Depth of Field as a storyteller (10 replies and 17 comments)
Hello Roger and James,
My name is Stefano. I am a cinematographer and I mostly work on docs. Today I wanted to reach out regarding the topic of depth of field.
I mention my background, because in documentaries, especially while shooting veritè, the trend (which I tend to follow) has been to shoot as wide open as possible, no matter the lighting conditions or the focal length, just because "it looks good" or "more cinematic".
I have always been very focused on 3 aspects of our job: story, lighting, and composition, and I have tried not to fall into formulas when it comes to starting a new project, but one thing that I never change is the f/stop. The AC would ask and the reply is always: " WIDE OPEN" . I feel I'm just now delving into the importance of making a choice, right or wrong, but nonetheless a choice about the aperture, to affect the d.o.f. of a shot.
So here are my questions: when did you realize the importance of artistically making a choice about your aperture (again not related to exposure but only d.o.f)? I am especially interested since you as well came up from docs, where not everything is under our control and things move fast. How can the choice of aperture be implied as a tool for storytelling? Do you think the choice of d.o.f. depends mostly on how you view a scene, either subjectively/objectively, or are there other elements that might affect your choice? I'm looking to explore more the artistic aspects rather than the technical.
Thank you for creating this community and for taking the time to answer.
I have a general level of stop I like to use in a film though I may often choose something deeper or shallower for a specific shot. Occasionally there will be a film for which I will choose a different approach. Mike Radford wanted a brutal look to '1984' so saturation, contrast and depth of field were all important elements to consider. To have the soft backgrounds of a shallow depth of field seemed entirely the wrong way to go so I made tests shooting at an aperture of 5.6 on the lens set we intended to use. That, in combination with the bleach bypass processing work of the lab., made much more sense. Budgetary considerations restricted what I could do on some of the larger lighting set ups we had but I still shot most of '1984' at a stop of between 5.0 and 5.6.
Thank you Roger for your answer and James, thanks for creating a podcast not only for filmmakers but for film lovers.
Master roger for instance in1984 why to have the soft backgrounds of a shallow depth of field seemed entirely the wrong way. What is the strong reason for you have played with depth of field in 1984.
Roger, do you ever use split diopters?
I do occasionally use split diopters, yes.
It seems to me that soft focus backgrounds can tend to feel romantic and '1984' was not that kind of film. Look at 'The Hill' and the sheer power of those deep focus images.
If I might suggest, check out "Son of Saul" and see how you feel about the use of depth of field in that film where the portion of the images that is out of focus speaks volumes. It's not an easy watch but it's definitely worth it.
It's just very interesting how everything in an image, even the d.o.f. that to a "normal audience" might read as a nuance, can be a powerful storyteller.
'Son of Saul', yes. Great example of the use of depth of field to enhance a story. The lack of depth put the viewer with the character and left the full horror of the surroundings to the imagination. Definitely a film in which the soft focus was effective and not 'pretty'.
Here's a shot where I opted for a deep focus because the foreground person is reacting to what's happening in the background and the humor comes from their juxtaposition.
Hi David (and Roger and James and everyone else!),
For that screen grab, do you remember what lens you used? I'm always fascinated about what lenses are used for any particular project, including the reasons as to why a particular lens was chosen...... thanks in advance!
Thanks David, great to have you as part of the conversation!
What I find exciting and challenging is what comes in between the deep focus and the wide open aperture. The multitude of choices we can make for any given shot and how they will affect the perception of a scene: how the space relates to the character and vice versa, how to depict a dialogue with the same field of view between two characters going through their own emotional story arcs or even, as a consequences of your choices, facing a very unhappy production designer when he realizes that you are shooting the whole film at f/1.8. It's also interesting to see the increasing number of production shooting on large format cameras. I'm sure Roger could have shot "1917" on a 35mm sensor and we would still be talking of how great it looked, but shooting with a 40mm on LF is a choice that transcends the tech aspect. What I'm trying to say in this, I know, very contrived message, is depth of field a" tool in our box" that even if not used at its 'extremes' can be an extremely effective storyteller?
I think when everyone opts to shoot for a shallow-focus effect all the time, it becomes more of a stylistic effect than a deliberate storytelling device. But there is an aesthetic problem with deep focus and color, which is that color is another layer of visual information on top of tone and texture, which is what b&w photography has. So when more of the image is in focus, more colors in the background begin to stand out rather than being blurred, and color can call attention to itself, which is why a deep-focus color movie without careful production design can look distracting sometimes if you're not careful, whereas it is near impossible for a deep-focus b&w image to look tacky or garish. But yes, there are many degrees of focus in between shallow and deep, just as there are degrees of contrast or softness in lighting. Sometimes you want just enough focus to recognize a shape or action happening in the background without needing it to be razor-sharp, it works better sometimes to just hint at what is going on back there.
The other problem with deep focus photography, besides increase the number of details calling attention to the eye, is that it can take more work if lighting is involved, and then you might end up in a situation where the director is not staging the action with the deep focus in mind (using strong foreground and background elements where their juxtaposition creates a visual conflict that supports a narrative element.) Softer focus makes it easier to tell the audience what to pay attention to.
What an interesting thread, I also constantly question choosing a stop... I see two ideas from which we want either shallow or deep focus. I remember always trying to shoot small 1/4 and 2/3 inch sensors wide open to seperate layers within the frame (the sensor itself has a definite flatness unlike the film colour layers which makes it shockingly flat) and draw the eye to the most important part of the image. This became the drive to shoot everything wide open, kind of like how we see (Caveat... we seem to focus on just one object and that is what we notice) however if we look at a film like "once upon a time in the west" that is also like how we see even though focus is deep but the difference is, this film is 2.35:1 and in the cinema the image is BIG and wide so our eyes scan that frame darting around from detail to detail so the focus although deep becomes sort of shallow or separated. I like to decide on a stop and maintain that thoughtout a show where possible yet we also have to decide what is important and for that there are many times when production impacts on that. It certainly is in our tool box yet it isn't always something we have control over depending on the restraints of our production.
I think the screen grab was a 27mm Primo -- the actor in the street was first standing in the room in the foreground and we had to hold both of them in the frame, and then we pushed in after she left and went outside.
That seems to be a complicated shot, timing has to be just right. I do like the lighting on this scene though. Love the colours too.
Lighting was a challenge because there was a tall bush just outside the window blocking where a light should have been coming from, so I decided to hit the white window frame with a hot HMI light so it would bounce light back into her face.
Thankyou David. I thought it was a reflector outside the window lighting her face.
Love the car.
I had a sequence in "Westworld" of a classic showdown in a ghost town where I used deep focus as sort of homage to Sergio Leone. In the sequence, Maeve was mind-controlling the actions of the gunmen surrounding the Man in Black so having her not facing the action seemed to make it more eerie that she could manipulate things around her. I used a 45mm slant focus to hold the foreground and the background in focus in one shot. But later as she walks in the foreground controlling the man attacking the Man in Black in the background, I first looked at the shot stopped down and it didn't feel right in deep focus now, I think because it all got too visually busy with her walking and the fighting happening at the same time, so I opened up the iris so that the fight was in softer focus, which brought your attention to her, as if she was just playing with the lives of those in the background.
David, I couldn't agree more with you. All your considerations are super valuable. There are indeed many elements to take in consideration while choosing your d.o.f and it's exciting to see, as in your scene in WW, how such choice, if taken, not just for a stylistic trend or a preconceived formula, can really elevate the storytelling.
As a roman filmmaker my self, I fully appreciate your Leone "homage"!
Thanks for taking the time to chat.
Here i jumped to next door for deep focus tool. Every technique is just tool to manipulate the story. Master roger Generally what do you think about deep focus. "The innocents" movie also partially deep focus. Why deep focus for psychological horror movie. Did jack Clayton want the house powerfully present for the all time. Because the house is the important element in this movie. Finally what is the aesthetic choice deep focus. Suddenly "citizen khane" comes to my mind. Do you think Deep focus perfectly right for kane story.
Gregg Toland went to great trouble to maintain the deep focus in 'Citizen Kane'. It seems the 'right' choice to me.
Could you tell me what kind of trouble did Gregg Toland get to maintain deep focus. If suppose one director wanted to do deep focus for whole movie. What's your first consideration. You always said script! Script! Sounds really good. But what kind of context you do choose for modern deep focus movie.!
Deep focus is normally achieved by working at a closed-down f-stop -- "Citizen Kane" was shot in the range of f/5.6 to f/16, the most memorable deep focus shots were done at f/16 on a 24mm lens. To shoot at f/16 took a tremendous amount of light considering the speed of film stocks in the day. Toland was helped by the release of a high speed b&w stock, Super XX (about 125 to 160 ASA), which is sometimes even push-processed, and the release of new carbon arc lights made for Technicolor photography. He also was helped by the recent improvements in coatings for lenses, which increased their speed.
The chapter on Toland in the book "The Making of Citizen Kane" by Robert Carringer has an interesting perspective on the deep focus photography -- Toland wrote an article at the time saying that deep focus added more "realism" to the photography, coming closer to how our eyes see things, but Carringer said that Welles basically took that technique and made it support his theatrical style of staging in depth as he was doing on the stage, so the final effect is more stylized rather than realistic.
I think what deep focus does when done well is create dramatic tension, a dialectic (if I'm using that word correctly) between two or three important things in the frame. Rather than show one action or emotion at a time, the frame deliberating presents two or three actions or emotions at once, so you are forced to make comparisons or to see a juxtaposition, creating a third emotional effect from the two elements in opposition. Or it can be used for ironic effect or symbolic effect, etc. It's often not subtle though, especially if reinforced with high-contrast b&w lighting effects.
Thank you David. This example really shows that if a visual technique supports the story, it evolves into a form of visual language. One, like in this case, people would refer 80 something years later. Would Toland's choices of framing within a frame or deep focus been so ground breaking without being supported by a clever staging? It's beautiful to see how in some way, story, technique and directing are all interconnected and they all support each other.
That is so true! You can't separate the choice of lens choice, focus depth, lighting, camera move and framing from the staging of the actors. There is no deep focus frame if the staging is not there to support it. A close shot of a face on a wide lens with a sharp background is entirely different from a close shot on a long lens with a soft background, even more so if the killer is in the background or the car that is about to run our hero over!
One of my favorite deep-focus frames was done for comedic effect, in Buster Keaton's "Steamboat Bill, Jr." Keaton plays the son of a tough steamboat captain who thinks Keaton is a fool. When the father gets thrown in jail, Keaton shows up with a loaf of bread with a nail file inside it to help break his father out, but a rainstorm ruins Keaton's umbrella and his father is embarrassed to see Keaton when he shows up, not knowing that Keaton has a plan to break him out.