Home of Professional Cinematography since 1996

Focus Observations

(Rushes Out Of Focus...Continued)

Published : 21st December 2003


>>> Mark Wiggins wrote that he just read in 'Screen International' about a US, 2 million dollar indie production called 'In God's hands' which will never be seen because all the rushes were out of focus <<<

After reading the thread about an entire movie being out of focus ... I wanted to post some comments related to various subjects that were mentioned in that thread ...

I've worked on commercials that cost more then that movie ... and we were only given one day to "prep." Camera Preps these days are often not preps ... but rather just a gathering of equipment. We often have huge multi camera packages where we get into overtime just getting the gear together. Obviously there is no time for careful film tests. Luckily we are usually working out of one of the top rental houses here in Hollywood and can rely on generally excellently pre-prepped gear.

But problems can arise. We were doing a big multi-day, multi-camera Super bowl beer commercial with celebrities. One of the days had us using three 16 SR's instead of our 35 mm package. The "A" camera SR had a lot of soft footage. Turns out that it was always one particular mag that was soft. Under more careful examination, it turned out that the "soft" footage wasn't out of focus ... but instead consisted of two sharp but offset images. Apparently the problem mag had a pressure plate that was moving and hanging up, giving two sharp shifted images. This can apparently happen to any SR mag ... and can only be detected by doing a steady test with each mag. Luckily the Century Precision Optics SteadiTester makes this easier to do.

Because they must have so many different ground glasses on hand ... some of the rental houses make their own ground glass frames and cement in ground glasses that can be purchased from various suppliers. These ground glasses aren't interchangeable between cameras from different rental houses or privately owned cameras. If you are swapping ground glasses around between privately owned cameras and/or cameras from different rental houses ... the ground glass collimation must be checked.

Again, because rental houses must come up with so many different formats (especially non-standardized Super TV ground glasses) they sometimes use ground glass blanks and pencil in the format markings. Since these ground glasses are continually being cleaned off and re-marked ... they start to lose their ground glass "tooth." It then becomes difficult to see and check focus with these "polished" ground glasses. Focus seems fine looking at a resolution chart ... but once out on location ... focus questions arise.

I was on a feature where we were filming at night, boat to boat. The "B" camera had literally thousands of feet of out-of-focus wide open 100 & 150mm close-ups. It was the camera operator on that camera that was immediately fired and sent home. No one could understand why the operator NEVER said there was a focus problem, never grabbed focus ... at least at the beginning of each shot ... to give the focus puller a fighting chance. It wasn't a low budget film ... so others wondered why the Dp couldn't have lit to a stop heavier then a T1.5 ...

I talked to one of the AC's on "What Dreams My Come." Apparently it would take all morning to get off one master shot. After lunch it was a mad scramble to get coverage ... with no time for getting marks. But a lot of the problem shots were apparently off of a long fast lens on the Technocrane+remote head, some times over water. I couldn't understand why the AC's didn't use a PanaTape ... or at least had a monitor available to check focus. The soft close-ups were so soft that I can't believe that anyone looking at a decent monitor wouldn't have noticed the problem.

Because of the speed that we have to work at sometimes, the long lenses, wide open stops, cranes/jib arms/Slide n' Glides ... I've armed myself with my own personal CineTape (UltraSonic measuring device, improvement on the PanaTape), high quality TransVideo on board monitor and a Leica laser range finder. One needs all the help one can get .. but some AC's are too "macho" to take advantage of these aids.

The Dp on "Sylvia" told me that they were able to save a couple of soft shots by sharpening them with post production DI software.

Usually, if the image looks sharp on a high end, high res monitor it's going to be sharp enough for video release. I've had feature oriented Dp’ s complain about focus ... but when we got to doing the transfer, everything was fine. I witnessed a big time director dress down a Dp because he had everyone worried about focus ... but when we did the transfer EVERY shot was completely useable. The Dp said that it wouldn't have been good enough for the big screen ... the trouble was that it was a project that was never going to go beyond the small screen. The director and production were happy that I wasn't taking a lot of extra time to get a lot of focus marks. So focus questions should take the final product into consideration.

The commercial DP that I've been working with for the last three years recently stopped hiring me because of the following incident. I got called into the motor home at lunch to check out a shot that the Dp and director thought was soft. It was a medium wide shot of a kid in the front row in a classroom, reacting with a kid in the last row. I had played focus back as far as I could (double checking through the finder) ... otherwise the kid in back was so soft ... one couldn't recognize what was going on. I wasn't suppose to roll focus back on the various glances back.

The foreground kid had a very soft face ... but one could see from his plaid shirt that he was sharp. We looked at some of his close-ups ... and even though his eyebrows were clearly sharp ... his face was so soft ... it appeared almost out of focus.

They had me call the transfer person to ask his opinion on focus on that shot. The transfer person said the shot was absolutely fine on his high end monitor.

The director was all worried that they would have to re-shoot ... and what would she say to the agency. Since we were still in the class room, it was very easy to re-shoot after lunch ... with focus right on the foreground kid.

The next day the Dp called me to say the director and he had checked the shot in question at the transfer session with the better monitors ... and the shot was indeed O.K. ... and that the repeated shot was not good because the background kid was too soft ... and the director had apologized for making a big deal of this issue.

But he was upset that I hadn't supported HIS opinion that the shot was soft ... in front of the director!? I told him that it was my job as a technician to give him an honest opinion and it wasn't my job to simply support what was in effect mass hysteria (I didn't use those words!). He felt we should have supported the director to just go ahead and re-shoot... while I had said that I honestly felt the shot was perfectly usable... and it was used in the final cut.

So a "soft" shot can actually be sharp ... and you can still not get hired again!

MakoFocus, been there, done that ... for 25 years ... Glendale, CA



Mako Koiwai writes:

>After reading the thread about an entire movie being out of focus ... I >wanted to post some comments related to various subjects that were >mentioned in that thread ...

This is one of the best posts I've ever read on cml. There are lessons here for everyone.

Thank you, Mako.

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP



Great post, Mako.

And the end section shows that political skills are as much a part of the job as technical ones.

Jeff "that's my excuse, anyway" Kreines



Reminds me of a long debate over a Moviola one morning with Toni Ficalora - does the butter look soft because it's soft focus or because it's soft butter ?

The next day I applied to a Zen monastery for five years of meditation.

But I was denied admission, they said they had "too many tabletop focus pullers here already"

Sam Wells



Great post. . .Mako.

I'm particularly interested in the issue of "soft faces" that you mention. I've seen this come up several times on HD shoots. An actor, in close-up, looks a bit mushy, yet objects on or near his/her plane of focus look sharp. If the objects you're comparing to are slightly in front of or slightly behind the plane of the face, then any softness in the face might seem like back focus error. But more and more I'm convinced that most people without "sharp features" (heavy wrinkles, big pores or moles, etc.) lack photographically sharp features and if you look critically, their skin, nose, eyebrows, etc. look out of focus even though they are at the point if focus. Lack of texture on a face just doesn't provide the opportunity for it to look sharp. Sam's butter analogy is perfect here.

I haven't noticed this phenomenon at work with 35mm so much or interestingly with SD video. I think the tendency for those of us shooting HD to avoid high amounts of course detail enhancement is probably one reason for "soft focus" looking soft objects.

Obviously mushy faces are not necessarily a bad thing since we spend a lot of money and time using nets and filters to defocus people in front of our camera.

As I said, this has come up on several HD shots and I have since bounced back and forth whether it was slight back focus error or the nature of HD & the camera set-up.

Randy "currently moving all sharp objects away from actor's faces" Miller,

DP in LA



>I'm particularly interested in the issue of "soft faces" that you mention. >I've seen this come up several times on HD shoots.

I've noticed the same thing, especially when using wider angle prime lenses -- objects in the background with sharp edges look in-focus while the face looks soft, yet once you bring in a Siemens Star chart or something to check, it shows that the focus is correct. I think this is compounded by the higher depth-of-field of HD, so the background does not go out-of-focus enough to make it clear where the true focus is.

David Mullen
Cinematographer / L.A.



Randy Miller writes :

>I haven't noticed this phenomenon at work with 35mm so much or >interestingly with SD video.

Oh I most certainly have.

About 20 years ago I lit a TV series that went out from location once a week, every week we thought that one of the presenters looked in focus and the other soft. We'd swap cameras and the soft presenter still looked soft!

We came to the conclusion that apart from being a twat he also had a soft face

Cheers

Geoff Boyle FBKS
Director of Photography
EU Based
www.cinematography.net



David Mullen writes:

>I'm particularly interested in the issue of "soft faces" that you mention. >I've seen this come up several times on HD shoots.

I haven't been following this thread. So this might have been mentioned already.

There is such a thing as a soft face. Every once in a while you will run into a person whose features never photograph as crisp and sharp. It can drive you buggy trying to figure it out. But I've seen it enough to know that it really exists.

The best thing you can do is a strong and sharp catch light in the eyes. And sometimes that doesn't even help. A strong edge light at the plane of the eyes can help some too. Back hair light just makes the hair look sharp and the face look softer.

Steven Poster ASC



Geoff Boyle wrote:

> We came to the conclusion that apart from being a twat he also had a >soft face.

One handy tool for confirming this is indeed the problem is a black Sharpie.

Draw a series of crosshatched lines (or a series of radial circles) on the face, and use those for checking focus.

Jeff Kreines



Agree, brilliant and terrifying thread.

There's one good thing out of all this though.

The next time any of us will get the "sorry, can't afford testing" or "no, don't worry, I am sure it will be fine" or worse "we always watch rushes on a 7" monitor..." we will be able to drop with nonchalance "have you heard the one about the 2 mil dollars feature with a soft look?".

Cannot wait to use that as ammunition to fight my AC corner.

Franz Pagot
Director of Photography/Underwater Cameraman
http://www.franzpagot.com



I think this can be symptomatic of under-corrected spherical aberration also.

Sam Wells



>We came to the conclusion that apart from being a twat he also had a >soft face

Even worse is when they can't speak in sync either.

Sam Wells



The problem with people who never seem to be 'sharp' even goes back to the B&W days and was mentioned by John Alton, ASC (may his name be praised) in "Painting With Light."

As I recall he suggested that such people must have mental problems and 'should consult a psychiatrist'!

Alan Thatcher
DP
Chicago



>There is such a thing as a soft face. Every once in a while you will run >into a person whose features never photograph as crisp and sharp.

Interesting. Last night I just seen the telecine of some pick-up shots of an all in-camera special FX short film I shot this past summer. Regular 16 (Bolex/Switars and an NPR) and lot's of heavy green gels with dark moody lighting.

I couldn't figure out why this one male actor consistently looked soft from the first shoot, so second time 'round I took care to "sharpen" him up with harder rim lights, a sharper lens, and lighter on the green gels. I recalled an earlier CML thread about heavy reds (such as darkroom safe light effect) reducing either apparent resolution or making the image softer looking ( primary exposure in the red layer in the emulsion?). Thought this might be the case with heavy green as well, but even with the light green and all else, the actor still looks soft. Everything else in same plane was sharp as a tack.

So I'm buying into this soft face phenomenon. I still have another day with the same actor...

Dave Luxton
Cinematographer
Edmonton, AB.



Another cause for soft focus faces not mentioned when shooting HD (or SD) is that skin detail coring may be turned on which has the impact of reducing texture in the face causing it to appear soft. Turning on some detail enhancement in HD may also help add a bit of crispness to those "soft" faces.

Robert Goodman
Photographer/Author/Producer
www.stonereader.net



Robert Goodman writes :

>skin detail coring may be turned on I have never used this "feature" on >an HD shoot so I know this hasn't affected my observations.

For projects I know are going out to NTSC, SD I always run a moderate amount of detail (-20ish) and the frequency is moderately adjusted too.

Not so fine that it only shows up in HD, but not so course that the picture screams "EDGE DETAIL".

I'm convinced that there are soft faces and that's what's "wrong" with the picture.

Randy Miller



Randy,

Wasn't disputing the fact that some people are soft - in some descriptions - people with lunar type bodies - merely suggesting that if you have detail turned on, you may also have other detail settings on that will impact the image unless you have checked to make sure they are turned off.

Me... I'm hard... smile.

Robert Goodman
Photographer/Author/Producer



You might think me daft, but a few cameramen friends discussed this a long time ago in Toronto and one of them mentioned in jest that the unfocused person probably would be dead soon. I followed this observation for a while and, again I'm not kidding, it did happen to a few people I had in front of my camera. Coincidence or not, this thread still gives me the heebee jeebies. Last night I looked in the mirror and...

Robert Rouveroy csc
The Hague, Holland

I plan to live forever. So far, so good.



This is a very interesting and informative thread. A fabulous and insightful post, Mako.

I wanted to second (or third or fourth) the point about soft faces. (anecdote to follow)

I was working as a focus puller on a Music Video (Pop Promo for our British friends) many, many years ago. 35mm, Night exterior downtown LA. Fairly skimpy stop, but everything was going fine until the Artist (whose name escapes me) showed up for her shots. This particular Artist had a very soft, rounded, youthful face. The DP/Operator kept hissing sssssssssoft at me all night. Only for her shots. Anyone else who was filmed in the exact same set up with the same set of marks, etc. was fine. I was baffled. I tried every trick I knew, all the way to dragging marked ropes off the dolly for the tracking shots. No luck. All "soft". We'd stop in the middle of a shot, the DP would run through focus and come back to the exact place I was playing it. Needles to say, it was one of the longest nights of my career.


It was also the only time I was not invited back to finish the project the next day, (to my unbounded relief.) So, as we have seen here, not an uncommon problem, especially when the shutter is flickering away in the viewfinder.

Ed Colman - SuperDailies
Cinematographer Supervised Video Dailies
http://www.superdailies.com



>Every once in a while you will run into a person whose features never >photograph as crisp and sharp.

Reminds me of a character in a Woody Allen film, "Deconstructing Harry", who can't be focused.

Edwin Myers



Randy Miller wrote:

>I haven't noticed this phenomenon at work with 35mm so much or >interestingly with SD video.

I've noticed this phenomena on SD. Stuff which is shot on the Sony DSR500, with the detail-settings set to the standard for Cine-preset. You look at close-ups and they look nice and sharp, but go to a mid-shot or wider, the skin looks as if it is out of focus. When I saw it the first time, I thought it was bad back-focus, but I checked it with the back-focus chart, and it was good. After studying the manual, and playing with the detail-settings, it turned out that they are to my taste too high for the Cine-preset (I think it's set to +20 then).

Cheers

Martin Heffels
Filmmaker/DP/editor,
Sydney, Australia
http://www.pictocrime.com



Randy Miller wrote :

>I'm particularly interested in the issue of "soft faces" that you mention. >I've seen this come up several times on HD shoots.

Sam Wells wrote:

> Even worse is when they can't speak in sync either

As an audio post production mixer who has waded too far into this thread, I can't help but note that Sam's "wink" needn't be taken too "seriously."

There ARE people who talk in such a manner as to appear to be out of sync. Moustaches are a particular problem, but the issue arises clean with shaven men (and women!) as well. It can lead to long discussions about loss of sync integrity in the production chain. Many elderly actors, actors with a lot of flesh on the face, those who don't open their mouth when speaking, etc. are "mush mouthed" as we call it.

Alas, in the same way that the masses often can't recognize poor DNR, bad transfers, and lousy color rendition, they also fail to see the incredible increase in out of sync content _everywhere_ in the last 10 years. It makes audio post pros grit their teeth.

John McDaniel
Audio Post Facility Owner/mixer
Sonic Arts Digital Audio Services, Inc.
Cincinnati, OH USA



>You look at close-ups and they look nice and sharp, but go to a mid->shot or wider, the skin looks as if it is out of focus.

With faces you have to get *mid frequency* detail, and even low frequency detail right?

We all know electronic systems can successfully produce contrast - when there's already a lot of contrast

Really I think this dilemma is as old as the history of portraiture...

Sam Wells



John McDaniel writes:

>There ARE people who talk in such a manner as to appear to be out of >sync...Many elderly actors, actors with a lot of flesh on the face, those >who don't open their mouth when speaking, etc. are "mush mouthed"…

One of my first adventures in paid film work was to sync a mountain of documentary interviews that had a lot of camera stops and starts without slates. The elderly interview subject had the habit of silently mouthing the interviewer's question as the interviewer was asking it. It seems funny now....

>Alas, in the same way that the masses often can't recognize poor DNR, >bad transfers, and lousy color rendition, they also fail to see the >incredible increase in out of sync content _everywhere_ in the last 10 >years. It makes audio post pros grit their teeth.

Not just audio post pros. I saw a show on Thursday night; several of the speakers were way out of sync.

How do you do that with video?



>I saw a show on Thursday night; several of the speakers were way out of >sync. How do you do that with video?

If you saw some of the torturous post-production paths now being taken, you wouldn't be at all surprised. Sound mix is all too often relegated to the very end of the process, and no one's bothered to consider how any of the various systems will sync up at the end.

Now that more and more people are going the "editing at home on Final Cut" route, I'm seeing a lot of requests for MiniDV dubs of footage originated in other formats, and depending on who's doing this work, the time code may not even follow. (I heard of one situation where an office PA was put in charge of dubbing these tapes, and didn't know you could send time code to the recorder, so she simply entered the starting time code on the recorder and figured it was close enough. The resulting error wasn't caught until online, when each tape had a random
offset timecode error.)

I'd say the most likely error resulting in out-of-sync audio would be a dub made with incorrect time code settings - DF / NDF set up incorrectly somewhere down the line. I've seen that happen more than once, and not get caught until the final audio layback.

George Hupka
Director/DP
Downstream Pictures
Saskatoon, Canada



>We'd swap cameras and the soft presenter still looked soft!

I was recently told of a movie in which a character(the main character)was purposely out of focus. Does anyone know the name of this movie???

What a bizarre twist in focus pulling...

John Babl
Miami



Edwin Myers writes :

>Reminds me of a character in a Woody Allen film, "Deconstructing >Harry", who can't be focused.

Ah, that's the film someone had mentioned. Big woody Allen fan, yet I haven't seen that one.

John Babl



"Deconstructing Harry" ... a must see for any cameraperson ... very funny ... go rent it ... now!

Dp (or operator?) yells at AC for soft focus ... AC says ... it was fine during the prep!

Of course it's part of the movie ... great effect ... only Woody is out of focus ...

Mako Koiwai, Glendale, CA



"only Woody is out of focus ..."

That was hysterical; except, I think it was Robin Williams who plays the part of the out of focus actor.

Ddavid Obuchowski
Brooklyn, NYC