Selecting a Focus Puller Monitor

TvLogic VFM-056WP 5.6" monitor in a gray domke wrap
Many focus pullers have starter their careers pulling on the TvLogic VFM-056WP 5.6″ monitor

Ready to pull the trigger on your first personal monitor for focus pulling? Selecting a piece of gear that you will be working so closely with is a very personal endeavor. Like all things technollogical, nowadays picking a focus pulling monitor is becoming more and more complex. Five years ago, there were all but two or three models to pick from. Today, each manufacturer has multiple product lines, featuring different sizes, panels and features. You’ve probably already encountered the most popular models, but some of them may not be available new anymore. In this article we will not be discussing particular models, but rather the specs and characteristics you should be looking at when you choose the best one for you.

We’d strogly argue against selecting a focus puller monitor solely off specs and reviews. Selecting a personal monitor for pulling focus is best done after you’ve had at least a few shoots with different rented monitors. Find out which current models are within your budget, and check to see which ones are in stock at the rental house you usuall use. It’s a good way to try different models in an actual production environment and see what works for you.

Of course, prep is crucial, especially in a project with gear you’ve not used before. Most rental houses are more than happy to give you several monitors during prep so that you can test and select the one you like best. Even though it’s no substitute for actual production work, this can help you narrow down the selection. If you know you are headed for a tricky shoot perhaps it’s not the time for experiments. In addition, get your colleagues opinions and meet up to try their kit if possible.

Size

A good starting point is perhaps the most important spec of a focus puller monitor – the size. It’s also the one for which personal preference and experience will help you make the right choice. In addition to sheer screen size and the related visual comfort, the size of your focus puller monitor will heavily affect your workflow. If you’ve already worked as a 1st AC for a while, you likely know the configuration and size you are after.

Ideally, it should also be suited to the type of production you are in. A studio based drama feature is rather different than a run and gun documentary in both pace and equipment requirements. If you want to work both, your kit should be able to adapt correspondingly. Knowing the type of production you will be predominantly working on will be hugely benefitial, but its a bit of a wishful thinking in the fast paced production world of today.

Overall, there are three general schools of thought on working with focus puller monitors, and they directly relate to size:

Focus puller using a follow focus with an on-board BON BEM-072H 7" monitor
Focus puller using a follow focus with an on-board BON BEM-072H 7″ monitor / photo by LĂȘ Minh

On camera

The most basic way of pulling focus on a cine camera is using a rod mounted follow focus. Traditionally, focus pullers would stand by the camera, gauge distance between the camera and subject, and pull focus using the witness marks on the lens’ barrel. When video taps and monitors were introduced in filmmaking, they were initally used mostly for framing reference, as the quality was not good enough to asess sharpness. The first AC monitors were mounted on the side of the camera, as no wireless link was available.

We’ve come a long way since then, and now pretty much every production has wireless video and follow focus systems. However, some focus pullers still prefer an on-board monitor and a traditional follow focus setup. It’s easy to see why – standing right next to the camera and having a direct connection with the lens barrel through the follow focus gear gives you an unparalleled tactile feedback. You can feel as well as see the camera movement, and you are close enough for the operator to whisper you a que or a change.

Due to weight and bulk, on-board monitors tend to be in the 5 to 7 inch range. Popular models include the venerable TvLogic VFM-058W, the Small HD 703 or the Transvideo Stargate 7″. Typically, the monitor will be mounted on the camera with a magic arm, sometimes also featuring quick release plates for easy changes in rigging.

Of course, this setup is not ideal for many situations. You’ll have a hard time pulling like that when the camera is on a steadicam, a gimbal or crane. These are the situations where the next focus pulling mode comes in.

Handheld

The second group of focus pullers prefer a more portable solution that allows them to get away from the camera when needed. Again opting for smaller 5 to 7 inch monitors, these ACs rig them with batteries, wireless video receivers and radio follow focus units. There are specific brackets made by Arri, Tilta and others that allow such rigging.

This way, the focus puller can be as close or as far (within reason) from the camera as they want, while retaining full control. The handheld monitor/radio focus combo is the most flexible way of focus pulling today, and is preferred by many assistants working in fast paced location based productions. It’s the go-to configuration for steadicam and gimbal ACs. Many of these assistants will dock the monitor to a stand between takes or when the scene allows.

Stand based

The last group of focus pullers prefer larger, stand based monitors for their main setup. This includes anything from the TvLogic LVM-095W-N , through the popular SmallHD 1303 and up to the 17 inch SmallHD 1703 or larger production monitors. With the proliferation of wireless follow focus, video and distance measurement aids, many ACs prefer to step away from the (usually) crowded set altogether. Standing on the sidelines, there’s a lot more space for a larger monitor and a more comfortable setup.

This is a popular way of working in the US. If the production you’re working on allows it, a large monitor is very nice indeed. If you are working a 12 week stage-only sitcom, for example, a large, bright screen will be much kinder on the eyes than a 5 inch handheld monitor. Many focus pullers working with larger monitors will also have a small, compact monitor rig for any tight spots or mobile situations.



Resolution

With HD 1920 x 1080 being the baseline resolution for digital filmmaking for quite a while now, you may be surprised that many of the industry standard monitors found on set today still fall short of this. The ubiquitous TvLogic VFM-056WP for example sits at 1280 x 800 pixels, as do the newly released SmallHD 5″ Focus Pro High Bright and 702 Lite. Lower resolution panels are mostly found on smaller monitors, anything larger than 7″ tends to be HD or better.

Lower resolution, in itself, is generally no big deal when it comes to everyday focus pulling. What affects it more is the scaling that the monitor has to do. Cameras, and therefore transmitters, typically output 1080p signal, which a lower resolution monitor has to crunch down to be able to fit it on the screen. It’s this downscaling that tends to eat sharpness and make your work as a focus puller harder.

Therefore, you are better off with a monitor that can natively show 1080p signal, which means a full HD panel. 4K monitoring is still in it’s very early stages, with transmitters and monitors still being few and far between. A good quality FHD monitor will be plenty for a while still.

Red Dragon with a SmallHD 702 on-board focus puller monitor
Red Dragon with a SmallHD 702 on-board monitor / photo by Chris Murray

Brightness

Most manufacturers of monitors for filmmaking now offer their models in two flavours – regular and ultra-bright. The difference is pretty self-explanatory – the brighter the monitor, the easier it is to see in a bright environment. A brighter monitor will not need a sunhood or shading as much as a regular one, so it might make your life a little easier if you switch locations a lot.

However, ultra-bright monitors tend to come at a steep premium when it comes to price. Let’s take the SmallHD 7 inch line-up as an example. Their current flagship model, the 703 Ultra-bright features 2200 nits of brightness and is their most expensive 7 inch monitor. On the other side of the spectre, their budget oriented 702 Lite only comes with 450 nits but costs less than half of the 703U.

Whether you pick one or the other depends on the type of work you do and the budget you have. The brightness of a monitor has nothing to do with image quality or sharpness. If you work exclusively indoors, there’s no point paying a premium for an ultra-bright. In a darkened studio most monitors will offer adequate brightness, it is outside where an ultra-bright will have an edge.

If you work mostly outside, or want to be ready to, the extra brightness is certainly nice to have if you can afford it. However, a good sunhood can make pretty much any monitor work in any situation. If you are on a budget, a regular-brighness monitor will still work if you put in a little extra effort.

Panel type

As with pretty much all screens on the market today, there’s also two panel types to choose from – LCD and OLED. Filmmaking gear manufacturers also offer their field monitors in both flavours. However, for the specific task that if focus pulling, there is an (almost) unanimous lean towards the traditional LCD panel type.

There are two reasons for this. First, monitors with LCD panels can be made significantly brighter than OLEDs. Put simply, in LCD panels the backlight is a separate light source, which can be made as bright as you like. In an OLED panel, each pixel is a light source upon itself, which significantly limits the maximum brightness that can be achieved. OLED is great for grading or screening as it can offer better contrast and color rendition in controlled environments. However, for sheer visibility, it’s hard to beat a high-bright LCD monitor.

The second reason to choose a focus puller monitor with an LCD over an OLED panel is display lag. Technollogically, OLED display panels typically have a lot faster responce time than LCD. Thus, it comes as a surprise, but many OLED camera monitors on the market today exhibit a bigger lag compared to LCD models. This is likely due to processing and will improve as the technollogy matures, as OLED is still significantly new. However, it’s a point to consider, and if your mind is set on an OLED monitor, do some testing of your own before purchase.

In conclusion, for now you’re better off with an LCD monitor. As a more mature technology, it’s cheaper, brighter and more reliable. The advantages that OLED panels offer are pretty insignificant when it comes to focus pulling.

Features

Touch screen vs buttons

Many manufacturer have now introduced touchscreen controlled production monitors. However, ask anyone who works in professional filmmaking what they think about touch screens and you will get your answer. Do you think it’s a coincidence that Arri have not yet used a touchscreen interface on any of their cameras?

Even though touchscreens have come a long way, most assistants still find them finicky and unreliable in a high pressured production environment. Hardware buttons are simpler, easier and more reliable. In addition, let’s not get started on gloved operation or when raincovers are involved. In essence, if you have the option of choosing, go for buttons.

Peaking & focus assist tools

Pretty much all filmmaker-oriented monitors today come with an array of exposure and focus assist software tools. There are different approaches to OSD menus, and some options are more polished than others, but all are pretty intuitive and essentially do the same.

TV Logic monitors rely on a rather simplistic, classic OSD menu. SmallHDs have a more sophisticated OS, which allows you to make different presets or “pages” that make switching between different configurations fast and easy. In addition, SmallHD’s partnership with Teradek has produced a unique feature. If you are using a Teradek CTRL.1 or CTRL.3 focus hand unit and a SmallHD monitor running OS3 or later, you can connect the two with a cable and get focus ring distance overlays right over the monitor image.

SmallHD 703 Ultrabright SK RX monitor
SmallHD 703 Ultrabright SK RX monitor

Wireless

With the introduction of the SmallHD Bolt series of monitors with built-in Teradek HD video receivers, a new variable was introduced in the focus puller monitor dilemma. The appeal of the built-in receiver is obvious – it’s lighter, sleeker and easy to use. However, it also poses certain limitations.

For the built-in receiver to work, you need a compatible transmitter mounted on the camera. You can either supply this yourself, or rely on the wireless video assist package supplied with the camera equipment to be compatible with your monitor. If it’s not, you will have to use an external receiver. Even if you have a transmitter, unless your package can completely replace the video assist’s, putting two transmitters on the camera is a recipe for interference disaster. You can see how this can become complicated.

A further liability of the monitor/receiver combo is serviceability. If anything happens to the wireless module of your monitor and you need to send it in for service, you are left without a monitor even if the screen itself works fine.

Finally, technollogy in wireless video seems to be moving a lot faster than that in monitors. Paying the steep premium for a monitor with a built-in receiver today, you risk it getting obsolete in a couple of years when new wireless standards are introduced. For me, personally, monitors with built-in video receivers seem to be more trouble than they are worth when it comes to focus pulling.

Atomos Ninja recorder on a Sony A7 mirrorless camera with a microphone and cine style cage
An Atomos Ninja recorder can also be used as a focus puller monitor / photo by Peter Larsen

Recorder as focus puller monitor

Many focus pullers opt to use compact recorder monitors like the Atomos Ninja or the Blackmagic Design Video Assist. Apart from working as monitors, these devices allow you to record takes, so that you can review them privately, without bothering with video control or playing back from the camera. This can certainly come in handy when you want to double check your work without raising the alarm.

There are seversl disadvantages of using recorders as focus puller monitors. First, because of the added tech they tend to be larger, heavier and cost more while being less reliable than a comparable “dumb” monitor. Second, as recorders are not made with focus pullers as their main target market, most do not have the sharpest panels or sophisticated focus aids. Also, many recorders have fans for cooling, which can get you in trouble with the sound department.

However, the most important thing to keep in mind is that due to the extra processing they have to do, many recorder monitors have noticeable delay in the image. If you haven’t experienced it so far, beware, it can be disastrous for focus pulling. If you do want to try using a recorder as a focus puller monitor, I strongly suggest you try it in a production environment first.

Price

As with pretty much anything else in life, price matters. Cine equipment is not cheap, there’s no two ways about it. However, if you are buying a tool which helps you earn your living, it may not be something worth skimping on. A monitor is something you’ll be staring at day in and day out, so do yourself a favor and get a good one. You need a dependable, rugged monitor that will not let you down in the middle of a take, so a spending a little extra here will pay you back in the long run.

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