Focus – Power and intrusion

After spending some time on focus ability to link and isolate, let’s now consider its empowering and belittling effect on characters, their speech, and how intruders can benefit from coming ‘out of the blur’ and claiming focus.


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.


Emphasized speech

In The Man Who Would Be King (J. Huston, 1975), Peachy asks his friend Danny to give up on his marriage and come back to India with him. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (D. Yates, 2007), Hermione tells her friends that, now Dolores Umbridge has taken over their school, they will only have themselves to rely upon. In both cases, the speaking characters in foreground are the only ones in focus, which isolates them from the others and emphasizes their speeches, as though they were speaking to themselves. The speech ends when — as a punctuation to their line — the speakers turn around and face their silent interlocutors now in focus, waiting for their reaction.

But assigning exclusive focus to a speaker is not the only way to emphasize speech. In Gladiator (R. Scott, 2000), Lucilla tells Gracchus and Gaius that she’s afraid of her brother and Emperor Commodus. To emphasize her speech, she turns around and steps away from them, leaving them out of focus in the background. But to accentuate the effect even more, a reverse angle shows her from the back as she delivers her line. As the background remains out of focus in the reverse shot, there’s not much left to look at, so we naturally concentrate on her speech. In My Name is Nobody (T. Valerii, 1973), Jack Beauregard comes in foreground to look out of the window, stealing focus from the speaker in background, only to emphasize his speech. The trick here is that the speaker is put out of focus precisely to give weight to his words, so that Jack’s facial expression appears to be a reaction to his interlocutor’s speech, whereas he actually reacts to what he sees through the window. So in a nutshell, although focus helps emphasize speech when the speaker is the only one in focus, similar effects can be obtained by obfuscating the speaker instead. Read more in Image contrast to emphasize speech.


The strong and the weak

In Young Sherlock Holmes (B. Levinson, 1985), Holmes has been defeated in a fencing demonstration match, and Professor Rathe — the winner — makes sure he understands why. Feeling belittled, Holmes sadly walks to the background where he remains out of focus, whereas triumphant Rathe remains the only character in focus, in the foreground. In Time of the Gypsies (E. Kusturica, 1988), Perhan’s grandmother Khaditza and young wife Azra step into a bar where he is drowning his sorrow in alcohol, music and prostitutes. Although Azra is pregnant with Perhan, he refuses to believe that the baby is his, which puts her in a difficult and painful position. Khaditza tries to fix the situation, which explains why she is in focus and Azra is not. In both cases, focus determines the relative strength of the characters. Strong, powerful characters remain in focus, whereas weak, defeated characters stay out of focus.

From one extreme to the other – In Little Big Man (A. Penn, 1970), Olga is abducted by a group of Cheyenne warriors before Jack’s eyes. Jack, who bravely resisted their assault a moment ago, now feels totally helpless and is left out of focus as he exits the frame. Let’s go the opposite direction with Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Q. Tarantino, 2003), when the Bride gets back on track after almost losing her life in a fight with Gogo. At first, the character appears completely out of focus, almost defeated. But when she grabs the sword on the glass floor, she also grabs focus and rises perfectly sharp, ready for the next fight. In both cases, the characters switch from a powerless to a powerful attitude or vice versa in one shot.



Breaking into audience space – In Gladiator (R. Scott, 2000), Commodus enters his nephew’s bedroom during his sleep. At first, Commodus appears so much ‘defocused’ that we can hardly see a ghostly presence on the screen. Then his face is slowly brought into focus as he leans forwards and fills the frame. In Basic Instinct (P. Verhoeven, 1992), Correli’s face is suddenly brought into focus as he leans forwards and fills the frame to confront Catherine. In both cases, we feel the intrusion of the leaning character by seeing him going through a ‘blurry veil’ (read more in Dynamic occlusion – Opening and Overlays – Translucency and opacity) and gain unexpected ascendancy over the audience.

Breaking into character space – In Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997), Drumlin rudely interrupts Ellie and Palmer’s discussion. At first, Drumlin remains out of focus in the background, then breaks into the characters’ space and steals focus from Palmer, causing him to remain blurry as the intruder talks to Ellie. Now using focus to turn characters into intruders doesn’t automatically make them wicked. In Sleepy Hollow (T. Burton, 1999), Constable Ichabod Crane is settling into his room when young servant Sarah passes by and takes this opportunity to tell him how relieved she is that he has come. At first, Sarah remains out of focus in the background, but as she is about to leave, she steps forwards and suddenly gains focus as she delivers her line. In this case, far from being mean, the intruder is nice to the main character. But the technique is the same.


What’s up?

Focus blur is a very efficient tool when it comes to empower or belittle characters relatively to each other, or emphasize their speech. Also, characters suddenly coming ‘out of the blur’ towards the camera make for impressive intruders.


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