Focus – Pointing vs Concealing (Part 3)

In part 3, we will concentrate on different focus techniques commonly used to lead the eye from one subject to another: inserts, direct cuts, and focus pulling. We will also see that some actions can benefit from remaining out of focus. Pointing versus concealing.


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.


Instant shift in focus

Inserting a cut-away to divide a long shot provides a natural opportunity to shift focus before and after the insert. In Hard Boiled (J. Woo, 1992), Tequila tries to shoot a bullet he has inserted into a pipe to blow it up. A zoom-in on the bullet is inserted in a shot of the character almost aiming at the camera. Before the insert, his face is in focus to bring out his intention to fire. But after the insert, the focus has shifted to the gun, to highlight that Tequila’s hand is shaking. In Alien (R. Scott, 1979), Dallas — the captain of the spaceship — asks the crew if they have any last words before he jettisons Kane’s dead body into space. A cut-away on screens divides a shot of Dallas and the crew. Before the insert, the crew is in focus and Dallas remains blurry in the foreground. After the insert, the focus has shifted to Dallas who is now in control, as nobody’s willing to say anything. In both cases, a cut-away is inserted in a shot to detract attention from a necessary shift in focus.

But most of the time, inserts are not needed to distract the audience before a shift in focus occurs, as long as we make sure their attention is drawn to the right characters when we bring them into focus, as demonstrated with Young Sherlock Holmes (B. Levinson, 1985), when Holmes asks an hesitant Watson to join him on a flying machine. The following excerpt starts with a two-shot where only Holmes is in focus, then cuts to a one-shot of Watson in focus, comes back to a closer two-shot where only Holmes is in focus, cuts again to Watson, then ends with a two-shot where both characters are in focus at the same time.


Smooth shift in focus

Of course, pulling focus allows to shift centers of interest without resorting to cuts. For instance, focus can switch back and forth between two subjects in the same shot. In Basic Instinct (P. Verhoeven, 1992), focus plays ping-pong between Gus in the foreground and Correli in the background — questioning Catherine off screen — while keeping Nick blurry in the middle ground to bring out his being overwhelmed. In Full Metal Jacket (S. Kubrick, 1987), ‘Animal Mother’ tries to locate a snipper hidden in a nearby building. The focus point moves from the character in the foreground to the building in the background and back to the character. In this case, we want to keep up with the character; we only momentarily need to glance at the building.

Pulling focus allows more diversity. In Excalibur (J. Boorman, 1981), a complex shot shows young Arthur chasing a child who has stolen Kay’s sword. Here focus changes several times without resorting to cuts, from Arthur — coming from background to foreground — to a blacksmith in middle ground to Arthur again, then to the child in the background, as the audience shifts their center of interest.

Sometimes you need diversity, and sometimes you need speed. In Underworld (L. Wiseman, 2003), Selene shoots a window to help Michael escape an apartment invaded by Lycans. This shot is rather similar to the first example on this page, but the shift in focus is done by pulling it at extremely high speed (1/4 sec) from the character to the foreground in one shot.



All in one

The two following excerpts from Ghost (J. Zucker, 1990) (on the left) and the BBC TV series episode Sherlock – A Study in Pink (P. McGuigan, 2010) (on the right) will help recap the two methods we have studied since the beginning of the page, as they include both. While watching the videos, try to concentrate on the different shifts in focus, either done by way of cuts or focus pulling.


Implicit action

When some action is ‘implicit’ (i.e. expected but unsurprising), there’s no need to shift focus from the main subject. In Birdy (A. Parker, 1984), Al wakens with a jolt from a nightmare. His roommate Renaldi jumps out of bed and rushes over to him. Although Renaldi’s reaction is important in terms of storyline, it is also expected in this kind of situations. Al has just had a panic attack, and we are discouraged to think that Renaldi’s jumping off bed in the background is more important, even though we are let to keep an eye on him. We know he will eventually come in the foreground anyway. In that case, there’s no need to shift focus.

Even important action can benefit from remaining out of focus. In The Hitcher (R. Harmon, 1986), Jim isn’t surprised that Ryder is still alive and doesn’t even bother to turn back when he stands up and throws his shackles to his feet. At this point in the story, Ryder’s resurgence is anticipated both by Jim and the audience. Ryder is only a mere shadow of its former self, waiting for Jim to kill him. What is really at stake is: will Jim do Ryder and, in his turn, become a murderer? Only Jim’s reaction is important at this stage, we stick to it. It is vital not to shift focus in this case.

Finally, a subject can be left out of focus for illustration purpose. This is the case in The Usual Suspects (B. Singer, 1995), when Kint evokes Keyser’s revenge in voice over. The flames in the background are but an illustration of his killing spree. We know nothing about the house supposed to be burning in the background but what is said in voice over. In this case, the flames remain blurry as a symbol of Keyser’s fury. Again, it is vital not to shift focus in this case.


What’s up?

Thanks to inserts, direct cuts and focus pulling, shifts in focus lead the eye to the one subject we want the audience to see at any time, following a quick or slow, simple or complex choreography. Conversely, some subjects need remaining out of focus to convey the right feeling. Pointing or concealing, it all depends on the way you want to tell your story.


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