Tough Focus for 1 shot Commercial

RED Camera used on Gulf Air Commercial

5D MK II used for Gulf Air Commercial

Bahrain was the location for five Gulf Air Commercials.

A Director friend of mine Richard Topping initially contacted me about the job. When he explained that four of the commercials were to be one single shot… and the fifth one made up of time lapse sequences, instantly I was intrigued.

This single shot concept (which always makes me a little edgy) was to start on a close up of a Gulf Air employees eye and then develop out to a mid shot.  The shot had to sustain approx 28 seconds of the 30 second commercial, and the final product would consist of voice over from the employee about their personal experience working for Gulf Air with a flowing graphic that would later develop into the GA logo.

Sounds easy right!  But as everyone knows, a commercial that relies entirely on one single shot is always far from easy…  As in any commercial there are several considerations and apprehensions for the DOP.  For this project the main one for me was not lighting, tracking or operating the camera, but the focus… Pulling focus from two inches away from a person’s eye to approx 7ft at a wide aperture (T2.8 that I wanted to shoot for aesthetic reasons) is one of the trickiest shots a focus puller will have to perform, especially when they have to repeat it take after take…  I know you are probably thinking ‘Why? it sounds easy to me’…  Well, the hard part is pulling from the macro close up of the eye to the Close Up (CU).  When you are that close, the eyeball and the eye lash are a completely different focus and the movement and control on the follow focus has to be exact. If the talent is 1cm off their mark or even slightly sways the image will go soft.

As the whole commercial relies on this one shot and it is also going to be in slow motion, every single frame is under the ‘microscope’. See my Top Tip for Pulling Focus for this kind of shot at the end of this post.

The 4 commercials featuring the employees were always going to be shot digitally and after weighing up some options Richard and I decided to shoot on the RED camera, mainly due to it’s 2K resolution at 100fps and grading capability.  For the time lapse commercial we decided the Canon 5D MK II would be the best option – I shot both real time time lapse and stills mode time lapse, as well as regular 25fps footage.  The final edit ended up being mainly comprised of real time footage – You can view the 5D commercial at the bottom of this post – I think it looks really cool!  If you want to know more about how the RED and 5D compare, subscribe to DOP BLOG as my next post will explain my view on each camera and look at the practicality of shooting on both.

We decided to shoot at 100fps to slow down the action and make the reactions from the employee/ talent more dramatic and defined. At a given cue point from the Director the employee would smile, this would  later be worked with the VO for the Gulf Air tag line ‘Come smile with us’.

I asked my focus puller Glen Donaldson to research some lenses and test which would work best. He found a 24mm macro PL mount, with a close focus of 2 inches.  When shooting 2K on the RED, the lens size increases and hence becomes longer,  a 24mm becomes approx a 50mm.  Many people call the 50mm the ‘work horse’, and people perceive it as the lens closest to the human eye.  I’ll be honest…… The 50mm is never my first choice, as I prefer to work wide or tight.  On this occasion I do think it was the right choice.  Keeping this mid point lens size meant I could achieve a shallower depth of field and keep the background as defocused as possible and hopefully the audiences attention on the subject.

We shot 3 of the Gulf Air staff commercials interior and the one of the pilot exterior.  As expected it took a few takes to get the focus perfect.

Due to the fact that the location was a working airport, we didn’t have complete control of the surroundings. For the Pilot we knew  Gulf Air could arrange a static plane as a backdrop, but couldn’t rely on one passing in the back of frame due to direction of wind and air traffic control stipulations and their last minute landing decisions.

As with all filming, all of a sudden the perfect plane appeared in the background, I yelled ‘track in’ to the key grip, Glen focused up, the talent who has having a cup of tea quickly leapt back onto his marks and Richard called ‘ACTIOOONNN’ and we tracked back just in time to see the taxiing plane in the back drop… We did about another 20 takes after this with no more planes, but I guess they liked this one best.


My top tip for performing such a focus pull at a wide aperture from a macro close up to a wide shot when tracking is to have your focus puller lay down as many focus marks (along the length of the track) as possible. In this instance, our talent was static which really helped. The length of the track was almost 3m. I gave the talent hard precise marks (for their feet) using camera tape because even if they are 1cm off their mark, this would  greatly affect focus. When you are so close in on a subject even them swaying slightly can be the difference between the eyeball being in focus and the eyelash!

It is imperative that the focus puller has precise focus marks on their follow focus that 100% match the focus marks laid out along the track.

To help keep the tracking and focus pulling  in sync, the key grip timed his tracking with the focus marks (alongside the track).  I also asked the 1st AD to count backwards from 7 (7 seconds was the duration of the shot in real time) – this way Glen the focus puller, and the key grip could keep both tracking and focus timings in sync, as much as possible…

Glen is from a film background and doesn’t like to work from a monitor.  Instead he relies completely on his follow focus marks.  For this type of shot I believe this mathematical method works the best.  It’s not fail safe, but it certainly reduces the risk of chance…  When you are shooting a commercial with clients on set and have to perform the same shot for multiple takes you can not reply on getting a ‘fluky’ take…

Good job everyone nailed their jobs!  Sometimes a little bit of added pressure like an unexpected plane coming into frame and only one chance to get the shot is what everyone needs to be put them on top of their game!

Here’s the fifth commercial which was shot entirely on the Canon 5D MK II.

To find out how I shot this using the 5D make sure you SUBSCRIBE to the DOP Blog (click on subscribe button top right of this page) I will tell you all about it in the next post!

Let me know what you think of the commercials and whether you have any other top tips on pulling focus for this kind of shot? DOP BLOG wants to hear from you.

Cool Enjoy!


PS. Need any accessories for your HDSLR? Zacuto is a winner!

Amazon great deals on all electronics!  Just bought a FLIP HD Camera and shocked how good it is… Oh No!