Keeping everything in focus or ‘Focus Pulling’ as it’s called in the industry, is perhaps one of the most underrated tasks on any film set. After all, if a shot isn’t sharp, it’s useless.
For May’s crew profile we talk to Steven Gardner, a Focus Puller who’s worked on projects as varied as Shane Meadows’ ‘This is England’ series, ‘Four Lions’ by Chris Morris and most recently BBC One’s fantasy epic ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell‘.
We asked Steve to share some industry secrets and advice for those looking to get started in the world of Focus Pulling…
My job is Focus Puller, sometimes called 1st Assistant Camera. My boss is the Director of Photography (DoP). It’s predominantly a technical role organising, setting-up and maintaining the camera equipment and, of course, I keep the shots in focus!
Firstly, the DoP and I will compile a camera equipment list for the job. They will often want to test various lenses and effects filters to create the right ‘look’ for the show. This usually involves filming at some of the locations with a stand-in, usually in costume. After these tests and the equipment is decided upon, I’ll spend a week or so with the rest of the camera crew prepping the camera kit at the rental house.
On set my key role is preparing the camera for every shot – building the camera, putting the lens on, lacing the film magazine or (not quite as romantically!) inserting a digital media card, a hundred pages of in-camera menus to navigate, filters to clean and generally making sure the camera and its accessories are working correctly.
Then after seeing a rehearsal of the shot I will get my focus marks. This involves using a tape measure to get the various distances between the camera and the actors and action. Then during the shot I’ll adjust the focus on the lens to follow the actor(s) as they walk and talk and as the camera moves, ‘pulling’ focus from one actor to another to follow dialogue and action. Adjusting the focus from one aspect of the shot to another is basically telling the audience who or what to look at. This is the creative part of my job – timing the ‘pull’ can be critical as just a beat or two earlier or later can change the emotion of the shot entirely.
I’ve mostly worked on TV drama in the north though I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some interesting places. ‘Wallander’ in Sweden, Denmark and Latvia was great and working with Kenneth Branagh was amazing. A film recently called ‘X+Y’ took me to Taiwan, which I’d have probably never visited otherwise. A really fun film I worked on called ‘Incident at Loch Ness’, which never received a UK distribution, starred Werner Herzog as himself. It was a fake documentary about Herzog as he made a fake documentary called ‘The Enigma of Loch Ness’. It was all very tongue-in-cheek and really played on the Herzog myths. He was enigmatic, charming and full of stories. ‘Four Lions’ was hilarious to work on and a real privilege to work with Chris Morris – always the funniest and most intelligent man in the room. ‘Peaky Blinders’ was definitely a highlight – a great cast, beautiful sets, top-drawer camera crew and it looked amazing. Three series of ‘This is England’ has been a tough yet very rewarding journey. ‘Cucumber’ was hilarious, everyday and ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ was just epic!
Everything I’ve learnt has come from being on set. It’s the only way to learn. However, I went to Sheffield Hallam University to do a film degree, which was mostly theory based, so I spent any spare time I had working on other student productions as an assistant. This was the ‘90’s, before the digital revolution so we shot almost entirely on 16mm. I had plenty of practise loading magazines, maintaining the camera and learning how a film camera functions.
After leaving uni in 1998 I took a fairly traditional path. I worked on a few films as a camera trainee and soon became a clapper loader. I mostly worked on commercials, for about 8 years and then moved up to focus pulling around 2006/7.
I learned how to focus pull firstly by watching others do it then by jumping in for what seemed like a thousand ‘b-camera dailies’ where it really is a trial by fire. As a loader I worked with many very experienced focus pullers learning countless little tricks and methods. And just as importantly, I worked with a few where I learnt how NOT to do things. And everyday really is a school day – we never stop learning.
An early job was on a film shot in Sheffield called ‘Whatever Happened To Harold Smith?’ where I worked as a ‘utility runner’ but I spent every second I could watching the camera team at work. Much of the time I would stand-in for the actors and it was like being in the centre of a lighting and camera master-class – watching the sparks light the set; the grip and camera operator rehearsing dolly moves; the focus puller setting up the camera etc. Being a stand-in is a great way to learn some of the techniques of cinematography.
Firstly, undoubtedly, the key skill is to keep the image sharp. If the shots are out of focus they are unusable – doesn’t matter how good the acting was, the camera move, the make-up or costume, the car crash or any other aspect of the shot – if it’s soft, it won’t be used. And like every other person on set, one needs to be a people person. Working long hours physically close to dozens of people demands the right personality. Trying to keep a smile amongst the chaos!
Organisational skills are very important too as there can often be a dozen other camera crew and a mountain of flight cases full of expensive kit scattered around a hillside in Yorkshire in the rain!
The job is basically the same, as is the equipment. Films with more money will have more cameras and kit to deal with. But then it’s about volume and scale – the tasks are the same.
Say yes to every job that comes along and treat it like it’s your first day – get there early and muck in. You will gain experience, be it good or bad, from everything you do. Be friendly and enthusiastic, ask questions, listen to the answers and turn your phone off!
Get yourself a fully manual 35mm stills camera and develop the film yourself – knowing the art and craft of photography is very important.
Learning set etiquette as quickly as possible is a must too. Knowing when to speak and to whom, along with the right attitude towards learning, will quickly form your reputation.
And get yourself a big bag full of clothing for EVERY situation! There’s nothing worse than being cold and wet for 12 hrs…
Going straight in as a focus puller won’t give you the understanding of what the other team members want from you, or what you require from them, not to mention the actual ability of focus pulling. The calmness and confidence required of a focus puller can only come from years of experience.
Spending a few years in each role gives you the appreciation of its importance and place within the team. After all, there’s usually only one of you on set. I believe you should know your job inside-out, before considering moving up a level.
Also you need to gain experience in using the huge variety of camera equipment that’s available out there, only a fraction of which you may use on one job.
Most focus pullers constantly move back and forth between TV drama and films. The tasks are the same regardless of the size of production – there’s usually just more kit to look after on a larger job.
I’m not sure there’s anything in particular really. It’s a constant learning curve and it’s been fun figuring it all out along the way.
When I was a trainee on one film I kept hearing the sparks talk about how they’d just worked with Stanley Kubrick on ‘Eyes Wide Shut’. I was so jealous. I would have given anything to work on any of his movies. I later worked on a couple of films with cinematographer Bryan Loftus BSC who was the visual effects guy on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. I asked him about Kubrick virtually everyday!
I think when pursuing any role in the film and TV industry you should be aware of how much it demands of your time. Working 60hrs a week or more, endless motorway driving, often staying away from home in phone reception-less areas can take its toll on your home life. Easy and exciting when you start out but soon turns into a juggling act when one has a family.
Saying that, it can be a highly rewarding industry, both financially and creatively and I’ve loved pretty much every minute of the last 17 years!
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