September 04, 2008

Deep Focus Cinematography

Deep Focus Cinematography

Shooting a scene in deep focus means that both the foreground and background of a shot are in focus at the same time. Andre Bazin links this technique with mise en scene and for him  helps to make a film part of realism. For Bazin deep focus has three advantages:

  1. It brings spectators into closer contact with the image
  2. It is intellectually more challenging than montage which manipulates spectators to make them see what the filmmaker wants them to see, whilst deep focus gives the viewer choice in what they see
  3. It allows for ambuguity essential to works of art. For example Bazin thought that Italian Neorealist film kept reality intact. By shooting in deep focus less cutting is necessary so the spectator is less manipulated by the narrative and more free to read the set of shots in front of them. Ideologically (see ideology) as an editing style it can be considered as counter to the Hollywood style of film making which is found in action adventure films for example.

Many people brought up with the Hollywood style of editing which contains large numbers of cuts  find  films which use a lot of deep focus photography and far fewer cuts  very slow.  Interestingly Far Eastern films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero tend to combine both elements so there are some very elegant slower moving scenes interspered with rapid action sequences.

Exemplar Extract

There is an extract from Citizen Kane dir. Orson Welles on this site in which Gregg Toland who is commonly accredited with being the first to use deep focus cinematography shot the film. However Ogle (p 59) notes that other cinematographers were experimenting with similar techniques. He cites James Wong Howe ASC who:

...seems to have produced a proto deep-focus film in his photography of Transatlantic ten years earlier.

Ogle (p59) also cites a review of Citizen Kane from American Cinematographer in which the crisp focus was a clearly a fantastic revelation:

The result on the screen is in itself little short of revolutionary: the conventional narrow plane of acceptable focus is eliminated, and in its palce is a picture closly approximating what the eyes see - virtually unlimited depth of filed, ranging often from a big head close-up at one side of the frame, perhaps only inches from the lens, to background action, twenty, thirty, fifty or even a hundred feet away. All are critically sharp. The result is realism in a new dimension: we forget we are looking at a picture, and feel the living breathing presence of the characters. (Extract from "Photography of the Month" American Cinematographer, May 1941 p 222)

Please note well: As Ogle is at pains to point out the article is inaccurate concerning the human eye which does not use deep focus rather it is able to refocus at fantastic speed. Try going into deep focus mode and you will find you can't.

Ogle also notes that Jean Renoir was already using far greater depth of field than was usual at the time at was developing a form of realism which became developed in Italian neorealism. Ogle cites Toni (1934) as an example of this. Interstingly Luchino Visconti worked as an assistant for Renoir and his Ossessione was seen as a precusor of Italian Neorealism. furthermore the photographer Cartier-Bresson very much associated with realism worked as an assistant to Jean Renoir. When it comes to realism and the use of deep focus cinematography there is a debt to photography which need sto be recognised more fully. Less important than who was first is the fact that deep focus was realated to notions of realism in the sense of capturing natural reality as the eye could see it.


Yale University Film Classes: Cinematography

Screenville Blog: Deep focus and Realism. Interesting article here for more in depth analysis.


Ogle Patrick. 1985. "Technological and Aesthetic Influences on the Development of Deep-focus cinematography in the United States" in Movies and Methods Volume 2  Ed Bill Nichols, Berkeley: University of California Press. this is a very useful follow up article.

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