Features and Columns · Movies

The Delicate Art of the Focus Pull

Focus up, with this video essay on the storytelling potential of the rack focus shot.
The Graduate Rack Focus
Embassy Pictures
By  · Published on July 23rd, 2020

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay on the focus pull.


If you’re watching a film and the focus shifts from one subject to another, punch the air because you’ve just witnessed a focus pull. A focus pull (a.k.a. rack focus) is a deliberate change of focus achieved during the filming of a shot.

In the old days, before digital technology, an assistant cinematographer would adjust the camera’s focus racks manually. It was their job to adjust the focal plane, without looking through the camera, to “pull” the focus from subject to subject. While the technique is now accomplished electronically, rack focus shots still require careful planning to effectively direct the audience’s gaze.

As with any filmmaking technique, some uses of rack focus are subtle while others are ostentatious. The video essay below highlights three cinematic examples that demonstrate the narrative power of the technique. The video also breaks down how rack focus works in more technical detail, why it saves filmmakers money, and how camera movement can make a rack focus feel seamless.

Watch The Art of the Focus Pull“:


Who made this?

Philip Brubaker is a nonfiction filmmaker and video essayist based in Gainesville, Florida. He has made a heck of a lot of video essays for Fandor, Vague Visages, and MUBI, in addition to short documentaries. You can browse Brubaker’s video content on his Vimeo page.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).