Key Collaborators: The First A.C.

The First Assistant/Focus Puller (two different titles/same job!)

*There are four key people the Cinematographer will hire while building the crew.
         1-Gaffer        2-Key Grip        3-Camera Operator        4- Focus Puller

The great Ron Shelton always says that the first person he hires on his movies is Tony Rivetti. Tony is a world class focus puller and I would hire him first too - if he was ever available!

This musing is all about what first assistants do and why Ron Shelton, myself and countless others make this hire first.

Years ago, we would take all of these *key crew people when we travelled to distant locations. But now, if we’re lucky - we can only take one. There are two main reasons for this: 1 - It’s expensive to fly and house people. 2 – There are more experienced local crewbases scattered around the US than ever before.

THE PRODUCER WILL INSIST THAT YOU HIRE LOCALS - PERIOD.

So if I get to bring one key crewmember (usually a big fight) it will always be the focus puller.

When I was less experienced with lighting I might have asked for a gaffer. The key grip is a critical position and if they’re any good, they’ll understand my photographic approach to the project and get on board within a few days - or else. Good camera operators are worth their weight in gold but since I can operate – I’ll jump in and do that job if the local can’t hack it. One thing I’m real sure about is that I cannot pull focus. Hence, I want a first assistant I know and trust when we travel to shoot on location. Here are some of my reasons - in no particular order.

THE FOCUS PULLER IS A CREATIVE CONTRIBUTOR.

I play with focus and depth of field as a storytelling element. This means that I’m determining where the audience looks by the objects that are in focus within the frame. Too me, it’s as important as the lens choice, the exposure, the composition and whether we move the camera or not.

YOU EITHER HAVE IT OR YOU DON'T.

You can’t teach a person how to pull focus. They either have it or they don’t. Determining the distance between the camera and the subject without measuring is truly a God given skill. I’ve worked with some guys who nail it on the first take, even when the camera is moving towards the subject at a high rate of speed. Other assistants will succeed as well, but they require intermediate marks and extra rehearsals and for telephoto lenses - sometimes a deeper f stop. I just want the shot to be sharp - so if someone needs a little extra time they will get it. My first choice rarely needs extra time.

THERE IS MUCH MORE TO THE JOB THAN JUST PULLING FOCUS.

Focus pullers are managers and camera technicians as well. During the camera prep, first assistants prep camera bodies, lenses and all of the accessories required for the project. And believe me, there are hundreds of bits and pieces required. This process can and should take days to accomplish. I’m most interested in the type and quality of lenses picked for the show. The assistant will handpick and inspect every prime and zoom for sharpness, the accuracy of the witness marks and the fluidity of the iris blades. It’s not unusual for a thorough assistant to go through several of each type of lens until they are satisfied. If it’s a film shoot – the camera will be steady and scratch tested. Magazines will be scratch and noise tested and the light traps and rollers will be inspected closely. On a big project with multiple cameras and film stocks – there could be 25 magazines on the camera truck. I have carried 3 film stocks on a movie before. 25 asa daylight, 250 asa daylight and 500 asa tungsten film. In addition to preparing cameras and lenses  - here are a few more necessities they will get ready: steadicams, high speed cameras, SPECIALTY LENSES: fish eye, frazier, endoscopic, periscope, super long lenses and squishy lenses. HEADS: gear, fluid, lambda, weaver steadman, cartoni and tango heads. CLOSE FOCUS DIOPTERS AND FILTERS  flats, uv, color correcting, neutral density, graduated both neutral density and color, polarizers, special color effect filters, and hundreds of different kinds of diffusion. Not every project uses all of these filters, but an experienced focus puller will have handled most of them at some point. Many filter effects can be achieved in the DI (digital intermediate) now, so I’m seeing reduced use of some of the special purpose filters. AND THERE IS MORE! How about tripods and high hats, rain deflectors and matte boxes, monitors of all sizes and remote follow focus kits. All of this equipment is gathered up and checked out and labeled carefully.

SOME FOCUS PULLERS ALSO MANAGE THE REST OF THE CAMERA CREW.

The focus puller hires the 2nd assistant and the loader and will also weigh in on who the operator candidates might be. If there are multiple cameras, they will provide a list of potential crew members for the DP to approve or comment on. If the DP doesn’t have an opinion – the first assistant will make the hire. They also serve as mentors and teachers to people coming up. These young crewmembers are taught the practices and traditions of the camera department. And it’s not just about camera as there are etiquette and political do’s and don’ts that are critical to a smooth relationship with all departments.

FIRST ASSISTANTS ALSO DO A SCRIPT BREAKDOWN.

Derived from the script, first assistants keep a special equipment calendar during the course of the movie. On POSEIDON, my second unit had a very big day on the schedule that required a lot of special equipment. 10 high speed cameras, several underwater housings, 4 remote heads, etc, etc. This is the scene where the grand ballroom windows implode and allow 100,000 gallons of water onto the set. Needless to say it was a one take event that was prepped for several weeks. All of the equipment needed on that day was noted on the special equipment calendar and all of the additional crew was hired by the first assistant, Steve Matzinger.
First assistants will comb the script for any shot they think may require equipment that is not usually carried on a daily basis. DP’s will discuss each of these scenes and the creative approach they want to take. Sometimes special equipment is needed, sometimes the approach is simplified or the shot is omitted. In all cases, the first assistant will flag scenes that seem out of the norm.

I would say that maybe half of all focus pullers move to the camera operator position. Camera operating is a very different job that requires a different skill set. Some succeed, some don’t. Those who are dedicated to being career focus pullers are the guys I hire and in fact are the very best in the world at their craft because of that commitment and dedication to the job they do. I’ll mention five of the best that I've had the privelige to work with: Tony Rivetti, Cal Roberts, Alan Disler, Bob Hall, Mike Weldon and David Leb.

WHY DOES ALL OF THIS MATTER?

You’ll never know the confidence of designing a really hairy shot because one of these guys pulling focus until you have someone on the knob who can’t pull it off. This drives me crazy because I hate to compromise shots when I know they are achievable.

First assistants are masters at knowing the depth of field of many lenses at a variety of aperture settings. If I ask what stop I need when focused at 10 feet that will give me hyperfocal at 20 feet on a 27mm lens I’ll have that answer in seconds. (f 11) Do I have enough light to achieve that? Indoors, the difference between 8 and 11 is huge - so you depend on the right answer.

They also need to accurately adjust the f stop when filters are added or the shutter speed or shutter angle is changed. Quick Quiz! - What is the adjusted f stop when the base is f 22+1/2, then we add a full pola, a .60ND filter, change the frame rate from 24 frames per second to 72 FPS then change from a 180 degree shutter to a 270 degree shutter? Oh - plus I want to force the film one stop in the lab! Focus pullers have to get this answer right. I come up with f 5.6+2/3. How about you? 

Full Pola= -2  .60ND= -2  72 fps= -1 ½  270 degree shutter= +2/3  one stop push= +1

I usually handle the compensation for the filters but I leave the shutter and frame rate adjustments to the first assistant. In the midst of demanding day - DP's don’t want to stop and do this compensation.

Experienced assistants will always prompt you if the mag is running low, or as the sun starts to fall, maybe it’s time to start loading a faster film stock. Also, they serve as an extra pair of eyes to help pick out bogies in the frame due to the lack of clarity in the new electronic viewfinders. Also, they’ll remind you of all of the filters in the matte box as the light and the f stop starts to change.


And if all of this isn’t enough! – first assistants are in charge of the camera truck and are the point person when a production manager asks about an extra equipment order - or reasons for additional manpower.

I’m sure I’ve missed something important in this musing and will hear from someone about it sooner or later! But now, I think you have a good sense of why this invaluable crew person is my number one choice to accompany me, when the circus leaves town.

My heartfelt gratitude, respect and amazement for all great focus pullers worldwide!

Return To Musings