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Hugh Siegel

Trends & attitudes around focal sharpness

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I'm really interested in the ways cinematographers are using differential focus today. For several years now, I've been seeing more and more sequences on film and TV where very shallow DOF is used and, almost inevitably, the actor's movements will take him/her in and out of the plane of sharpest focus during the scene. Increasing use of steadicam and handheld seems to add to this. In the past, in general, I think shots like that would call for a retake or an edit to cover what was once considered a mistake -- but now it seems that DPs (or directors?) are making an aesthetic out of this. I'm just wondering if someone here might be able to point me to any technical, industry, or even academic discussions of this issue -- how DPs go about it, when is a shot a keeper and when not, etc.? Apologies if this seems like a naive question, but I just haven't been able to find anything searching on my own. Thanks for any input.

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I can't think of any long-form articles about use of soft or near-missed focus shots, it's been sort of an evolving aesthetic. Most of the time, if the shot is truly out of focus, it's usually an editorial choice to use it because of the performance or that it feels evocative despite the technical mistake. There have been plenty of shallow focus movies where the focus is riding the razor's edge of being in focus or not, or drifts into focus for a moment by design, that's a bit different than having to use a shot where the focus never quite gets there, but often the first approach causes moments of the second approach, i.e. your focus is so shallow that you increase the chances that it might never quite fall into sharp focus even momentarily.

 

In the past, the shallow focus was generally the result of wanting to shoot in low light and having to use wide apertures, such as the space pod interiors in "2001" or the candlelight scenes in "Barry Lyndon". But now with digital cameras having such high sensitivities, it becomes more and more likely that the shallow focus is more of a stylistic choice rather than a byproduct of wanting to shoot in available light, but it can be a bit of both.

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In my opinion, the currently acceptable soft focus aesthetic can, in large part, be linked directly to the Canon 5D, the first very-low-cost, large sensor video camera.

 

So much out-of-focus 5D material was shot, published and viewed that audiences came to accept soft focus as a welcome and perhaps more attractive alternative to the small sensor deep-depth-of-field photography typical in smaller budget productions.

 

I'm not blaming the 5D, I'm just suggesting that the ratio of proficient focus pullers to large sensors productions during the advent of that camera was far from even.

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Thanks for the useful thoughts. The 5D theory is interesting. And I guess it's, as David indicates, an emerging, amorphous kind of thing. I was watching episodes of "Alias," shot by Michael Bonvillian and so many times you see the actors move in an out of the very shallow focal plane. They'll be mostly in, but then just dip heir head forward or back and their eyes fall out of sharp focus. So, in those cases, you have a sense that a sharp focus is established and it's just that the focus puller is not compensating -- but not compensating because you can see (or it seems to me) that the focus isn't being pulled at all. They are just letting it happen and living with it. At first it can be disconcerting, but after awhile, you start to think, that's not being considered a mistake, even though it's probably not totally intentional either. It's just like relinquishing control a bit to natural forces. Saw this a lot on "Battlestar Galactica" too. But then, I just saw "Her," which employs extremely shallow DOF and yet focus never seems to be anything but sharp throughout. On the other hand, I also saw "American Hustle" this weekend, and in that film there seems to be dozens of sequences where it's not clear that focus was ever actually established. I suppose the only way to really know what's going on in a situation like that is to ask the cinematographer himself.

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In terms of BSG, that's probably more of an intentional thing as the show strove for a "realism" throughout it's design (look at the sets, and how they look like real every day airliners of aircraft carriers) all the way down to how it was shot-- which was originally very much in a "documentary" style akin to the Office ect where the lack of perfection and the "mistakes," missed focuses and rack zooms ect make it all appear to be unplanned-- a real event which is unpredictable unfolding before you.

 

Haven't seen Her or American Hustle yet to comment on those.

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I remember an interesting shot in "Blade Runner" when Rutger Hauer faces Tyrell -- he steps into his focus (rather than it following him as he moves forward) as he says "I want more life f---er". It's very powerful.

 

"Snow Falling on Cedars" (1999) is an interesting movie in terms of its dreamlike shallow focus used to suggest fleeting memories. Robert Richardson has done that on many of his anamorphic movies, including "Four Feathers" (2002) and "Bringing Out the Dead" (1999). This all predates the Canon 5D. I'm sure there have also been commercials in the 2000's that were shot wide-open on Master Primes to get a dreamlike effect. What the Canon 5D did was not only make it easier, but in some ways, more commonplace since the shallow focus is a natural byproduct of such a large sensor.

 

In terms of deliberately forcing the focus puller to follow unrehearsed action so that the missed or late focus would create a feeling of realism, look at "Breaking the Waves" (1996). Even the operator was not allowed to see rehearsals so that his movements would be reactive to action he couldn't anticipate.

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Interesting discussion. And timely for me. I just picked up a non-ai Nippon 50mm 1.4f lens for my D3200. It's fairly old (1960-ish, I think) and I noticied that it's not razer-sharp...well...anywhere! But I can't help but appriciate the shots I get through this lens. Now I am finding myself looking at films from that era to determine how many shots were as sharp as we've been seeing since the 1990's.

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I just picked up a non-ai Nippon 50mm 1.4f lens for my D3200. It's fairly old (1960-ish, I think) and I noticied that it's not razer-sharp...well...anywhere!

 

Those old, fast lenses are often a little soft wide open. They usually sharpen up nicely stopped down a little

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Thank you, Stuart! I'll give that a shot. I'm kind of flying blind with this gem. The lens and body? - They aren't on exactly speaking terms. ;)

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I think a lot of people got so excited about being able to slap a f1.4 or even f1.2 stills lens on their dSLR and shoot wide open, that they forgot to consider whether this was a good idea. When you add in the full frame sensors of the 5D etc, it's not surprising that focus became a rare animal. f1.4 on a 5D is equivalent to f0.95 on 35mm movie film, and not even the best focus puller in the world nails that every time.

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I have to admit being guilty of shooting wide open every chance I get. I'm so used to my older stuff feeling digital and harsh that my love affair with shallow field depths keeps growing. But you make great points. I seem to do better at 1.4 in static shots. And I wish I saw more statics in indie films. I think they can be great choices in a narrative from time to time. I remember as a young graphic artist thinking more, newer, flashier - meant better. I expect I'll grow out this phase in film as well. Thanks, again, man!

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Crippling soft shot in the very opening scene of something I just did, and it was only on the FS700. But then, there wasn't enough light, and I was operating, focussing, and pushing the dolly along with my foot. What is one supposed to do...

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Crippling soft shot in the very opening scene of something I just did, and it was only on the FS700. But then, there wasn't enough light, and I was operating, focussing, and pushing the dolly along with my foot. What is one supposed to do...

 

Depending on how bad it is, then the thing to do would be to re-shoot it. The opening scene is very important (as you seem to recognise) as a lot of people will make judgments based on the opening scene. Either that or shoot something to happen before it. You really want to make sure you get that first bit totally right.

 

Having said that, if nobody's going to see it anyway or it's just for YouTube, then maybe it doesn't matter. :)

 

Freya

Edited by Freya Black

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You can get away with a fair amount on small screens or SD. I remember a 35mm short film that I directed had a shot near the beginning with looked OK at every stage until it got on the big screen and only then it's softness really jumped out at you. I wasn't DP on it, however, I was a bit doubtful how they were going about setting up this particular shot, I didn't intervene at the time because it was an experienced AC and DP.

 

I suspect you can get away with a momentary softness if the action is driven enough, but on a static or slower action it just jumps out at you.

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I remember an interesting shot in "Blade Runner" when Rutger Hauer faces Tyrell -- he steps into his focus (rather than it following him as he moves forward) as he says "I want more life f---er". It's very powerful.

 

Sean Young misses her mark in a BCU in Tyrell's office near the beginning. The focus is on her cheek. Definitely not stylistic and it bugs me slightly every time.

George Lucas would have fixed it, blast him, the way he put Hayden Christiansen as Anakin in ROTJ. Moan, moan.

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... in "Blade Runner" when Rutger Hauer faces Tyrell -- he steps into his focus (rather than it following him as he moves forward) ...

Reminds me of the opening shot in Skyfall.

 

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Reminds me of the opening shot in Skyfall.

 

 

OT, I know, but that sequence is a masterclass in how to do a lot with very little. It's so simply lit and constructed, yet looks beautiful.

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