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 and 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.
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.
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.
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. For example, 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.
What tools does a focus puller use?
In addition to all the skill, knowledge and experience that makes a good focus puller, there are some indispensable tools of the trade. As with all aspects of filmmaking, new tools and devices aiding the work of focus pullers are constantly being developed and released. However, you will be hard pressed to find any self-respecting 1st AC without the following staples:
A tape measure is the focus puller’s signature accessory. While no dedicated film tape measures are produced, the whole range of construction tape measures can usually be found on any decently sized film set. The different types have different uses, and each assistant has preferences.
Hard tape measure
The ubiquitous steel tape measure is by far the most common type you will see in the hands of a first assistant camera. You will typically see them protruding the tape measure from the camera to a stand-in or a helpful 2nd AC standing on the actor’s marked position. More experienced stand-ins would, upon seeing the 1st AC making a measurement, grab the end and bring it level to their eyes.
The most important quality that a focus puller looks for in a hard tape measure is it’s standout range, or how far the blade would protrude horizontally without snapping. A larger standout range allows the focus puller to take longer measurements without assistance. The Stanley FatMax series of tape measures pictured above is the de facto industry standard. With 32mm wide blades, these tape measures boast a standout range of around 4m (or almost 13 feet).
Soft tape measure
The soft tape measure, also known as a surveryors tape measure is the second most popular type used by camera assistants. Compared to a hard tape, the soft one usually comes in longer lengths, typically around 30 meters / 100 feet.
Most professional film cameras come equipped with a little hook or a post marking the exact location of the focal plane. This provides a place for the assistant to hook the end of the soft tape measure and walk with the spool to the various distances to be measured. The surveyors tape provides very precise measurements, but it is a bit slower to use. Due to the ever increasing tempo on modern film sets, it is not as popular as it once was.
Laser distance measures
Sometimes incorrectly referred to as laser tape measures (hint, no tape involved), the laser distance measures are an increasingly popular 1st AC tool. They are the quickest tool to take last-minute distance measurements before the camera rolls.