The Focus Puller’s Friends
Usually this episodic series about legendary Focus Pullers is called “The Gods of Focus.” This month’s story could be called “The Lion Tamers of Focus” and you shall soon see why.
Chris Silano sent the following nice email to Alanna Berkson at Preston Cinema the other day and she forwarded it to me:
“You know, they call the Light Ranger the Focus Puller’s friend. And while that’s true, it’s much more.
First, it’s the Actor’s friend. No longer are they confined by marks or rehearsed positions. As the camera is free to move unrestricted, so is the drama.
“Second, the Light Ranger is the Director’s friend as they can use tight lenses for those massive close-ups at any time. Also, Directors have all of the performances to choose from, not just the later ones where the focus has settled in.
Third, the Light Ranger becomes the Editor’s friend as they aren’t forced into awkward cuts because the focus has fallen apart.
By now the Producer should realize how much the Light Ranger has saved them in time and production costs.
Finally, the Light Ranger is the audience’s friend as they get a better movie, every time.
“I kiss the ring on Howard Preston’s hand every day.”
I wanted to learn more and called Chris:
Jon Fauer: This is your second or third interview in FDTimes.
Chris Silano: I was worried it was looking like a conspiracy that I appeared in so many FDTimes articles about the Light Ranger by now. People were asking me, “Does Preston give you products for nothing?” They don’t, and I wouldn’t allow it, I wouldn’t be a corporate shill, because then I couldn’t share my enthusiasm.
You wind up on really interesting shows and that’s what makes it so fun. If anybody asks you, please tell them that the door is open here at FDTimes for their stories as well. Focus Pullers can get in touch and I’d be happy to add to the growing roster in the episodic Gods of Focus series. It’s a different perspective on production that I like to hear.
Focus Pulling is now in the leading edge of the craft. It’s opening up so that everybody has freedom. I know it’s working because when you get good at your craft, you become invisible. We pull off impossible shots and nobody says, “That is great, how did you do that?” Now it’s, “Okay, we got the shot. Let’s move on.”
Aside from what it does for the movie, the Light Ranger brings great calm into my life because I don’t have to sweat it, I don’t have to worry. It really excels on those screaming close-ups that could put panic into one’s soul.
What were you working on when things shut down?
A project directed by Pablo Larraín with Cinematographer Darius Khondji ASC, AFC.
Still using Light Ranger 2 on that show?
Yes. When they saw what the Light Rangers could do, that gave everyone confidence the camera could move any place they imagined. So we were about 75% of the time on a Technocrane. We can keep the actors in focus wherever they go while we remain invisible. There’s no pressure.
Lion Tamer with a Tape Measure
Before the Light Ranger, running a tape measure was like a lion tamer with the whip and the actors may have felt threatened when we said, “Hey, let me show you where you’re going to find the mark.” Seasoned actors knew if they sat at a table, you would mark to the edge so they could try to hold their eyes above the edge of the table. But, those days are over. It’s interesting with this new technology.
Preston Light Ranger 2
If we have an additional camera, I always get a second Light Ranger, set it up and it’s there. I tell the other focus puller, “Look, I know it’s new. You probably don’t need it for what you’re going to be doing, but it’s set up. Why don’t you try to get comfortable with it?”
Nine times out of ten, they put it back in the case. They’re like, “I’m a focus puller. I run my tape, I get my marks,” and I’m thinking, “We used to ride a horse and buggy, but now we fly helicopters.” So, there’s still some resistance out there. I don’t understand it.
Olga Abramson, who worked with you, said, “Chris really wanted to introduce me to the Light Ranger. It was actually in our first conversation, when we talked about the job, and he asked if I would be comfortable with it. He wouldn’t push anything on anyone, but he really encouraged me to experiment with it. And so I used a rented one. I was so blown away that I bought it for the next job.”
Many people make a big deal out of it, “That’s a tough shot. I’ll get my marks, blah, blah, blah.”
Olga didn’t do that and once she saw the Light Ranger, she went along with it. It’s just like when mountain bikes first came out, the road riders said, “Who wants that? It’s slow and it’s harder, and it doesn’t go as fast on the pavement.” But, they didn’t take into account that the mountain bike goes places the other bike can’t go, and it’s more fun.
Since then, Olga and I have done a bunch of work together. I’m really impressed by her. Many of those payoff shots in Uncut Gems were Olga’s on a ridiculously long lens. She seemed calm doing them too.
Please give us an example of Light Ranger providing more freedom.
I’m so happy that the Light Ranger gives directors, DPs and operators the freedom to do what they need to. Here’s an example:
We had a good chuckle one morning. It was 2 am. We were in an enchanted, psychedelic forest. In this fantasy land, Jim McConkey was pushing an ALEXA 65 with the Betz Wave horizon stabilizer on his Steadicam. That’s a beast of a payload, but Jim’s a workhorse. He just won the SOC camera operator of the year award, well deserved.
I heard director Pablo Larraín say, “Jimmy, instead of stopping, can you just continue in?” Jim looked over at me. I was 20 feet away, pulling focus, guided by the video overlay bars of the Light Ranger.
The actors in the scene must have been startled when Jim shouted out to me, “Chris, I’m not going to stop. I’m going to continue in. I’m going to keep going in at the end.” They all looked at me and I just answered, “Always got to ruin the surprise, don’t you, Jim?” Everybody laughed, but really, it gives everyone enormous freedom on set. Now I don’t have to say, “Well, let me get marks first.”
You also had the Light Ranger on Uncut Gems, which was amazing because you kept all those handheld shots in constant focus. So much so, there even was an end credit for Preston Cinema and Light Ranger. It was shot on film?
It was about half film, with Arricams, and half digital on ALEXA cameras. Darius Khondji originally wanted to shoot film in the daylight and digital for night interiors, but we wound up using everything all the time. All the toys were out.
How were you able to use the Light Ranger with the film cameras—because, the video tap was probably not as good as with the ALEXA?
That is an interesting story. On any film camera, the video tap is reading about 50% of the light that’s coming off the spinning mirror, the ground glass and a beam splitter, so it looks like crap. In the beginning, we had the original NTSC standard definition video taps and you couldn’t even see whether it was an actor or a car headlight at night. And, none of it interfaced with our modern monitors and the Light Ranger wouldn’t work with it either.
So I said to production, “Listen, we must have HD video taps,” which they got, and then it was fine. The Light Ranger is not physically reading the video image; it’s actually an overlay over it.
With a film camera at night in low light, very often it is difficult for the camera operator to see whether the shot is in focus. With the shutter going and the grainy ground glass, sometimes the scene was so dark, you could barely see the actor, but the Light Ranger continued guiding me with its overlay. There was even an extreme example where we lost video reception, but the Light Ranger still lit up with its green bars over a non-image and I could still keep going.
On your current show, you mentioned having ALEXA 65? What lenses are you using?
I’d say 97% of the picture is on Neil Fanthom’s new Tribe7 Blackwing 7 primes. Those lenses are wonderful. They cover the ALEXA 65 sensor, and they bring your attention to the beautiful image in the center of the frame. Our director, Pablo Larraín, likes all of his pictures to be framed as if you’re looking at a portrait with a 7-inch wide picture frame all around. He draws your attention to the center. If there are two people talking, they’re not balanced. The one who’s talking is in the center. So, the way Tribe7 made the Blackwing7 lenses, there are nice aberrations as you get towards the edges. They have a really beautiful schmearing at the corners, so it psychologically draws your viewing into the center.
Mechanically, every focal length in the Blackwing7 series has the same front diameter, so when we switch a lens, we don’t have to readjust motors—just put a lens in there, and we’re good to go.
Which Blackwing7 set did you have?
We were using the T-tuned ones. There’s Standard, and T is transient, and then there’s X, which was too extreme for this project.
Do the Blackwing7s cover the full frame of ALEXA 65?
They almost do. We have a 10% look-around and a reduction in the image mode, so they do cover. Even though they’re technically not vignetting, they sort of schmear out and get darker in the corners, but that’s how our director sees the world. The big sensors are so crisp and so sharp, they really need to be calmed down. If the lenses are too vibrant and clean, they can look like bad video at a sporting event. Like a sports bar kind of look.
Four Different Mounts
You also had Panavision lenses?
Yes. We also have old Spheros and the old System 65 from Panavision, as well as modern Primo 70s tuned by Dan Sasaki. The ALEXA 65 from ARRI Rental was Panavised.
We have four different mount adapters because the Primo 70s are different than the System 65s, which are different from the PL mounts on the Blackwings. But, it’s 97% predominantly a Blackwing7 show.
Welcome to the new world of lens adapters. So, with ALEXA 65, Blackwing 7s, shallow depth of field, I guess the Light Ranger is essential for a show like this.
Without question. I don’t care how good you think you are. You can get marks, you can use laser beams, run your 200-foot tape measure, do whatever you want. The precision that the Light Ranger brings really lets you choose which eyelashes to keep sharp. It’s a really phenomenal tool. People might say, “Just press the Autofocus button.” I don’t use it a lot, but sometimes it’s really handy when everything’s moving, people wobble when they walk, and if you can get in sync with it, that’s great, but it’s just as easy to go the wrong way and get out of sync.
Screaming no Rehearsal
Sometimes when things are screaming no rehearsal, I’ll go to Autofocus. As soon as we get to a spot where things settle down, I’ll switch back to manual focus. If somebody’s looking slightly askew, it’ll focus on the near side of their head, but maybe you want to focus a couple of inches deeper onto one of their eyes, or maybe three or four inches deeper into their far eye. So at that point, you have to go to manual mode, but at least it gets you there.
In your email to Alanna, you talked about how the Light Ranger is the Focus Puller’s friend and then you say how it is also a friend for the director, producer, editor and the audience. Why is that?
Basically, it’s the calm that the Light Ranger has brought into my life. It just makes things easy. When you’re calm and enjoying what you’re doing, it’s easy to step up to the plate and hit the home run. That’s what it’s about. Especially with the pressure of those tighter shots. That’s where this thing shines. It calls out, “Yeah, let’s do it. Come on.”
Olga Abramson, whose story will continue in the next episode of “Gods of Focus,” adds:
Chris and I have talked about the idea of the Beginner’s Mind. It means approaching a subject with an attitude of openness and lack of preconceptions. For me, embracing the Light Ranger has meant bringing that spirit to every shot. Instead of being limited by what you see in a rehearsal and the coordinates you map with a tape measure, you’re able to engage with the story as it happens. For instance, sometimes the drama is in the reaction, not the spoken dialogue. The Light Ranger grants you the confidence to seize that opportunity when you sense it, to deliver that moment to directors and editors.