Thought for the day: if it’s not in focus, it’s shit.

Well, we have DSLRs to thank for removing the validity of this statement. Never has the cause of great lensmakers like Zeiss (the sharper the lens the more we’re prepared to pay for it) been so undermined by a vein of filmmaking in which what’s out of focus is almost of greater value than what’s in focus. Bokeh bokeh. Bollocks.

This whole issue of focus is of course entirely subjective but for me focus is such an important of being a filmmaker, and it’s not just the mechanics of apertures and distance from the lens, it’s how we draw the eye, it’s what we choose to show and what we choose to spend our time doing. Somewhere in the middle of all this out of focus filmmaking all the other things that need to be in focus have slipped into a mushy bokeh swamp as well.

Now, everyone’s a Dop and an editor, a director and a producer, a writer and a paediatrician. I had a fairly expansive argument with a visual FX supervisor the other day about the job of the focus puller. He couldn’t understand why they got paid so much and why they even needed to be on set. I would have thought it was self-explanatory, but apparently it’s not.

Far be it for me to tell people to specialise in anything but for me there’s a big appeal to people who have a certainty of purpose, who know what they want to do, and are happy to specialise. In a contemporary economy and, given the production marketplace, you simply can’t be a specialist anymore, and yet… in other worlds the bespoke, the custom, the craftsmen are cherished and flourishing. Will we see specialist film people enjoy the same status or are we on a neverending downward spiral into a one-size-fits-all jackass of all trades kind of industry. I sincerely hope not.

I see a lot of pretty bland, uninspiring films on vimeo but occasionally you see something that sticks out because the person or people that made it really had a singular and distinct sense of craft. If we can retain that, somehow, somewhere, we might have a chance. For now though most of what I see is copycat, me too, filmmaking where the very fact of doing it, the miracle of production, if you like, justifies the lack of invention in the content. ‘It only cost $20′ – who cares?

I wrestle with this immensely. I’m the perfect example of someone with a dark, ugly, lack of focus and it kills me. I wish I only did one thing, and could focus on it and do it brilliantly. Life, however, gets in the way. That, and an unhealthy curiosity for all things new and shiny. It’s not easy, but I think it’s something we can all learn to do better, in everything that focus relates to. Yes, even at f1.2.

Jared Abrams is a cinematographer based in Hollywood, California. After many years as a professional camera assistant he switched over to still photography. About two years ago a new Canon camera changed the way the world sees both motion and still photography. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
  • Oli Kember

    I’m not sure who the vfx supervisor was that you spoke to, but i’m surprised by his comment. If your image is out of focus, it draws attention to the flaws and human error in the filmmaking process. It shouts out ‘this is a film you’re watching and this image is an illusion that we haven’t quite pulled off in this shot.’ It draws attention to the artifice of the medium. When I watch a film every time I see a shot that’s slightly soft it disappoints me, because it tells me the filmmaker wasn’t fully in control at that moment. I don’t accept seeing images out of focus, because I don’t accept seeing life out of focus. Soft images simply take you out of the moment, and that’s not acceptable for me.

    This person you spoke to obviously has no idea of the importance of focus pullers presumably because most of the films he watches are kept in focus by highly skilled technicians and artists who are paid extremely well to do a very particular and challenging task. He’s obviously not aware of how difficult it is because he’s never seen it done on a real set. Because most of the films we see are in focus all of the time (with the odd shot soft), we simply assume that’s how it should always be. They make it look easy.

    The film industry is still very hierarchical, and is absolutely the opposite of a jack-of-all-trades environment. It will never become one either, because every skill is so specially defined, and legally one can’t even step into another person’s shoes on set. You say ‘you simply can’t be a specialist anymore’ and I completely disagree. In fact I think it’s because everyone has become a jack-of-all-trades that being a specialist will help you stick out. Granted you might not be working as much initially if you only put yourself out as one thing, but if I’m after an editor for example and I have two people to choose from, one who calls himself a ‘director/dop/editor/vfx artist/colorist/’ and one who simply calls himself an ‘editor,’ I’m going to go with the second guy. To me someone who calls himself one thing tells me that he’s committed to one thing, has one passion, one drive, and has worked all his man hours honing that one craft. That’s a very different person who does editing on the side of all the other fruits of his labour.

    The film industry has always been about specialists, which is why focus pullers who wanted to be DOPs 20 years ago are still focus pulling. They become great at that one thing, and nobody wants to hire them as DOPs anymore because they’re so great at focus pulling. From what I know the DOPs who are successful simply put themselves out there as DOPs and that’s what they become known for, and that’s what they spent all their time learning to do.

    I’ve always thought that sticking to one thing and becoming the absolute best you can be at it is what makes sense in life, for any job whatsoever. In this ‘do it all’ environment, the ones who excel at one particular skill are the ones who have the chance to shine. Jack of all trades, master of none. Not for me.

  • Frigei

     Skid, Last week when I spoke with Jared in Chicago, I was lamenting kind of the same thing. I shoot it, then because of the client’s budget, I edit. He asked me, “Do you want to edit?” I said no but, there is that need to satify a clients budget in these super competitive, budget stick days that we live in. Now, I’m talking 3-5 minute industrials for a long time client but we do have to realize that there are all types and levels of film making that we work on. Perhaps I will have the luxury to one day have a specialist for every role in a production, start to finish but until then, I’ll do what is needed to satify and keep my client as well as keep the paychecks coming.

  • Aaron Maguire

    Well said. Too many times I have had conversations with DSLR users who think they can do better than a gaffer and soundy, direct, film and edit a piece to a highly professional standard. I once was like this but I am seeing the error in my ways and slowly removing myself from certain aspects and letting the professionals take over.



  • Goforjared

    I moved up through the ranks from camera loader to cinematographer. It is a long and hard road. I think in many ways the transition from one level to the next is less about skill level and more about finacinal security.
    Thanks for the comment

  • Goforjared

    Thanks for taking the time to comment on this post. Learning other parts of the craft will only make your work as a cinematographer better. There is no longer an all or nothing mentality in this industry. It is however a collaborative effort and that can easily be forgotten in the mix of just trying to get the job done. it was great to meet you in Chicago.

  • Oli Kember

    You’re very right, it’s not a financially sensible thing to do to only put yourself out there as a Cinematographer. What I’m pitching is of course an ideal scenario but one that I think if one can afford to do, one should. I know there are so many factors at play though that nothing is as simple as one might want it to be. Cheers for the response.

  • Bzhickson

    Or at t1.3. Agreed.