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Why the Focus Pull is the hardest camera movement to master

A video essay detailing the art of rack focus.

Why the Focus Pull is the hardest camera movement to master

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]here’s a famous Dolly Parton quote that reads: “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” In one way or another, that applies to movies as well. And there’s no example I can make that’s more accurate than the art of the Focus Pull.

It’s an effect that’s as prevalent in cinema as its bad examples are easy to clock. Good focus pulls tend to go unnoticed, as are those used in the films of Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and others. There are more ostentatious examples, like in Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host” and Jean-Marc Vallée’s “The Young Victoria”. Typically, when you spot a focus pull, it means that the D.P. and his team has failed, but the aforementioned are doubtless welcome exceptions.

To the uninitiated, the Focus Pull is a camera movement that changes the focus of the camera from one focal length to another. This is generally used to divert the audience’s attention to a subject or obscure one altogether.

To illustrate what I mean, take a look at this GIF of a scene from Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai”.

Because it requires such precision, focus pulling (also sometimes referred to as “rack focus”) is often regarded as one of the most difficult camera movements to master. Technological advancements have made it somewhat easier over the years, but nailing the pull focus even today still requires skill and synchronicity.

As featured in Fandor’s great video essay “The Art of the Focus Pull”, the best instances of focus pulls are those that reinforce the film’s story. The video essay points to some great examples, including Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” and Gus Van Sant’s “Milk”.

Doubtless, the best one comes from Mike Nicholls’ masterpiece, “The Graduate”. That scene in its own is a masterclass in filmmaking, with an incredible focus pull to completely spin your head around.

I’m talking about the scene above, of course, in which Katharine Ross’ Elaine realizes that her lover has just cheated on her with her own mother. Instead of shifting the focus immediately on Elaine’s face, the pull focus is soft, gradual, and painful. It’s a work of art, really, and I urge you all to see it.

You can watch Fandor’s video essay by hitting the play button at the top of this post.

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