Closeups are particularly tough to pull focus on because your depth-of-field is generally so shallow. It doesn’t make it any easier when the actor in the scene is rocking back and forth and fidgeting around. Or to have the added pressure of keeping an emotional performance in focus.
That’s why you need more than one mark to execute these shots perfectly.
Like anything to do with camera assisting, getting focus marks is a matter of preference. If you can pull focus without getting any marks and keep the subject sharp, then more power to you.
For the rest of us who are human, however, it’s generally best to take some measurements for focusing purposes.
The Three Marks You Need
In closeups, especially with lenses 50mm or longer, I usually get three marks. I highly recommend you do the same unless you have been blessed large amount of depth-of-field (which is rare for a closeup).
Getting these three marks is going to help you keep the talent in focus no matter where they take the scene.
1. Natural position
This is the mark I refer to as “home base.” It’s the natural position of the actor or actress in the scene and where they will deliver most of their lines from.
If you’ve been paying attention during rehearsals, you can spot this mark easily.
2. Leaning back
The lean back mark is sometimes very far back (for instance, if they are rocking in a chair) or sometimes a small distance, like a head tilt.
Most actors and actresses are keenly aware of every movement they make, so when you want this mark it’s as simple as asking the talent. I always catch their attention and ask politely, “Hey [talent’s name]? Do you mind leaning back like you were in the scene?”
If they don’t remember how they were positioned, ask them to deliver the line again and they will most likely recreate the movement. Or worse, if they act like a diva when you want your mark, do your best to eye where they were and have a stand-in recreate the movement.
3. Leaning forward
You’ll find in many scenes that characters lean in to deliver or react to a big line or moment in a conversation. This mark is crucial for that reason. But, leaning forward can also be an innocuous movement such as a hug or answering a telephone.
Again, asking the talent to position themselves in this moment using the advice above is your best bet to grab the mark.
Give Yourself a Range
The idea behind getting three marks instead of one is to give yourself a focus range to play within. That way if an actor leans back, you have a mark to pull focus to and can adjust from it. Similarly if they lean forward.
Whether you use these three exact marks will depend on the scene and action happening within it. Modify it to your own use, but always make sure you are giving yourself a range. This will help you to not get “lost” with the focal plane and ensure you keep the characters looking sharp.