Hey, Nice Rack! Celebrating the Art of the Focus Pull

Though they seem simple to do, racking focus is an art that requires precision and finesse.

Having a favorite rack focus from a film is something reserved primarily for big cinephiles and filmmakers, perhaps because it requires one to pay attention to the little, but integral things that occur on screen often without much ado. At first glance, focus pulling is as simple as turning a ring to change the focus from one subject to another, but it's so much more than that, technically, aesthetically, and narratively. In this Fandor video essay, Philip Brubaker not only shows you some of the greatest rack focuses in cinema, but also explains how 1st ACs and other pros do it so beautifully.

Video is no longer available: vimeo.com/212359038

Still think focus pulling is simple? Well, in some shooting situations it might be, but for others the task gets much more complicated and challenging. The first thing that comes to mind is how cinematographer Matthew Rosen pulled off an excellent focus pull for a detergent commercial, which was not only shot at 1500 fps with a high-speed Phantom Flex, but was also shot with a very shallow depth of field. Translation: there was zero margin for error.

There are many tricks DPs and 1st ACs use to pull focus correctly so they hit their marks, including something as simple as using your fingers as a guide, but it's not just about hitting them technically; it's also about hitting them psychologically. Many times there will be numerous rack focuses within a single shot and if the focus puller misses a beat and doesn't pay close attention to the rhythm and flow of a shot, they'll end up with a failed rack focus.

It makes sense considering the fact that they ultimately determine where the audience will focus their attention, and if it's on the wrong thing at the wrong time, then viewers will not be able to appreciate the actors' performances, the scene, or the aesthetic beauty of the shot to the fullest.

So, next time you see a focus puller, give them a pat on the back or a high five. They certainly deserve it!     

Your Comment


Ummm... I'm a rugby player and even I'm surprised at that headline

April 22, 2017 at 5:49PM


Oh snap! I had you pegged all wrong Renee. :) I would have figured a heading like this would have the world's female population crying, and such a phrase would set them back two hundred years. :P
Thanks for having a sense of humor. It is refreshing in these times. :)

Maybe I originally confused you with one of the other authors on here. Keep up the good work!

April 22, 2017 at 7:37PM, Edited April 22, 7:38PM

Timothy Cook
Self employed storyteller.

Great essay.
Thank you. It was very useful information.

April 24, 2017 at 12:57AM

Sameir Ali
Director of Photography

theres one mistake in the video - they say 'when going from one focal length to another' they should have said 'from one focus distance to another' because in the way he said it, it means their was a zoom involved

April 7, 2018 at 3:45AM

Isaac Elliott
Director - Producer

Outside of the DP/Operator/AC crew the art and benefit of focus pulling is often overlooked and/or misunderstood. I tend to think of focus pulling's role somewhat similarly to the role of audio/sound - if it's done really well the audience doesn't even notice but if it isn't done perfectly you'll hear nothing but complaints.

April 7, 2018 at 10:22AM, Edited April 7, 10:22AM

Aaron Castillo
Director/DP/Graphic Designer/Animator/Musician