With autofocus achieving superhuman heights in recent years, its ability seems limitless. But when narrative filmmaking, nothing beats the human touch.
First things first. I love autofocus. As someone whose eyesight is questionable under the best circumstances, the idea of manually focusing was always something I was eager to avoid. Sure, I could zone focus. And sure, it looked in focus to my eye. But do I really trust my own eyes?
Thankfully, when it comes to still photography, autofocus has reached a level of accuracy these days that I feel confident that, given the right starting point, my camera will keep my images sharp in the majority of circumstances. Many camera manufacturers have been equally adept at transporting this focus accuracy over to their video products as well. If you’re running and gunning or setting up a simple interview, leaving your camera in autofocus is often the best option. Depending on your subject, it may be the only option. And there’s a good chance you’ll get great results. So why would you want to use manual focus?
If you’ve ever found yourself having a polite conversation with a professional cinematographer and made the grave mistake of using the word “autofocus” in a sentence, you have most likely been met with a cold stare living on the border of shame and contempt. The truth is that the higher you go in terms of production budget, the less likely it is that you will be relying on autofocus. The best industry standard cinema cameras don’t even have autofocus capabilities, for the most part, and being able to focus your image manually is a prerequisite.
There are multiple reasons for this. One, at the higher levels of filmmaking, you are very rarely running and gunning. Sure, you might be moving at a superhuman pace to make it through the day. And maybe you steal a shot here or there. But, as they say, films are made in preproduction. You’re not just shooting endless B roll hoping you’ll be able to edit it into a story later. You are shooting specific considered shots that will add up to a very intentional tone and feel for your film. Within that context, choosing where and when you focus is just as important as being able to maintain focus in the first place.
Take a simple scene as an example. A man walks into a room looking for his watch. The watch is lying on a table in the foreground buried under a pair of socks. The man goes to his desk to look. He walks to the windowsill to look. He checks under the bed. All the time, his amused wife is sitting in the deep background chuckling to herself as she knows all along where the watch is and has decided not to tell him to teach him a lesson for leaving his socks everywhere. So you have multiple points of interest in that one shot. You might want to start focus on the man entering, then rack to the extreme foreground to see the watch under the socks. Then, rack back to the man as he goes to the desk and window. Then, drop down under the bed to see the man looking under it (without racking to the near side of the bed in the foreground). Then, back to the man. Then, focus on the wife in the deep background laughing. There is no autofocus system on Earth that is going to figure this out on its own. It could probably track the man through the room fairly consistently, but you’d be losing multiple story beats in the process.
Even in far simpler circumstances autofocus isn’t always the best option. Ask yourself how many times you’ve been shooting an interview of a subject and for seemingly no reason at all, the camera’s autofocus momentarily jumps to something else. Even if it quickly regains focus, that small shift in focus could cause a major headache in editing. Or let’s say you finally get Tom Cruise to do your passion project. He delivers a fifteen minute monologue that bares his soul. And he’ll only give you one take. Are you really going to trust your autofocus in a once in a lifetime moment like that? Can you imagine having to go to Tom Cruise after the best performance of his career and tell him he has to do it again because your autofocus jumped during the take?
Of course, wanting to manually focus and being able to manually focus are two different things altogether. With experience, you’ll likely be able to pull your own focus in many situations. Documentarians have been doing it for decades. This is far from easy. But it is possible for less complex camera moves. As your budget’s increase, so too will your crew. Pretty soon you’ll have a first AC whose job it is to make sure your camera is in focus at all times. Generally speaking this is done through the use of a follow focus.
Even if you aren’t a professional filmmaker, you’ve probably seen those round wheels mounted to the bottom of a camera lens and wondered about their purpose. Made simple, a follow focus is a device that allows the operator or a focus puller to adjust the focus of a lens without having to physically touch the lens barrel itself. Sometimes touching the barrel of the lens midshot will cause a shake in the frame. Sometimes the camera is mounted in such a position that reaching the lens barrel is impractical. Sometimes there is simply not enough real estate on the camera body for both an operator and focus puller to be handling the rig simultaneously. This is where having something like a follow focus becomes beneficial.
The follow focus connects to the lens’ focus ring via gears. If you’ve seen a true cinema lens, you’ve noticed that one of the key differentiators is that cinema lenses have wider barrels with collars of teeth around them. Usually there are two grooved rings. One adjusts focus and one adjusts aperture. Sometimes there is a third if it’s a zoom lens. The gears on the follow focus line up with the gears on the lens. So, when you turn the external ring on the follow focus, it turns the gears. This, in turn, shifts focus forwards and backwards. The focus puller can either turn the external ring by hand or sometimes will use an extension handle called a whip to provide the operator with even more room to operate.
Of course, what I’ve described so far is still a very manual process. What if the camera is on a gimbal or steadicam rig? What if it’s a crash cam mounted to the front of a speeding car? What if it’s been jerry rigged to the top of the tallest tree in the village to get an aerial view? There are a million and one reasons why it might be impractical to have the focus puller standing beside the camera. But the image still needs to be in focus. This is where a wireless follow focus system comes into play.
The principle is still the same as the hard wired variety. But, instead of the focus puller being right next to the camera, they can instead pull focus remotely. They may not even need to be in the same room. Instead, the cameras will relay video wirelessly via a transmitter. The focus puller will have his or her own monitor receiving the images from the camera. The focus puller then has a remote focusing wheel in hand that communicates with a wireless follow focus system attached to the camera lens. When the focus puller adjusts the remote wheel, the gears on the camera lens move to achieve focus. This allows for the focus puller to hit the desired interference marks with the least amount of interference to the operator and allow the operator to simply concentrate on keeping the shot properly composed.
As you’re likely aware if you’ve ever shopped for something as fundamental as a combo stand, filmmaking gear is expensive. Very expensive. Some might say unnecessarily expensive. And wireless follow focus systems are no exception. A solid system will easily run you well into five figures. For an independent filmmaker, even the rental cost might be cost prohibitive. So what is an independent filmmaker to do?
Thankfully, we now live in a world where less expensive options are on the market. One such example is the recently released SmallRig MagicFIZ Wireless Follow Focus. As one of those filmmakers without an unlimited budget, I recently picked up the two motor kit. These systems usually come in three varieties. FIZ stands for focus, iris, and zoom. So, a basic one motor kit will control focus. The two motor kit can control focus and iris. And the three-motor kit would control focus, iris, and zoom. My two-motor kit means that I can rack focus and rack aperture simultaneously if needed. The motors attach to standard rails. I have my own dual rail system. But the kit I got came with a single rail as well as the mounting hardware to attach it to a cage if I chose to do so. The motors attach to the lens via the teeth present on the barrels of your cinema lenses. If you are using photo lenses without the teeth, the kit includes detachable collars, which will allow you to mount the system with your lenses as well.
It took very little time to get up and running. I’m one of those people who is easily confused when reading instruction manuals. But I was quickly up and running with the system without headache. It comes with the option to add a handle grip to the focus wheel. So, if you want to attach the grip to a handheld rig and have access to the focus wheel at your fingertips, this is a solid option. My favorite option was to connect the handle and focus wheel to an external monitor. In this setup, I can have my camera in one place with the motors attached. Then I can leave the area all together with my remote focus wheel attached to the handle with a monitor and I can pull focus via the remote feed. This is obviously more useful if you have a separate focus puller doing this for you. But there are lots of circumstances, like when the camera is mounted on a gimbal, for example, when it is beneficial for the operator to be able to adjust focus themself without needing to reach for the front of the lens.
The system has proven a valuable addition to my kit. The thing about video gear is that it is incredibly circumstantial. The tools you need vary greatly depending on a given project. But having something like this in your kit allows you to be prepared to tell your story the way you want to tell it, even when the demands of a shot prevent you from maintaining physical contact with your gear. And thanks to new kits like this one from SmallRig, the power to remotely focus your camera is easier and more affordable than ever.