Follow-up: Pulling Focus From the Monitor

Evan Luzi, founder of the popular camera-assistant-centered website The Black and Blue, wrote an article based on my thoughts about camera assistants (ACs) who use monitors to pull focus. He writes that relying on a monitor is a bad habit to learn, and a difficult one to break:

[W]hen you learn to do something for the first time a certain way, it can be very tough to forget. (Not to mention a whole generation of ACs started their careers with access to crisp HD monitors.)

This, however, is no excuse for consistently using the monitor as the crutch. When you are given the tools to pull focus properly in the right circumstances – cinema lenses with witness markings; a solid follow focus or wireless setup; time for marks and rehearsal – you should be measuring distances, marking your follow focus and watching the shot unfold in front of you so you can make adjustments.

"In the right circumstances." That phrase drew criticism from a number of Evan's readers and several acquaintances of mine. Cinematographer Stephen Scavulli comments on my original article:

But a great deal of the time, you either don't get properly collimated lenses, you're pulling off modded or unmodded still lenses, or you have to be flexible for any number of reasons.

I think the lesson you preach is still a valuable one, though. I just think it should be expanded. Know when to use different techniques and tools as the situation calls for it.

Evan echoes this sentiment in a follow-up post, in which he addresses the criticism and backpedals a bit from his previous stance. He argues that certain, less-than-ideal circumstances are "acceptable and encouraged uses of the monitor to aid in pulling focus."

After reading feedback, it's clear that the biggest issue isn't ACs who rely on monitors to grab focus: it's a prevalent on-set culture that regards rehearsals and marks as unnecessary luxuries for contemporary filmmaking.

In my experience, "shooting the rehearsal" ends up costing the production additional time and money, as crew and talent attempt to fix things on the fly. ACs who are involved in productions where they're forced to use, say, still-camera lenses without rehearsals have little choice but to rely on monitors to try to keep things sharp.

I don't think this culture will change until key members of production teams realize they're shooting themselves and their financial backers in the foot.