall, or even on the street and start paying attention to how people act, react, and move around certain spaces. When two people are talking do they lean into each other? Do they lean forward before getting up? When someone is walking with a friend, how do they pace themselves?
You should attempt to visit a variety of atmospheres where people will act differently. Intimate settings, like restaurants, are probably the most likely to pop up in movie scripts.
Now, I don’t advise being creepy and stalking people, but pay attention to surroundings and the physical movements within them. That way you build up a certain expectation to how people, and subsequently actors, will react in certain situations.
3. Pantomime the motions
The easiest way to do this is to sit in a room and put your hand in the air like your gripping a follow focus. Now look at a doorway with your hand ready at your “air” follow focus. Pretend a character is walking in and sitting down somewhere in the room and adjust your pretend follow focus as necessary.
This is good practice because it emphasizes the motion of focus pulling and will get your mind used to the direction in which you must pull to go a certain way within the focal plane. The saying I use is “go back to go back and go forward to come forward.” That means you pull the disc towards you to send focus further distance-wise and move the disc away to bring the focus closer — at least on cinema style lenses.
I cannot overstate how important knowing this concept is to pulling focus. Once you can adjust direction without thinking, focus pulling becomes so much easier.
It can be one thing to gauge a distance, expect a movement, but in the end the follow focus has to be turned in a balletic fashion to coincide with on-screen movement. Get used to these kinds of motions and when you do the real thing, it will be a lot more relaxing.
Practice Makes Perfect Focus
Pulling focus can be intimidating, but it can also be really fun. If you’re having difficulties with it, don’t fret. Even the pros have their bad days.
But if you’re feeling like you aren’t yet the best focus puller you can be, try one or all of these suggestions in the next few days and I guarantee that you will come out on the other side with a better sense of the job.
What are some ways that you better yourself as a focus puller? Any tricks that you practice in your off time? I’d love to hear and discuss them with you in the comments.