Follow that Focus Like a Pro with…a Follow Focus!

Follow that Focus Like a Pro with…a Follow Focus!

Alrighty. Let’s say that you’ve got a big important shoot coming up, so you turned to the fine folks at BorrowLenses to hook you up with some awesome lenses. On top of that, you decided to rent one of those fancy “follow focus” thingies because they look super cool…and I guess they’re supposed to make focusing easier. But how do you set them up? And how do they work? Worry not! I’m here to help you navigate the murky waters of follow-focusry (a term I’ve made up and immediately trademarked).

*Quick note on focus terminology: You’ve probably read or heard the term “racking focus” or “pulling focus” before. Most people use them interchangeably, referring to adjusting the focus mid-shot. If we’re going to get super-semantic (which I love to do), then I should point out that, technically, a “rack focus” is a change in focus from something closer to the lens to something farther from the lens. A “pull focus” changes the focus from something in the background to something in the foreground. To avoid as much repetition as possible, I’m probably going to use “pull focus” and “rack focus” interchangeably. That said, armed with this information, you’re now welcome to get all snarky and correct someone by saying something like “well, actually, since we’re shifting focus from the back wall to his face, what you’re really asking me to do is PULL focus, Mr. Director.” Take it from me: crew members love snark.

To begin, why don’t we talk a bit about what a follow focus does. While there are a couple of exceptions, nearly all follow focuses rely on a series of gears, which are manipulated by a circular knob. When you rotate the knob, you drive a gear that, when paired with a matching gear on your lens, rotates the focus barrel of your lens. Professional cinema lenses are all outfitted with a universal gear on the focus barrel, which matches the pitch (size) of the gear on a follow focus. If you’re working with stills lenses, there are many companies out there that make gears that you can attach to your lenses that accomplish the same thing. When you line up the gears on the follow focus with the gears on the lens, all you need to do is turn the knob on the follow focus and you’ve got yourself some buttery-smooth focus pulls.

By getting the operator’s hand off of the lens itself, you minimize a lot of tiny movements that can be introduced into your footage by grabbing the barrel of the lens with your hand. On top of that, the main advantage of using a follow focus has to do with precision. The series of gears gives you much more fine control over focus, therefore decreasing your likelihood of completely missing your focus pulls. This is especially true if you’re using still lenses, which often have notoriously small focus throws (the amount of rotation required to go from infinity to close focus). If you’ve ever tried to pull focus on a cheap stills lens, you’ve almost certainly said to yourself “Wait, I barely touched the lens. How is my subject so out of focus? Also: who am I talking to?”

Real talk: You’re about to read a lot about how to mount your follow focus. I’m not saying that my writing is boring, but it’s…a lot. I recommend you grit your teeth and get through it, but since I’ve probably got a lot of visual learners here, I’ve also included a quick video that shows you exactly how to mount a follow focus to a camera rig.

Nearly all follow focuses are rod-mounted, so you’ll need some sort of baseplate or cage with 15mm rod ports. In this case, we’re using a Zacuto VCT Baseplate. Once you’ve got your rods secured, it’s time to attach your follow focus. Start by loosening the knobs on the bottom and side of the follow focus (see the photo below), which will allow you to slide the unit back and forth on the rods, as well as side to side. Some models are designed to slide on, while others drop into place. My particular follow focus likes to be dropped in, so we’ll line it up with one of the rods and drop it down until it snaps into place. The next step is to position the follow focus so that the teeth of the gears match up with the gears on your lens*.

*Depending on the model of follow focus that you’re using, this process can be varying degrees of frustrating. Lower-cost follow focuses tend to have a fixed height, which means that you might find that the gears don’t reach your lens. If you’re renting, for example, the Redrock Micro Follow Focus, I highly recommend using a baseplate that allows you to adjust the height of your rods relative to your lens. This should allow you to get the follow focus to the correct height to line up with your lens. My particular model has an added level of adjustment which lets you move the gear up and down.

With all of the knobs loosened, slide and position your follow focus so that the gears line up with the gears on your lens, and then tighten all the knobs. I find that the tightening process tends to shift the gear around a bit, so you might find that things line up a little too snugly, or too loosely, so adjust accordingly. Once you’ve got it all locked down, take a step back and admire your skills thus far.

There are a couple of different ways to operate this thing once it’s all set up. The most straightforward way is to grab the big, grippy knob and just start twisting. It’ll take some practice, but you’ll quickly figure out which direction moves the focus closer or farther away, and you’ll get a feel for how much turning is required to travel a certain distance. One thing you might notice while working with a follow focus is that, even though it’s smooth, you’re still seeing little vibrations as you or your assistant is operating it. Some people aren’t so gentle with gear and that’s when you can break out the whip.

Not that kind of whip. This kind:

A whip is essentially a little extension that plugs into the square port in the knob of the follow focus. It gets your hands completely off of the unit, and you twist the end of the whip to control focus.

You’ll often see a Focus Puller (or First A.C.) using a whip so they don’t need to be crammed right next to the camera operator.

“Okay, fine. A follow focus gives you much more precise control, but now it’s almost impossible for me to go do a big rack focus in one twist! When I do it by hand I can rack focus super fast, but now I have to turn my hand in all kinds of weird ways, and it doesn’t even go far enough! Also: my wrist hurts, I’m grumpy and don’t feel like being creative anymore. What gives!?”

This point is valid, but we’ve got a solution for that too. It’s called a speed crank, and it attaches in the same manner as the whip. It’s essentially a lever, which is much easier to manipulate quickly and over greater distances. Now you can pull focus from the moon to your laptop (I’m assuming you’re making a movie about a lonely blogger writing an article late at night) quickly and easily! Consider renting the Redrock Micro Whip and Speed Crank Bundle in addition to whatever follow focus you choose. Then you’ll have all the fancy focus tools.

Alrighty, so you’ve got the tools but it’s still very possible to bungle your focus pullsand to make your footage look a little bit like it was shot by someone who’s had a few too many…adult beverages. I’ve got some tips to help you focus more effectively so your audience can keep their attention on the story instead of your follow-focusry™.

1. Set Marks

You’ll notice that, around the knob itself, there’s an outer circle of white plastic. That’s for setting focus marks, which is a common practice on narrative sets. Get your hands on some dry-erase markers, because it’s time to draw. If you’re working on a project where rehearsals are possible, you can use your dry-erase markers to set focus marks for a given shot.

Let’s say you have a shot where an actress is standing by the window, but she then moves closer to the camera to grab her glass of adult beverage and then sits down on the couch in the back of the room. When you’re blocking the scene (deciding where the actors will be and what the camera is doing for a given shot), you would start with the actress by the window. Use the follow focus to get your subject in focus and use your dry-erase marker to draw a little hash right below the white indicator above the disk (most follow focuses should have this). Put a little “1” underneath the hash. Next, have your actress move to her second spot (or mark), turn the knob until she’s in focus, and put another hash on the disk with the number 2. Finally, have her move to her third position, get her in focus again, and make another mark on the disk.

You can use these marks as guides as you’re pulling focus so that you can keep your pulls relatively in sync with the motion of your actress. Often, you’d also be putting little marks on the floor of your set so that your actress can hit the same position take after take, but depending on the shot this might not always be possible. That said, using your marks on the follow focus will give you a much better sense of where you need to be focus-wise as your actors move throughout a scene.

2. Muscle Memory

No matter how you’re interacting with your follow focus, try to practice your pull a few times. At the very least, get your hand and wrist used to where close-focus and infinity are. Pulling focus is a skill and the more muscle memory you have the more successful you’re going to be. Over time, you’ll be able to “feel” where your hand needs to be to nail focus. While we’re on the topic of “feeling,” I have a quick tip if you’re operating a shot that’s got just two marks. While you’re practicing your pull, find your second mark and make sure that your hand is in a rested, relaxed position. Move to your first mark and, if you can, twist your hand rather than just turning the dial with your fingers. It’ll likely be a bit uncomfortable, but as you move to your second mark, your hand will be slowly relaxing, resulting in a smoother focus pull. If you do this in reverse, you might find yourself straining and stuttering to keep up, which can result in less-than-stellar follow-focusry.

3. Don’t Fidget

If you watch movies carefully, you’d be surprised how many times you see a shot that’s either slightly, or sometimes VERY out of focus. I’d make the argument that if a particular moment is powerful enough, the audience won’t worry so much about whether the focus is tack-sharp. In fact, I think you’re going to distract your viewer more if, in the middle of a big moment, they can feel the focus puller constantly adjusting the focus to try and get it nice and sharp. I’m not suggesting that you don’t follow the action, but if you’re constantly fidgeting with the focus it can end up looking a little bit amateur.

If you’re doing a talking head interview, it can be tempting to use your fancy follow focus to keep up with every tiny movement that your subject makes. I’ve tried this approach and I’ll admit that when you’re nailing it, you feel like a focusing superhero. All you want to do is run home and start sewing your costume so you can fight crime as a masked vigilante who’s called…I don’t know…The Focus Racker, maybe. That said, it’s extremely hard to do this and if you’re not careful you’ll end up missing focus more than hitting it, and when you look at the footage later all you’ll want to do is run into an alley during a rainstorm and dramatically dump your costume into a trash can while you contemplate the consequences of your actions.

For the most part, your interview subject is going to stay put. Set focus once they’re settled and listening to a question and then trust that they won’t randomly end up super soft. If you feel the need to adjust, try to wait until they’re in between answers.

4. Just Because You CAN Rack Focus Doesn’t Mean You Need To

This tip mostly applies to b-roll but it certainly happens on narrative shoots, too. Depth of field is a powerful tool in your filmmaking utility belt, but it’s not your ONLY tool. If you devote the majority of your b-roll to pulling focus between subjects (people, objects, cute animals), then the piece that you’ve made starts to look like it’s ABOUT your focus-pulling skills, rather than the story. We often rack focus to show context in a scene, so consider other ways that you can provide this context. Maybe it’s a wider lens, or moving the camera, or just adjusting the lighting. If you vary your usage of depth of field, you can keep things fresh.

5. Breathe!

Think of pulling focus as a zen practice, rather than disarming a bomb. From a physical perspective, I’m actually recommending that you exhale as you’re working with the follow focus. It’s a small thing, but it calms the body and relaxes tension in your muscles. You’ll probably find that this leads to smoother action on the lens. From a mental perspective, if you put too much pressure on yourself to master every single move, you’re very likely to fidget – which is something we’ve already discussed as a no-no. Once you’ve practiced a bit and built up that muscle memory, try to just stay engaged with what’s happening in the scene, and let that muscle memory take over.

Look at that! An article about a device made of metal and plastic ends with a quick discussion on mindfulness. Bit of a strange path to take but if you follow the steps above, I’ve got all the confidence in the world that you’ll have great success keeping things sharp (or not, if that’s what you’re going for). As with any piece of new equipment, the most important thing to do is to practice with it before the big shoot. There’s nothing worse than trying to learn how to use something while a bunch of people are watching you. In my experience, you’ll just end up sweaty, frustrated and frantically reading a weird article that’s got a few too many (bad) jokes in there.

Nobody wants to work with someone like that.

Happy shooting!

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Sean Meehan is a Director and Cinematographer based out of Brooklyn, NY. He's made cool stuff (mostly videos) for folks like Comedy Central, Al-Jazeera English, and Medisafe.

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