Filming Deep Focus

Esteemed CMLers,

I should know this, and probably once did ;

The advent of color motion pictures marked a change in cinematographic style, away from deep focus and with a (seemingly ever) decrease in DoF in general. I routinely work with people who are more than comfortable shooting wide-open, all the time. But I digress. I was posed this question by a film historian - why the change when color was introduced, and I gave him a range of possible answers, all conjecture on my part. Does anyone know the real reason? Deep focus can, of course, be done in color (as we all know), and sitcoms are living proof that folks can blast away @ 5.6 and 8 until the cows come home. So what happened? Color temp issues, slower stocks?


George "likes that f4 a lot" Nicholas

I think you'll find that the move out of the studio to location shooting had more to do with this than the advent of color film. Look at the studio productions of the 50's/60's. Use of color, plenty of DOF. Recently I again saw Charlton Heston holding off the British with some help from Yul Brenner at the Battle of New Orleans. Shot in studio, swamp, fog, rockets flying, cannons going was great....and sharp.

I now yeld to my more learned colleagues.

Glenn Suprenard Dir/DP
Matinee Pictures

I would submit the following equation as a partial answer : depth = budget.


Perhaps it is as much a reflection of evolving visual styles as anything else. Photographic technique has developed a life of its own as opposed to a tool simply to record the action going on in front of the camera. As the Motion Picture developed from a play on film to a unique type of visual story telling, cinematic style changed as well, and a whole new visual language came into being. Deep focus allows the viewer to see the scene somewhat how our eye sees the world, everything pretty much in focus front to back. As the Cinematographer strove to direct the viewer to a particular piece of the frame, selective focus became a very effective tool. Color film also allowed a different style of lighting. One didn't need to create separation with light alone. (Rim lights contrasting backgrounds.) We could now use color to separate the elements in a frame. We could now allow the possibility of using selective focus to separate the elements too.

I think there is a limit to this. The development of the swing and tilt focus lenses for cinematography has certainly demonstrated that. But like everything in our industry, the few innovators of a visual idea will be copied ad nauseaum by people that think it is cool for cool's sake.

One can point to a whole list of visual innovations that have been duplicated to death, (Slant focus, Dektor cam, mesmerizer, soft diffusion, smoke, flash frames, etc.) Everything goes in cycles though. Toady's innovation is tomorrow's has-been, and today's has-been becomes tomorrow's genius. I see a lot of things in today's 'cutting edge' footage that would have gotten guys fired just a few years ago. I don't thing we can point to just one thing (Location, Money, etc.) that has reduced the amount of deep focus we see. It is now just one more (seldom used) arrow in the quiver. I am sure there will be a resurgence of Deep Focus someday when a young film student 'discovers' Greg Toland for the first time, and re introduces it to the world.

-- --
Ed (always loved f8 on a 24mm) Colman

Well, the original 3-strip Technicolor had an EI of perhaps 10 (actually, that was the improved version). And the 3-strip camera couldn't take lenses wider than 50mm due to backfocus problems (this was before the invention of retrofocus optics).

Then, when color neg came along, Eastmancolor ECN-I (also called 5247) was either EI 10 or 16. The improved version hit EI 25, and 5251 was EI
50. 5254 came out in 1968, and was EI 100 (a beautiful stock, much prettier to my eye than it's replacement, ECN-II 5247). It could push a stop or two. Haskell Wexler got some of the first batch of 5254 for part of "Medium Cool" -- and considered that stop an exciting gain.

In 16mm color reversal, professionals went from Professional Kodachrome (a low-con Kodachrome I stock, designed for printing and also used in the 40's as Technicolor Monopack) which was about EI 10. Then Ektachrome Commercial (7255 was I believe the first iteration) came out, EI 25. It was replaced with 7252, which could be pushed to 50! Beautiful outdoors, and made great blowups... but horribly slow for naturalistic lighting!

Obviously, all these limited depth of field, unless you used very serious lighting.

Me, I'd love to shoot at f/5.6 with EI 12,500 stock in very low light! ;-)

Jeff "push push push!" Kreines

You left out that "wide open" on those older lenses was T2.3, T2.8, T4., T5.6, etc. The T1.3 and T1.4 lenses came along much later.
I agree that increased location shooting contributed to shallower depth.

Doug Hart
First Camera Assistant, NYC

Jeff Kreines has given the technical answer - slooowww stocks, as well as the optics involved in 3-strip cameras. Agreed. But if that was all, why wouldn't we return to deeeep focus as soon as the stocks got faster? Which they certainly have by now.

So will anyone have a go at a slightly more aesthetic answer? To me, deep focus looks "right" only in B/W. Maybe it's what I've learnt to see. But is there something else? B/W often needs lighting to separate subjects as there's no colour to separate foreground from background. So wouldn't shallow DoF have helped here as well? Or would it have been too much. Or does shallow DoF in a colour subject add just the right degree of photographicity (well I think I know what I mean by that), whereas B/W film adds it by the lack of colour?

Or is it just a matter of fashion and trend?

Dominic Case
Atlab Australia

As an aside to these current posts;

On Ken Russells' film "The Boyfriend" the DOP David Watkin did go for Deep Focus on all shots and the standard stop of the day was in the realm of T8.
If memory serves me right, they would have been shooting on 100ASA 5254, possible '47
However the studio power house at the ABPC studios at Elstree couldn't supply enough power for all the lights, so several 1000amp gennies had to be brought in.
As a previous Post mentioned, the dearth of Deep Focus may have more than a passing relationship with today's budgets.

Les "The brutes, the brutes, my spectrum for a brute" Parrott

DOP Sydney

The lenses have gotten faster, would be my first guess. Imagine shooting when wide open was 2.8 ( I intend never to shoot more open from a 2 again). However I would think that is only a part of the picture ( hah hah funny pun). More light equals more light control apparatus, which equals more Space ( harder on locations) and more crew, and all this equals more money. Budgets are getting tighter ( for most of us), Stocks are getting faster with more "ability to see into shadows" so controlling the higher amounts of light is more time consuming and more expense. Actors don't want to be under Really hot/hard lights. I think it takes a very firm creative decision to go with "Deep Focus", and to fight for it. Perhaps also contributing is the freer access to gear, which gives rise to less technically schooled shooters ( I met someone who called themselves a D.P. even though they had never actually shot anything, just assisted on - not even shot - a few video shorts).

Or as someone else succinctly put it "Deeper = More Expensive"

Steven Gladstone
Brooklyn, N.Y. based

I agree with Dominic that B&W sometimes calls for deep focus. It can really work there. Part of it is also how we have learned to see in the last century.

I think Deep Focus shots in color have to be carefully production-designed and lit. Color can be a huge distraction to a composition. You are no longer composing just by shapes and tones, but have to give weight to a really saturated color that's sitting in the corner of the frame.

Therefore, I often see the problem with the background competing with the actor's close-up. I'd rather throw a complex background *slightly* out of focus (that can still be a t-5.6 in 35mm format) and let the actor's close-up "pop out" a little.

Perhaps if films were not so cutty, then one could hold on a color, deep focus shot a little longer and let you study it - as one would study a photograph. Often times we're shooting images that are seen for 3-4 seconds max and need to distill the essence of that image so that it can be
digested in that time. Shallow focus sometimes helps to guide the viewer's eye.

Same goes for swing-shift.

And your sets had better be flawless if you're shooting at t-8. :-)

I just shot a roll of Agfa Scala 200 (B&W slides rated at 500, pushed one stop), and I was surprised to see how powerful the eyelights were. Nothing competed with the sparkles in the eyes. Never realized that until now.

Mark Doering-Powell

History and technology aside, I agree with Dominic that deep focus looks "Right" in B&W for one good reason: Soft focus in monochrome can turn a background into mud! You may as well shoot Ingrid Bergman in front of a sheet of seamless paper.

Conversely, I think deep focus in color tends to have an equally negative effect. Since color is recorded with equal saturation no matter how far the subject is from the lens, a person wearing bright clothing, against a bright background will have an almost comic-book look. Very two-dimensional. A shallow depth of field helps separate the main subject from the background, without the use of a lot of rim-lighting. It helps guide the viewer's eye to the most important element in the frame.

Hopefully, The AC has been told which element that is, exactly.
(See the thread about "What Dreams May Come"--Poor Devil)

Joe "What shall it be, The Eyes or the Nose in focus?" Di Gennaro
Director of Photography

Focusing is a creative tool as much as lighting and compostion. it's possible that tv with its emphasis on closeups has influenced the shallow depth of field.

i happen to actually get into out of focus as much as into deep focus. "Lost Highway" had some very interesting shots where the camera would go out of focus at determined times for a striking effect. a film that i found quite beautiful to watch (which will probably bring groans from anyone reading this) was andy warhol's "poor little rich girl" where one entire reel (out of two reels) is out of focus but it captures that fleeting existense/experience of the character, and aside from that, it just looks beautiful. on the other hand one of my favorite films is "last year at marienbad" where sasha gierny (spelling?) has incredibly sharp deep focus that expertly captures the rigidity of the enclosed society and the rigidity found in alain robbe grillet novels, a rigidity of an objective reality that is actually flimsy and constantly changing before our very eyes.
like everything else, visual styles come and go, but the only good visual style is the one that is so intricatly tied to its material that it is essential to the piece and without it, it would not be complete.

besides, i like those old super8 home cameras that have a fixed focus and f- stop.

For whatever its worth,

Octavio Fenech - NYC

I happen to know that this was a planned effect, having been the focus puller on "Lost Highway". We were constantly dollying in closer than the minimum focus, and when David Lynch wanted a more distinctive effect, I foolishly suggested pulling the lens out of the mount, which came to be known as "lens wacking". Believe me, it's challenging to be pulling focus on a 100mm anamorphic at T2.0 pushing in to minimum focus on an actor and also have to open the Panavision mount, yank the lens, wiggle it around, and put it back, plus find the focus again. But I also quite liked the final effect. Even though it was painful to see out of focus shots in a film with my name on it.

I imagine that the trend towards minimum depth of field was highly influenced by groundbreaking films like "Barry Lyndon" (T0.9!) and "Days of Heaven", both using available light and candlelight. These films and others changed the way many of us thought about cinematography. I've worked with cameramen who have never used deep stops, at least not since the late '70's.

Scott Ressler

Thank you all for your many responses. This is one of the reasons I love this list. Thank you, Jeff (as always) - I didn't realize that the early 3-strip Technicolor process had such a low EI. I imagine B&W stocks at the time were in the 25-50 range, I figured color couldn't have been that much slower (maybe a stop). I figured wrong. I dredged through my library before posting the question, and the issue was never addressed, just taken as a given. The move away from the studio systemn was mentioned, but that was the only clue. Many of you hit on reasons I had given to my friend as possibilities (difference in lighting for color vs. B&W, location shooting, etc.) As my students would say - You guys rock!

I hope the question got us thinking, all in all, another good pub chat.

Thanks, Geoff.

George "will sleep better now" Nicholas

I was out-of-town or would have jumped in sooner - this is a topic that I think about quite often...

I agree with those who said that the biggest problem with deep focus color photography is that since color is inherently distracting, having every
background detail in focus can really be visually ugly if there are colors competing for attention with the subject. A minor object like a patch of red in a background wall decoration can suddenly seem too prominant. So therefore I tend to believe that an extremely well art-directed film, color-wise, would be essential if one wanted to shoot in deep focus in color - probably a subdued, monochromatic color scheme would be necessary.

The other problem (and this was a problem in past b&w movies) is visual consistency - can one garantee that one would be able to shoot the majority of the film at a small aperture? Wouldn't it look odd to have a lot of scenes at f/11 and then have a night exterior shot at f/2.0? That actually
concerns me as much as the first issue, since I like to shoot an entire project within a limited f/stop range for consistency. So it would be hard to shoot a number of dramatic scenes at a small aperture and then resist the temptation to shoot a candlelight scene or a scene with flashlights at a much wider aperture.

Also, in this day and age, we are used to letting nature/reality to do half the work for us. If we walk into a diner location, we might start by turning on practicals and see what those did, and then augmenting them. But if we wanted to shoot at f/11 or f/16, we'd probably obliterate any natural ambience or effect from real sources and be totally creating the lighting from scratch. Of course, this is done a lot on stages, but on location it can be difficult to light to these high levels of illumination and maintain any sense of naturalism.

However, this doesn't mean that I'm not interested in deep focus color cinematography - I'm just looking for the right circumstances where I can make it look good.

David Mullen
Cinematographer / L.A.

Plus-X negative was introduced in 1938, I think, at 80 ASA, which was double the speed of the previous stock. This was the most commonly used b&w stock for Hollywood productions. Also introduced in 1938 was Super XX, which was 160 ASA and was used for "Citizen Kane" (sometimes push-developed.)

Eastmancolor negative was introduced in 1950 (5247, 16 ASA, daylight-balanced). Then in 1952, 5248 was introduced with a 25 ASA and was tungsten-balanced. It was replaced in 1959 so the majority of color productions of the 1950's can safely be thought of as having used 25 ASA
film stock.

We perceive these old color films as being deep focus, but actually many were shot at nearly wide-open apertures (like f/2.8). What makes them seem deep-focus is the general preference for wide and medium shots over close-ups. Watching "My Fair Lady" on TV, which often uses a waist-up shot as a "close-up", I thought it looked like a deep-focus movie - but when I saw the restored 70mm version on the big screen, I was surprised at how SHALLOW the focus was (which makes sense considering the 65mm format used.)
It's the lack of super-tight framing that helps give the illusion of deep focus.

David Mullen
Cinematography / L.A.



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