What is a focus puller?
A focus puller, also known as first assistant camera or 1st AC, is a key member of the camera department in film and television production. As the name implies, the main responsibility of the focus puller is to keep the camera lens in proper focus throughout filming. While this might sound mundane in the era of autofocus, it is anything but. This is a highly skilled job, that requires concentration, precision, a keen eye for distances and a superb feel for tempo.
The focus puller’s position carries huge responsibility. It is generally known as one of the most difficult and stressful jobs on a film set. During the few seconds a typical take lasts, days of preparation and rehearsals, hundreds of peoples’ work and a lot of money are in the hands of the focus puller. A million dollar actor might give you the performance of a lifetime, and yet an improperly focused shot or a missed rack que can render the take unusable.
Tasks and responsibilities
Apart from the namesake act of pulling focus, the focus puller has a plethora of other responsibilities within the production. The specifics vary among the different systems around the globe, but it is generally accepted that the “A” Camera’s 1st AC is the technical head of the camera department. As such, the first assistant handles communication between the Director of Photography (DOP) and the camera crew. The “A” Cam’s 1st AC also coordinates equipment upkeep and maintenance, incoming and outgoing rentals and various other tasks. If a production shoots with multiple cameras, the 1st ACs on “B”, “C” and subsequent cameras are each responsible for the technical aspects of their respective camera units. Each 1st AC is in turn supported by a 2nd AC, also known as a clapper loader. Sometimes, the camera unit is completed by a camera trainee or a 3rd AC.
What does it mean to pull focus?
Pulling focus is the process of keeping a subject or a scene in proper focus throughout a shot. The process varies widely depending on the particular shot, the mise en scène and equipment involved. Usually, the lens focus ring is rotated through a device that makes the act easier and more precise. This is usually a mechanical follow focus or an electronic wireless remote follow focus.
In some cases, pulling focus might involve no “pulling” at all. In a static shot with no movement of subjects or camera, the focus pullers job can be as simple as setting the distance and making sure that the depth of field is sufficient. Afterwards, the focus puller would simply monitor the scene to be able to react if corrections are required.
As an example, lets assume we have a wide shot of a couple having dinner in a restaurant. We are shooting with an Arri Alexa Mini and an Ultra Prime 32mm lens set at T4.0. The distance between the camera and the table is 5 meters, which gives us a depth of field from 3.08 to 6.4 meters. Consulting with the assitant director (AD), the focus puller knows that in the shot neither of the actors is going to move away from the table. Given this information, the focus puller determines that the depth of field would cover any leaning or fidgeting that the actors might do on their chairs, and therefore no correction would be necessary if the script is followed.
The other end of the spectrum is where the skills come in. Focus pullers often have to eyeball distance between camera and subject throughout complicated choreography and in challenging conditions. Most rely on a variety of techniques and a good deal of intuition.
Measurements and rehearsals are always useful, but not always provided in a fast paced production. Furthermore, the ever increasing resolution and sensor size of modern cine cameras have reduced the tolerances for error to almost zero. Because of this, a lot of focus pulers have added a monitor to their kit.