Focus – Introspection and consciousness (Part 1)

This time, we will see how extreme shallow focus can be used to shrink characters’ field of consciousness on screen, in order to bring out their introspective mood or their feeling in a daze.


Warning: You might need to view some of the videos in fullscreen in order to actually see which subjects are in focus and which are not.



In Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (N. Oshima, 1983), Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence, a British officer, visits Sergeant Hara, a Japanese officer who has been imprisoned and is about to be executed for war crimes, a charge he doesn’t seem to understand. The use of shallow focus brings out Hara’s introspective mood, as opposed to Lawrence who apparently has a broader view of the situation. In Silent Running (D. Trumbull, 1972), Lowell does his best to pronounce an improvised funeral oration for a member of his crew. The following excerpt comes from a 54 second shot, where extreme shallow focus highlights the character’s deep introspective state.

The introspective effect of shallow focus can be accentuated when the character’s concentration effort conflicts with an intruding sound (e.g. the voice of another character). In The Usual Suspects (B. Singer, 1995), Kint tries to reminisce about the circumstances of an unsolved murder, in spite of Customs agent Kujan’s comments. Here, extreme shallow focus brings out the character’s efforts to stay focused whereas Kujan’s voice keeps breaking his concentration. In Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008), Max wakes up in the hospital beside his former colleague and mentor B.B. Hensley. The following excerpt comes from a 36 second shot, where extreme shallow focus brings out Max’s introspective state as B.B. tells him what happened since he lost consciousness. In this case, deliberately keeping the speaker out of focus emphasizes the listener’s inner fight to sort things out.


In a daze

Very close to introspective characters are characters in a daze. In TV series episode Sherlock – A Study in Pink (P. McGuigan, 2010), Watson — an ex-army doctor injured in a war — wakens with a jolt from a nightmare. Even after he wakes up, the character remains in a state of shock. This fogged-up feeling is suggested by dynamically defocussing areas of the screen as a post-processing effect. In Solaris (S. Soderbergh, 2002), Chris Kelvin wakes up with the ghostly presence of a dead friend staring at him. Chris isn’t sure that he is really awaken, which is brought out by keeping the character in soft focus in the background. In both cases, the characters appear ill-defined on screen, which supports their feeling in a daze.

A variation of this is to use extreme shallow focus on the character’s environment instead of blurring the character’s figure. The very first shots of Solaris (S. Soderbergh, 2002) show Chris sitting beside his bed, reminiscing about his late wife. The character lies somewhere between introspection and fog, almost cut off from the world as suggested by a very shallow focus on a nearby window. His limited perception of his environment tells us about the character’s emotional state, let alone his being off-centered (read more in Off-centered characters – Marginalized).


What’s up?

In part 1 of this article, we saw how extreme shallow focus can bring out characters’ introspective mood or their feeling in a daze, by shrinking their apparent field of consciousness on screen. In part 2, we will see how focus can be used to simulate a gain or a loss of consciousness.


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