Focus – Linking vs isolating

In this article, we will study focus for its natural ability to both link and isolate subjects. Focus is unbeatable when it comes to linking characters to their context. Conversely, focus is the perfect tool for separating one character from another, or even create intimacy by isolating a group of characters from the rest of the world.


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.


Linking characters to a context

In Cliffhanger (R. Harlin, 1993), Frank — a search and rescue chopper pilot — tries to contact Hal who has been taken hostage by the team he was to rescue in the mountains. A slowly rotating anemometer in the foreground shows that the wind has died down after a stormy night and brings out that the character is in duty. In The Big Blue (L. Besson, 1988), Johana watches Jacques swimming with a dolphin at night. A full moon high in the sky shows that the character has been waiting there for a long time. In both cases, focus shifts from a symbolic element of the characters’ environment — either in foreground or background — to the characters themselves in order to tie them to a specific context.

Symbolic elements can be closely linked to characters. In Rambo: First Blood Part II (G. Cosmatos, 1985), John Rambo prepares to shoot an explosive arrow. By shifting focus from the character’s eye to the tip of the arrow, the shot suggests that the weapon extends the character’s mind. He really intends to kill. Conversely, in Pirates of the Caribbean – The Curse of the Black Pearl (G. Verbinski, 2003), Pintel and Ragetti can’t believe their ship is being shot with cutlery instead of cannon balls. The shift in focus from the projectile in foreground to Pintel in middle ground shows that the latter came within inches of being struck in the face by …a spoon. In both cases, more than just linked, the symbol gets associated with the character.

Finally, both character and symbol can end up in focus when they meet up, as in The Graduate (M. Nichols, 1967), when Ben reluctantly heads to the hotel room where Mrs. Robinson is waiting for him. At the beginning of the shot, only the character in the background is in focus, but as he comes closer to the foreground, the room number is suddenly brought in focus so that both the character and the symbol get tied together in the frame at the same time. If there was at first something unreal about the situation, it ends up as very tangible reality to the character.




In Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997), Ellie moves aside from her boisterous crew to take a step back and consider their responsibility as researchers over their interpretation of the weird sound they are receiving from space. As Ellie comes closer to the camera, the rest of the team get out of focus. This has her both physically and mentally isolated from them, as though they were separated by a transparent veil. In Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008), Mona doesn’t trust Max yet. Although the characters are sitting side by side in a car, only one of them is in focus at a time. Focus is used here to disrupt their budding intimacy.

Speaking of which, isolation and intimacy can work very well together. In Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997), focus is used to emphasize Ellie and Palmer’s inappropriate intimacy during a high-level meeting, like a blurry cocoon separating them from the rest of the board. In the TV series episode Sherlock – A Study in Pink (P. McGuigan, 2010), a fistful of journalists are blasting away at Inspector Lestrade about the lack of results in his current inquiry. Put in an awkward position, Lestrade appears isolated from his environment thanks to shallow focus. But his detractors also appear disconnected from the rest of the journalists, which creates a disturbing kind of intimacy between the tormentors and the victim, and makes the latter feel even more uncomfortable. No doubt that isolation and intimacy can closely work together.


What’s up?

Focus has the power to link or isolate characters, even at the same time, as focus creates a ‘bubble’ around in-focus characters, who appear naturally linked together against their blurry environment. Conversely, a shift in focus can also associate characters to symbolic elements of their environment, in order to convey some specific meaning. In next article, we will see how focus can grant characters with or deprive them of power.


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