When we had some down time, Rich allowed me to play with our rig’s wireless focus assist, which was fine and dandy. Until he caught me looking at our camera’s monitor to check focus.
“Don’t do that,” Rich snapped. I glanced up at him, startled by his proverbial slap on the wrist. “You shouldn’t ever look at a monitor when you’re pulling focus,” he said. “It isn’t accurate, and it’s not what the production’s paying you for.”
I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but Rich’s admonishment was one of my best on-set lessons. In the two years since that shoot, I’ve seen so many camera assistants on student-film sets pulling focus from monitors — which are either mounted on the camera or stationed far away, at video village — that I have to comment on the practice.
Max covers the traditional arguments for why you shouldn’t pull focus off of a monitor – the biggest being that you can lose your focus in the “space” of the 2D image as opposed to the proper approach of using distance measurements and witness marks along with a full view of the set and its references.
I completely agree with Max and Rich that pulling focus from a monitor is a bad habit. For one, as mentioned above, it can get confusing as soon as you lose your focus.
But also having a monitor to look at isn’t always an option.
Sometimes you work gigs where there’s only enough money in the budget for one on-board monitor that the camera operator uses. Sometimes you have a monitor for yourself, but you have to lose it to make a handheld rig stable or lightweight. Sometimes the blocking of a shot puts you in a position where you just can’t see a monitor. Sometimes the action moves so quickly that it’s impossible to keep an eye on the follow focus, your positioning, and the monitor.
That is the best reason why you shouldn’t rely on the monitor because, at some point, on some job, it will inevitably be unavailable for your use – and then what?
If you’re using it as a crutch, you’ll no longer have anything to keep you standing. When pulling via distance, you can pull focus without a monitor and from all sorts of odd places on a tight set you might have to position yourself into so long as you can see your follow focus or the witness marks on a lens.
All that said, I have had to rely on the monitor in a few cases. Mostly when using still lenses at a fast stop on unforgiving DSLR sensors. Many still lenses have several disadvantages for a focus puller:
- Unhelpful Distance Markers: Distance/witness markings are usually on the top of the lens, printed very small, and have huge gaps in distances (i.e. 20 feet to 3 feet with nothing in between). Even when focused to a distance mark, they aren’t the most precise.
- Short Focus Throw: Throw is the amount of spin it takes on the focus barrel to go from infinity to minimum focus distance. Still lenses have a very short throw in which the tiniest tweak of the follow focus can mean a focus plane shift of a foot or so. This is critical on long lenses.
- Free Spinning: Whereas the focus barrel on a cinema lens stops spinning at infinity or its minimum focus distance, many still lenses free spin. This means even if you did transfer distance markers to a follow-focus disc, they could easily be messed up by yourself, an operator messing with the follow focus, or during a lens change.
Couple this with the assumption that if a production is using still lenses like these, there’s likely few rehearsals and the follow focus or lens gears might be cheap and have some “play” while focusing, and you’re in for a long day of focus pulling. In these cases, I’m often left feeling like the monitor is the only thing I have going for me, especially without rehearsals.
If I do have time to grab some marks – using 1:1 zooming, peaking, and my eyes – then I find it frees me from the monitor. I can go back to staring down the side of the camera and hitting my marks on the follow focus. Otherwise, without that bone thrown at me, the monitor, through all its faults, is the one thing I can trust without distance markings to let me know where my focus is during a shot.
I believe this is part of why many young AC’s got into the bad habit of staring at the monitor while pulling focus. In his post, Max developed a similar thought:
Here’s my theory on why younger ACs prefer to pull focus from a monitor. Most of us learned how to take pictures on early digital cameras. While these tools had extremely limited capabilities by today’s standards, they did have displays affixed to them. These gave young photographers an idea of how their photos turned out, right after taking them.
It feels natural for filmmakers in my generation to view monitors because they’ve been trained to look at them for immediate feedback and gratification.
Yet I don’t think it’s so much the immediate feedback and gratification young AC’s are looking for as much as that many of them learned to pull focus on these WFO still lenses attached to full-frame DSLR sensors with nothing but the monitor giving them the confidence that a shot is in focus.
And when you learn to do something for the first time a certain way, it can be very tough to forget.
(Not to mention a whole generation of AC’s started their careers with access to crisp HD monitors.)
This, however, is no excuse for consistently using the monitor as the crutch. When you are given the tools to pull focus properly in the right circumstances – cinema lenses with witness markings, a solid follow focus or wireless setup, time for marks and rehearsal – you should be measuring distances, marking your follow focus, and watching the shot unfold in front of you so you can make adjustments.
As a last resort or to check a mark, take a look at the monitor. Just don’t make a (bad) habit of it.
Check out the follow up post: Pulling Focus Off a Monitor is OK
And learn more about pulling focus with this series of posts