Focus – Pointing vs Concealing (Part 1)

In many ways, ‘focus blur’ is very similar to the concept of ‘translucent overlay’, which is why it shows up now. If you think about it, there are few differences between subjects that are out of focus and subjects that appear obfuscated by a transparent curtain or a misty glass window. But playing with depth of field offers more flexibility, as we will see in this new series focused on …focus.

 

Depth of field

Deep focus – In both following snapshots taken from For a Few Dollars More (S. Leone, 1965) (on the left) and Barry Lyndon (S. Kubrick, 1975) (on the right), a tremendous depth of field allows subjects in the foreground, middle ground and background to be reasonably in focus at the same time, thanks to the use of short focal lenses (i.e. wide angle lenses). But there is a tradeoff. The closer a subject to the camera, the harder it is for the background to remain in focus. In the first snapshot, the background houses are not as far away from the camera as the background scenery in the second snapshot. That’s why the foreground character in the first snapshot is allowed to be so close to the camera, as opposed to the couple in the second one.

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Split-focus diopters – There are a number of ways to work around the problem and have both very close and distant subjects to remain in focus at the same time. Cinematographers used to resort to split-focus diopters — basically two different half-lenses glued together — to devote one half of the lens to the foreground subject and the other half to the background, at the cost of a slightly blurred line where the planes intersect. Both following snapshots from Jaws (S. Spielberg, 1975) (on the left) and Paris, Texas (W. Wenders, 1984) (on the right) showcase the use of a split-focus diopter with two different orientations of the dividing line (i.e. vertical and horizontal). Note: matte paintings and computer generated imagery are other common ways to have both very close and distant subjects in focus at the same time. By extension, shooting on green screens and compositing planes on computer is definitely one of the most widespread techniques today.

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Shallow focus – But we don’t necessarily need everything on screen to be in focus at the same time. In fact, the story often calls for very limited depth of field, as is the case in the following snapshots from Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (N. Oshima, 1983) (on the left) and Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008) (on the right). In the first one, Sergeant Hara calls out his famous line and lets some humanity show at last. His unexpected spontaneity is supported by a shallow depth of field letting only his face features (i.e. eyes, nose and mouth) to be in focus. In the second snapshot, the depth of field is even more shallower, as only some of the letters are in focus, which is used to make the audience …well focus on the word Max is reading. This is where the analogy with transparent veils and translucent veils takes on full significance, as we will see now.

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“Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence!”

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Abstraction

The opening titles of The Fly (D. Cronenberg, 1986) are superimposed on weird images that turn out to be a tinted and completely out of focus shot of a crowded hall. At fist, the blurring effect is so strong that the image looks like an abstract design — maybe some crystalline structure under the microscope — until it reveals to be the first shot of the movie. Indeed, the effect is very similar to what we came across in Dynamic occlusion – Opening. This approach to the opening of a film — which is common place in Cronenberg movies — makes the audience puzzled about the story they are about to be told.

Now here is the exact reverse. In The Man Who Would Be King (J. Huston, 1975), the final shot of the film zooms in on a golden crown which gets strongly out of focus as the music swells. Once the blurring effect has turned the shot into an abstract design of golden hexagons, the end titles start scrolling in overprinting. This makes the audience lose touch with the story and lets golden glints of the crown refer the reader to the title of the film.

In Sherlock – A Study in Pink (P. McGuigan, 2010), a shot showing out-of-focus lights of London traffic at night opens and closes a very short inserted scene where Watson is being taxied through city streets. The lens bokeh turns the lights into a luminous colored disc abstraction that lends itself very well to suggesting a leap in space, or lets say a scene ‘in brackets’, a ‘meanwhile’, and still stick to the storyline.

 

Concealing

In Se7en (D. Fincher, 1995), Detective David Mills is being threatened at gun point by a mysterious killer. Here, the gun in the foreground — although in focus — is definitely not the main subject of the shot; the mysterious character is, but we are denied access to his face, thanks to an utterly shallow focus centered on the gun. The killer’s face remains blurry so that his identity is kept secret, in a similar way to what we came across in Overlays – Translucency and opacity.

 

Pointing

Instead of concealing the main subject of a shot, a limited depth of field can do the opposite: point to it, that is. In The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring (P. Jackson, 2001), Frodo realizes that he has dropped the ring he was bearing. In the second shot, the ring in the foreground is the only subject in focus. Our attention is naturally drawn to it, even though we watch the ring in relation with the blurry characters in the middle ground. Note that the obfuscation of the characters allows to cheat the audience by replacing the actor playing Frodo in the first shot with a shorter stand-in in the second one. Therefore, pointing is still concealing.

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The shallower the focus, the more it points to the subject in focus, as showcased by the two following shots from Wanted (T. Bekmambetov , 2008) (on the left) and The Matrix (A. & L. Wachowski, 1999) (on the right). In both cases, extreme tension makes us stare at the most meaningful part of a weapon at very close range, which is supported by an extremely short depth of field. We dread that a character pulls the trigger, so we are made to focus on the trigger or the end of the gun, depending on whether we are more interested in the cause or the consequence.

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What’s up?

We have only scratched the surface of the many possibilities that focus and depth of field provide. Now even though pointing and concealing are basic approaches to setting shots, they are vital to storytelling and essential to understanding more advanced concepts that will be studied in this series. So stay tuned for part 2.

 

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