Focus – Perception and confusion (Part 1)

In part 1 of this article, we will see how shallow focus is used to mimic characters’ eyes focusing on a subject, even in the case of objective (i.e. non-subjective) shots. We will then see how focus is used to bring out that a character is thinking of a subject, as opposed to looking at it.


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.


Looking at

Subjective shot – In a subjective shot from Goodfellas (M. Scorsese, 1990), Henry watches his neighbor through the rear-mirror of his convertible (read more in Subframes – Rear-view mirrors). Here, focus shifts to mimic the character’s eye focusing on a distant subject, which reveals that subject to the audience. In Resident Evil: Extinction (R. Mulcahy, 2007), Alice looks at a photo frame, then suddenly focuses on the reflection of an unexpected character moving sideways behind her. In this case, instead of focusing on the background passerby — which is what the character does — we actually focus on her reflection in order to see her see, which prevents the subjective shot from revealing the passerby’s identity. However, we do feel as though the character was focusing on the passerby. Neat trick.


Objective shot – In King Kong (P. Jackson, 2005), Ann — who is starving — looks with envy at a meal being served in a restaurant.


In Sherlock – A Study in Pink (P. McGuigan, 2010), Dr. Watson — sitting beside the bed — looks at the laptop on his desktop as he thinks of learning more about the strange man (Sherlock Holmes) he has just met for the first time.


In both cases, focus shifts from the characters in the background to the subjects they are looking at in the foreground to mimic their focusing on those subjects. Because we identify with the characters, we feel that they are the ones who focus on those subjects, although the shot is objective (as opposed to subjective) which means that this is our POV, not theirs.


Thinking of

In Conan the Barbarian (J. Milius, 1982), Conan — who has just given the late Valeria a warrior’s funeral — is absorbed in his own thoughts, thinking of the tragic consequences of his rescue of King Osric’s daughter from the clutches of Thulsa Doom. A circling camera brings out that Conan mentally relates the pyre to the Princess behind him. The subjects the character is thinking of remain in soft focus precisely to emphasize that despite their being real, they currently are thoughts of the character’s, based on the assumption that thoughts are blurrier, less defined than the real thing. Note how this lost-in-though state ends with the following shot, when the Princess becomes real again after delivering her ungrateful line to the character.

Subjects of though can remain blurry even when they are active on screen. In Thelma & Louise (R. Scott, 1991), Thelma shows a growing interest in the blurry silhouette of a young cow-boy hitchhiking in the background (read more in Frame splitting – Dividers (Part 2)). In Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides (R. Marshall, 2011), Jack Sparrow escapes soldiers only to be held at gunpoint by an unanticipated last one. In both cases again, the subject the character is thinking of remains out of focus to show how he is represented in the mind of the foreground, in-focus character. As before, this blurry state ends when the subject enters the character’s private sphere, which is done either by letting him head towards the character or by letting the character turn about and see him ‘for real’.


What’s up?

Focus is very efficient at depicting a character focusing on a subject, even in non-subjective shots. Conversely, by keeping a background subject in soft focus next to a character’s head in foreground, we turn that subject into what the character is thinking about, even if that subject is talking or moving. In next part, we will tackle character unawareness and confusion.


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