The focus puller workout - Cinematography Blog - Camaleon Rental
The focus puller workout
1ST CAMERA ASSISTANT
The focus puller workout. Unfortunately I don't remember who it was, but now is a respected director of photography in Hollywood. Back in the days, when he was just a PA, the great director Nicholas Ray told him :"And remember, it's not a job, it's a lifestyle".
Truth is he was so right, and keeping this in mind is gonna help us in our carrier as much as our network or our technical skills. Speaking of which, it is not a secret that the best and fastest way to get better in our profession is to be on set. But what it does happen, specially in the beginnings, is that we don't have the desired volume of work to improve as fast as we would like. If you are ACing on Game of Thrones you can stop reading right now.
And it's precisely because we don't have by our side a cinema camera as long as we would like, I thought that even we are not shooting every day, what we can do is to practice our skills, so we can be ready when the camera starts to roll.
It is true indeed that most of times theory is far from practice, nevertheless there are some books that speak about our job and a part from being very interesting and funny to read, they can also give us very useful tips when it will be us shooting. I'm sure that if you wanna search the web there are a lot of them, here you have my personal top 3
- A man with a camera, by Nestor Almendros. Even though they are not printing it anymore, you can easily find it online on Amazon or in pdf/epub format. It is a biography that goes through the whole filmography of this amazing spanish Dop, from its very beginning in Cuba, to the collaboration with the masters of French nouvelle vague, until his triumph in Hollywood with movies that have become milestones in the recent history of cinematography. One of the most interesting things for me is that this guy had been in literally every kind of productions, from independent documentaries where he didn't even had an AC to monstrous-budget Hollywood productions where he couldn't learn the names of all the crew, not even in the 3 months of the principal photography.
- Optics and focus for camera assistants: Art, science and Zen - Fritz Hershey. This book, which I discovered thank to my good friend and fellow AC Guillermo Alvarez, is considered by many the bible of the AC. It is not edited anymore but you can find it used on the web, even though I have to warn you that it is not going to be cheap (round 100 bocks). If you want my two cents, it worths every penny! This man worked as 1st AC in Hollywood top notch productions for decades and in this book you're gonna find endless tips, techniques, tricks to be a better AC, from how to measure a distance by eye, to the maths you need to know and even recommendations on health and food. And lots of them are pretty easy but there is a good chance they've never came to your mind. A little teaser to peak your curiosity: if you extend your arm with a 45' angle degree, the point you are aiming at is at the same distance than your eyes are from the ground: faster and more discreet than a laser!!
- The camera assistant, by Doug C. Hart. For those who don't know it, mr. Hart has been Gordon Willis's first AC during almost his whole career and his professional experience is the kind that most of us can only dream about. In the book you'll find extended explanation on camera equipment, a list of the essentials you have to put in your tools kit, tricks and much more.
Now that there are apps for everything, I bumped into some of them that even though are not strictly related to the film industry, can help us to train key skills in an AC everyday's life. For instance, one of the most important skill to me is mind flexibility for problem solving, since as we all know during the shooting we are going to have a lot of unexpected problems that we will have to solve on the run. Precisely because they are unexpected we can't prepare for them specifically, but we can train the main tool we're gonna use to find a solution: our brain. And even if physiologically the brain is not a muscle, it works in a very similar way, meaning that the more you train it, the better it performs.
There are several free apps that offer a daily training which help us to improve different skills of our brain such as maths, separate focusing, listening, visual recognition etc. training usually doesn't take more than ten minutes per day, and you are going to notice the results soon enough. There is plenty of such apps, the ones I use are "Elevate", "Luminosity" and "Peak", but you can choose a lot in the app stores.
Another skill in which I thinks focus puller needs to be outstanding are reflexes: doesn't matter if you're pulling focus on a monitor or judging distances by eye (and I'm not going to put myself in THAT discussion), you will be always reacting to a visual stimulus. So the faster are your reflexes and eye-hand coordination, the better focus puller you're gonna be. Do you remember the game "whack a mole?" That would be an excellent training and if you dive in the web I'm positive there are hundreds of digital versions of it.
Aside of all this, it is very recommendable every time we can, go to the gym and workout, strengthen arms, legs and back, not because we want to look like Cristiano Ronaldo, but because our job requires us to be as in shape as possible, to prevent injuries on set when we are going to be exposed to cold, rain, snow, long hours and everything else that makes us love our job. Plus, every excuse is good enough to take care of yourself!
Yoga or others meditation techniques can be very useful to, since they improve our ability to focus in stressful situations and/or under a big deal of pressure (does this ring any bell?)
To make the long story short, I think we are lucky enough to have a job that requires us a lot of time but at the same times leaves us the possibility to rest between one gig and the other, so if you want my two cents, try to squeeze the best out of your free time, so you can be better prepared for that thrilling moment in which you'll have to push the red button!
Fabio Giolitti, Focus Puller