Hollywood Jobs
4:25 pm
Sun March 16, 2014

Keen Eyes, Uncanny Instincts Keep Films In Sharp Focus

Originally published on Fri February 28, 2014 1:41 pm

You won't believe it — I didn't — but the person responsible for keeping each and every shot of a movie in focus never looks through a camera lens.

"No," says focus puller Baird Steptoe. "We do not look through the camera at all."

Steptoe has worked as a first assistant cameraman on films from The Sixth Sense to Thor to last year's Grownups Two. He says he's learned to judge distances — precise distances — with his naked eye alone.

"I mean, I can tell you roughly from you to me right now," he says. "I would say about 2-11."

Two feet 11 inches, that is. Not that I brought along a tape measure for corroboration. But Steptoe has an eye you don't mess around with. On a movie, if he's wrong, he could lose his job.

Turns out focus pullers don't look through the lens because the camera operators do that — they're busy framing the shot, panning and tilting, and they don't have a spare hand to focus in and out. So in Hollywood, where everything takes a village, pulling focus has become a separate operation, a job all to itself.

Larry Nielsen, the first assistant cameraman on the set of the romantic comedy Walk of Shame, has movies in the eye and the blood. He's a third-generation filmmaker; his grandfather and father were cameramen and animators.

Bundled against the early-morning chill, Nielsen wears a knitted cap, a warm coat and fingerless gloves. With his bare fingers, he'll adjust focus on a wireless remote he's using for this scene — wireless, because he can't be right next to the camera as he usually is, controlling the focus knobs. Today the RED EPIC camera is mounted far from the ground, on a big hulking crane.

Down below, Nielsen's remote has a wheel that is marked in feet; he moves the wheel based on what his eye says the distance is between camera and actor. He's got to be within inches for it to work — and the distances keep changing as the crane swings around to follow the main character, played by Elizabeth Banks.

"The minute she turns, it's my job to bring the focus forward to her face so that the eye naturally sees what's in focus," Nielsen says.

In the movie, Banks' character is on a wild journey; she needs to get to an audition for a network TV job, but her car's been towed. In the scene they're about to shoot, she's racing around, dirty, her hair a mess, when she finally spots her car.

So Nielsen is busy thinking back and forth in inches and feet and zooms and aperture adjustments, to be sure the faraway camera tracks all her movements clearly.

"She's starting at about 16 feet," he explains. "She's gonna walk towards the camera, and we're gonna catch her at about 9 feet, and the camera's gonna swoop around and get as close as about 5 1/2 feet. It's my job to make sure she's in focus, frame for frame, 24 frames a second."

It's like a slow-motion mental exercise before the real thing begins.

Once the director calls "action," there are only two people walking as the scene is being shot — Banks and focus puller Nielsen, coordinating the changing camera distances with his remote. Walk of Shame director Steven Brill says he's depends 100 percent on his first assistant cameraman to keep the scenes in focus.

"If they are not sharp and in focus," he says, "the film isn't usable, and we cannot go forward."

Even Director of Photography Jonathan Brown is in awe.

"It's a mystical art," he says.

An art Nielsen has clearly mastered. Not right away, of course. Nielsen began learning to focus with tape measures. After a while, his eye was trained and he didn't need the tapes anymore. Except, he says, in certain circumstances.

"After a 14-hour, 16-hour day, I'll be pullin' my tape occasionally," he admits.

He finds himself metaphorically pulling focus in everyday life sometimes — standing outside a movie theater, say, in a really long line.

"Yeah, sometimes I'll say, 'We're about 25 feet and the line's ... taking 10 minutes per person, yeah."

At age 48, after years in the business — he worked on Avatar, The Kingdom, Shutter Island and many more — Nielsen is pretty confident about his craft. It's one, he notes, that would have been harder in the old days, when they didn't have monitors on set to double-check what they'd shot. Years ago, filmmakers had to wait until the next day to see the dailies — and it could cost a lot of money if they had to re-shoot a blurry scene.

Just imagine if the focus puller hadn't been on his game for Gloria Swanson's famous final scene in Sunset Boulevard — she might have been ready for her close-up, but it wouldn't have looked like much.

Editor's Note: Like others in their line of work, Larry Nielsen and Miki Janicin are mourning the death Feb. 20 of Second Assistant Camerawoman Sarah Jones, who was struck by a train while working on the set of the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider. Their union and many other in the film industry are campaigning to have her honored during the Academy Awards' 'In Memoriam' segment this Sunday.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So on this program, our engineer, Brian Jarboe; and director, Lauren Migaki; are busy making us sound as great as possible. In the movies, the equivalent is keeping the picture perfect. The Oscars are handed out this Sunday. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg continues her annual tradition of profiling jobs on a Hollywood set. Today, her focus is on how movies stay in focus.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: You won't believe it - I didn't - but the person responsible for keeping each shot in focus never looks through a camera lens.

BAIRD STEPTOE: No. We do not look through the camera at all.

STAMBERG: Focus puller Baird Steptoe is a first assistant cameraman. He's worked on "Grownups Two," the remake of "The Manchurian Candidate." So how does he do it? Baird says he's learned to judge distances, precise distances, with his naked eye alone.

STEPTOE: I mean, I could tell you roughly, from you to me right now...

STAMBERG: I'd say we were 3 and a half feet apart but you know better, don't you? What are we?

STEPTOE: I would say about 2-11. Yeah, 2 feet, 11...

STAMBERG: Two feet, 11 inches - you're doing it to the inch?

STEPTOE: Oh, yes.

STAMBERG: Well, I didn't bring along a tape measure for corroboration, but Baird has an eye you don't mess around with. Turns out film focusers don't look through the lens because the camera operators do that. They are busy framing the shot, panning, tilting. They don't have a spare hand to focus in and out. In Hollywood, where everything takes a village, pulling focus has become a separate operation - a job all by itself.

LARRY NIELSEN: How's the exposure looking now?

STAMBERG: The focus puller on the set of the romantic comedy "Walk of Shame" has movies in the eye and the blood. He's a third-generation filmmaker; his grandfather and father were cameramen and animators.

NIELSEN: My name is Larry Nielsen. OK, copy that. Thank you.

STAMBERG: Larry's bundled against the early morning chill. He wears a knitted cap, a warm coat and fingerless gloves. With bare fingers, he'll adjust focus on a wireless remote device he uses for this scene; wireless because he can't be right next to the camera as he usually is, controlling the focus knobs. Today the huge RED EPIC camera is mounted way up on a big, hulking crane.

On the ground, Larry's wireless thingy has a wheel marked in feet. To be within inches of accuracy, he moves the wheel based on what his eye says the distance should be. And the distances keep changing as the crane swings around to follow the main character.

NIELSEN: So the minute she turns, it's my job to bring the focus forward to her face so that the eye naturally sees that's what's supposed to be in focus.

STAMBERG: In the movie, the lead character, actress Elizabeth Banks, is on a wild journey. She has to get to an audition for a network TV job, and her car has been towed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WALK OF SHAME")

ELIZABETH BANKS: (As Meghan) I am lost, and I don't have a phone or money, and my car's in an impound lot and...

STAMBERG: In the scene they're about to shoot, she's racing around, dirty; her hair a mess. Finally, she spots her car. So focus puller Larry is busy thinking back and forth in inches and feet - and zooms and aperture adjustments - so the faraway camera will track all her movements clearly.

NIELSEN: She's starting at about 16 feet. She's gonna walk towards the camera, and we're gonna catch her at about 9 feet and at that time, we're gonna swoop around with her...

STAMBERG: He's doing a slow-motion mental exercise before the real thing begins.

NIELSEN: So it's my job to make sure she's in focus frame per frame, 24 frames a second.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here we go.

STEVEN BRILL: Action, Banks.

STAMBERG: The camera's following her. It's freezing cold and she's wearing this little, skimpy, yellow dress - poor thing. But there goes Larry, and he's walking with the camera right across the path of a very bright sun.

BRILL: And cut! Thank you.

STAMBERG: There are only two people walking while the scene is being shot: the actress and focus puller Larry Nielsen, maneuvering the changing camera distances with his remote device. "Walk of Shame" director Steven Brill - the film is due out in April - says he's depends 100 percent on his first assistant cameraperson to keep the scenes in focus.

BRILL: If they are not sharp or in focus, the film is not usable and we cannot go forward. There should be a competition.

STAMBERG: Even the director of photography, Jonathan Brown, is in awe.

JONATHAN BROWN: It's a mystical art.

STAMBERG: An art which Larry Nielsen has clearly mastered. Not right away, of course. Larry began learning to focus with tape measures. After a while, his eye was trained and he didn't need them anymore. Except...

NIELSEN: After a 14-, 16-hour day, I'll be pulling my tape occasionally.

STAMBERG: Can you turn that ability off in real life? When you're standing on line outside a movie theater waiting and it's a really long line, somewhere are you mentally focusing on what your distance is from buying that ticket?

NIELSEN: Yeah. Sometimes I'll say, well OK, we're about 25 feet from the line. It's taking 10 minutes per person. Yeah, you know. So -

STAMBERG: You know, through life we use these phrases. I say to myself four times a day: Focus up, Susan; or, I don't know, the writing, it was little out of focus. What am I saying? 'Cause that's your job description.

NIELSEN: Right. Well, I actually don't say out of focus. I always say, I think I was soft. It's a politer way of saying that it was out of focus.

STAMBERG: At age 48, after years in the business - he's worked on "Avatar," "The Kingdom," "Shutter Island" - Larry Nielsen is pretty confident about his craft. It would have been harder in the old days. They didn't have monitors on set then, to double-check what they'd shot. Early filmmakers had to wait until the next day to see the dailies. It could cost a lot of money if they had to re-shoot a blurry scene.

NIELSEN: For a focus puller during that time, I'd probably been on ice. (Laughter) I'd have been nervous. I would've wanted to make sure that it was sharp as a tack.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUNSET BOULEVARD")

GLORIA SWANSON: (As Norma Desmond) I'm ready.

ERICH VON STROHEIM: (As Max Von Mayerling) All right. Cameras. Action.

STAMBERG: Imagine if Gloria Swanson's famous scene in "Sunset Boulevard" had been out of focus.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUNSET BOULEVARD")

SWANSON: (As Norma Desmond) All right, Mr. DeMille. I'm ready for my close-up.

STAMBERG: Anticipating the Oscars and years of perfectly focused films, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.