Productions are becoming increasingly unaware of the need for camera assistants to measure for focus marks. Especially with low budget productions where time = money and money = tight, the few seconds you spend pulling tape means one less take for a greedy producer.
You are given less time and less opportunities to grab focus marks than ever before. You protest and you beg, but every time you’re left limping on by.
Your only chance is to become invisible and get your marks when nobody is looking.
You need to become… a tape measure ninja.
During the time of feudal Japan, war was rampant and political turmoil was intense. Factions throughout the country engaged in battles to establish themselves as the dominant power.
For these battles, the shogun would send their best fighting warriors, the samurai, to carry out their bloody deeds. But underneath the violence there was another group of warriors lurking — the ninjas.
Where samurai were the grunts of battle, the ninjas were the unseen face of espionage.
Ninja warriors were referred to as shinobi and their skills came from the art of ninjutsu. Ninjutsu served as a way to survive in the volatile times of feudal Japan through a variety of techniques that emphasized misguidance, disguise, concealment and escape.
The Five Methodologies of Shinobi-iri
In ninjutsu, there are 18 disciplines ranging from weaponry to meteorology that students have to learn before they become masters of the art. One of those disciplines is Shinobi-iri, or, “to sneak into” and contains five methodologies and techniques for silent movement and covert infiltration.
Perfect for the invisible camera assistant trying to get focus marks unnoticed.
1. Nyukyo no jutsu (Correct use of timing)
The method of nyukoyo no jutsu emphasizes the ability to time an entry for maximum concealment. A ninja wouldn’t just parade into the fortress of an enemy at any time and neither should you parade onto set with your tape measure whenever you feel like it.
Timing is everything when it comes to getting focus marks.
The best time to measure for marks is while the scene is being lit and tweaked. Be incredibly watchful during rehearsals to find out where actors were placed, mark them with camera tape and measure to those marks.
Another opportune time to catch a focus mark is the brief moment between takes when a director is giving notes to the talent, but you have to be quick.
If you do find that there is absolutely no time to measure for a mark, ask your 2nd AC to slate from the mark of the subject in the scene and quickly focus on the slate by eye. Then use that as your starting mark. It’s not the best way to go, but it’s better than nothing.
2. Monomi no jutsu (Discovering the weak point in the area)
In ninjutsu, the weak point refers to structural weaknesses within a setting. An example would be a sewage pipe in a heavily fortified wall. Where the wall is the strong point of a structure, its weak point is where it is most easily infiltrated.
Discovering the weak point of the film set is simple once you realize it’s the absence of strong points. In the case of a tape measure ninja, strong points of a film set will be the various obstacles in your way. They could be props, furniture, equipment or even people.
You will have to learn to navigate through these obstacles in the quickest and most accessible path. Consider that pathway through the set to be the weak point of it. It is the best place to attack with your tape measure and come out unnoticed.
3. Nyudaki no jutsu (Using a psychological weakness)
The trickiest of the five methodologies, nyudaki no jutsu challenges you to find and exploit an enemy’s psychological weaknesses so you can infiltrate past them.
It sounds intense, but psychological weaknesses don’t have to be anything major as they often come in the form of habits. For instance:
- Does the first assistant director have a tendency to call “picture’s up” too early?
- Does the director often forget something right before a shot is ready to go?
- Does the sound guy always have to rush in and fix a microphone before a scene?
- Is the DP always changing lenses at the last moment?
You can use the habits of other crew to your advantage with proper timing and execution. If you anticipate these habits manifesting, you can swoop in quickly and grab a mark while they’re doing what they always do — what you expected them to do.
4. Yoji-gakure (Distraction)
Yoji-gakure refers to the age old trick of throwing a stone in one direction and moving towards another. Since you’re a fan of movies, I’m going to assume you are more than familiar with this tactic.
But how can a tape measure ninja apply this to their predicament? You can’t throw any stones and you shouldn’t be causing distractions, but that doesn’t mean that distractions don’t already exist.
If you need a mark and you notice others are distracted by a story, by craft services, or simply not paying attention, step onto the set with your tape measure in hand. If you are feeling particularly gutsy, you could fake a battery swap and use the downtime to grab your mark.
5. Joei-on jutsu (Erasing light and sound)
What do the Shinobi-iri mean by erasing light and sound? It’s a metaphor for being silent and invisible. By not making any noise when you move and slipping by unnoticed, you erase any light and sound coming off of you as a person.
For the astute tape measure ninja, this means not making a lot of racket when you pull out your tape measure. If you can avoid it, don’t let your steel tape measure snap and fall to the ground with the trademark ear-piercing “brrrraaappp!” sound.
It’ll be hard for you to escape light on a set that has them blasting from everywhere, but try not to get noticed inside the hustle and bustle of “last looks” and final rehearsals by actors. If you dress correctly, you’ll already blend in.
Are You a Master Tape Measure Ninja?
A tape measure ninja thrives on being invisible. If you get asked by the DP whether you got your marks and your answer is, “No, do you think I have time?” Then you’re not a master ninja yet.
The answer should always be, “Yep, I’m ready to go.”
By combining the techniques of the shinobi-iri five methodologies, you can get your marks without anyone ever noticing. Only then will you become a master of ninjutsu on set.
How do you apply the practices of ninjutsu on set to get your marks? Do you manage to stay invisible or do you make a big show out of getting focus marks?