Gods of Focus: Michael Burke

Photo: Allison Ruth Burke

In this latest episode of “The Gods of Focus,” we focus on focus puller Michael Burke.

Jon Fauer: You worked as First AC-Focus Puller on “Hunters” with William Rexer as DP.  I understand you used RED MONSTRO 8K VV, SIGMA Primes and the Preston Light Ranger 2.

Michael Burke: The studio and handheld cameras had Light Rangers on them. We had the Light Ranger 2 with the standard sensor. This year, the LR2 W (wide) has come out, and that’s become, for large format, a must-have now. It would have been great to have on Hunters, but it wasn’t available until this year.

Right. Why do you say it’s the go-to for large format?

It just has a wider field. If you’re on, for example, a 35mm lens, and the Light Ranger really only picks up the center of the frame, so if you have a shot where something is not in the center, then the Light Ranger just doesn’t work. But now with the wide version, for anything say 50 mm, or wider, the wide will pretty much cover the whole image now. Our “C” camera went on the Ronin Gimbal, and it had a Focusbug.

What kind of monitors were you using?

Our basic setup was the SmallHD 1303 HDR monitor. That’s the go-to focus monitor. Both Michael Guthrie and I have wireless SmallHD 703 monitors and the new Cine 7 Sidekick monitor if we needed a handheld focused monitor.

You mostly used SIGMA Cine primes?

We basically had two matching SIGMA sets, A and B, and each set was 14 through 135 mm.

To supplement the focal lengths, Will Rexer, Director of Photography, has a 58 mm Zero Optik rehoused Nikon Noct-Nikkor 58mm T1.3 lenses.

On the longer end, we had two matching 180mm Leicas and a couple of 200 mm and 300 mm Nikon still lenses with PL mounts.

Will has the whole series of Angenieux Zooms. Our go-to zoom ended up being the Angenieux 25-250 mm HR. Will likes the fact that it’s a little lower contrast. So, if it’s a sunny day, it helps lower the contrast a little bit. We had a couple of older lenses for some of the news footage in the show, including two Angenieux 25-250 HP zooms.
For some specific applications, we had the 70-200 ZEISS CZ.2 Compact Zooms.

We used Leitz Cine MacroLux Diopters frequently to further defocus the background. They have a 95mm diameter and can quickly attach to the front element of the Sigma Primes and the 58mm Zero Optik lens.

Shooting exteriors, would you mostly use zooms for speed of setup?

Most interiors were shot with primes. The day exteriors were definitely zooms. I think there was an initial idea of using more zooms, but I think just opting for shallow focus, and being close and wide. I think we ended up more on the 20 to 35 mm for wides, and then the 58 mm for closer shots.

What’s the reason for the 58 mm Nikon?

Will wished there were a SIGMA 65 mm, so the Noct-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 mm filled the gap between the 50 mm and the 85 mm. It matched nicely. Will really likes that lens for closeups. It’s a beautiful lens. It’s reminiscent of the Leica Noctilux. But please remember, it’s a rehoused still photo lens and as a result is very small which makes it extremely challenging for focus pullers.

I think you were one of the first people to actually shoot a major episodic series with SIGMA FF High Speed Primes.

They’re great lenses. The look is totally awesome. They have a nice amount of focus fall-off at the edges, which a lot of DPs like that. Compared to most other fast cine lenses, the main difference is size and weight. The SIGMA Primes are significantly smaller and lighter.

There’s one small thing that would be good to add regarding the lenses and lens motors. Because the SIGMA primes and the 58mm Zero Optik Nikon lenses are smaller and lighter weight, we are using the Heden MV26VE-LX motor for focus and the M21VE-L motor for iris, especially when building the camera for Steadicam and for the Ronin 2.

You were shooting 16:9 aspect ratio, using the full width of the RED sensor? That’s interesting, because the factory spec image circles of the SIGMA High Speed FF Cine Primes are around 43.3 mm diagonal, and the RED MONSTRO 8K VV is 46 mm. It’s nice to know the SIGMAs covered. And maybe that’s why there’s focus fall-off at the edges, in a good way.

We benefitted from the full frame illumination circle of the lens.

How did the lenses hold up under the abuse of a TV series with lots of setups?

When the job wrapped, we sent all the lenses to Duclos. They did a full check and actually only one or two lenses out of the full two sets needed to be adjusted. I mean, this was on a TV show, so the lenses get totally abused. Particularly the 35 and 50 mm. There was a lens motor on them nonstop.

How did you get started in all of this business?

I grew up in Vermont, north of Montpelier. In high school, I did a film class and that got me into filmmaking. I did a little bit of film study: a year at Ithaca college, a semester abroad in Australia, and then I transferred to the University of Vermont. I also taught film production classes there as a work study program. Then, a position opened up in the camera department at the Sundance Institute’s filmmaker’s lab and in 2000 I went there as an assistant. It was an amazing initial experience for a 20 year old kid because I met Alan Daviau, Paul Thomas Anderson and Kathryn Bigelow. I moved to New York City in September 2001. My first job as AC there was Raising Victor Vargas with Tim Orr. I was loading in the East Village when the planes hit on 9/11. I moved up to pulling focus and joined the union in 2004. I’ve been mostly based out of New York ever since.

Some of your production stills show the camera on a Louma 2 crane.

We used the Louma 2 a lot for specific crane work that required slightly more complicated moves. Stuart Allen was our Louma2 Operator. We also did a lot of gimbal work on Hunters and Michael Guthrie was our B Camera 1st AC and Head Tech with the DJI Ronin 2.


We had lots of success with it. We didn’t have any problems. We’ve been using that camera for a long time now. You cannot beat the MONSTRO for being a compact camera with a large format look. I think that the MONSTRO sensors are just incredible.

How long was your checkout at the beginning of the job?

We originally were going to have five days, and we ended up having just three and a half days to prep the series. We’ve done so many jobs with Will over the years that many things are already somewhat prepped. We have Will’s particular lens cart and custom designed cases.


This article first appeared in FDTimes April 2020 Issue 101.

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