Jun 12, 2023
And Why it Should be Resurrected
Cinematography, when crafted with care, can greatly enhance a story. It is a tool that has been taken advantage of since the inception of cinema, but through its evolution seems to have also fallen prey to the aesthetics of Industry opinion. Presently, the Industry tides seem to sway toward shallow focus. It’s an aesthetic we all are used to seeing and has crept onto the screens of almost all present content trying to be “cinematic.” Because of this, modern day filmmakers and audiences alike believe that shallow focus is inherently more cinematic, but this is a mistake. Deep-focus cinematography, the practice of everything being in focus, is a tool that is over eighty years old, and still holds just as strong of a cinematic impact.
Citizen Kane was the first film to popularise deep-focus and gave a newfound sense of scale to the cinematic experience. Also, with complicated blockings now made possible, Citizen Kane discovered new territory in how a narrative can reveal information and create juxtaposition on screen. It spread throughout the world and can be seen in countless famous films from the Golden Age of Hollywood to Japanese classics like Seven Samurai. It’s responsible for the aesthetic we all subconsciously associate with these older films and the buzzing life a frame can hold with unbroken action. But that was eighty years ago, and a lot has changed.
Deep focus began in the golden era of filmmaking when tableau staging was used for every film. This style of mainly using one wide shot master for an entire scene lent to deep-focus cinematography well. It allowed the actors to move around an expansive space for a whole scene without needing to cut once. But nowadays, this is something modern films do very differently. Countless scenes that include movement are ruined by constant cutting that unintentionally gives the audience a headache.
Beginning to emerge in the seventies, continuity editing is the style where masters are used less, while over-the-shoulders, close-ups and quick cuts are utilised much more. TV shows of the time favoured this shallower focus continuity style as it helped masquerade the cheap production design. It doesn’t hurt either that a scene shot in shallow focus requires less light to shoot. Less equipment, less crew and less money needed to make a film are all things studios like, and that’s why they push for it. Cinematography’s evolution into shallow focus is due to convenience and budgetary restrictions. It has nothing to do with the ability to create a more “cinematic” experience.
Despite me making it sound like deep focus is completely dead, it is still used in some rare cases. Modern-day filmmakers will often use it to establish the scale of a set, and allow them to capture large crowds. The long unbroken beach shot in Atonement is a great example of this. Deep focus also lends nicely to Wes Anderson’s unique style of filmmaking. The technique allows him to photograph his fantastical set design and large ensemble casts in their unbroken entirety which let his worlds move at a wonderful pace. Also, David Fincher's Mank is a notable example of how deep-focus can also lend itself to historical atmosphere. A film following the writer of Citizen Kane was ripe for the use of deep-focus and helped set it in the era of the Golden Age perfectly.
But besides these minor examples, deep focus is not what it used to be. Filmmakers are underutilizing a strong narrative tool that has been around for a century. Using a different depth of field in context to the story rather than defaulting to a “cinematic” aesthetic can breathe so much more fresh, inventive storytelling into an industry that desperately needs it. Don’t be a slave to the fickle tides of aesthetics. Deep focus is just as cinematic as shallow focus, and continuing to challenge the audience's perception of filmmaking is vital to keeping film a relevant artform.