Depth of field (cinema)

When we talk about the depth of field in fictional cinema, it is to designate in a shot the use of actors, as well as props, according to a deep disposition within the field of view of the film. camera. This use is developed in the legible part of the image, between the sharpest zone closest to the camera, and the sharpest zone of distance from it, which forms, in technical terms of photography , the depth of field an objective of a certain focal length , whose diaphragm is more or less open.


WKL Dickson and Emile Reynaud

The first films of the cinema are those made by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson for the inventor and industrialist Thomas Edison with their camera, the “Kinétographe (in Greek, movement writing): camera of the American Thomas Edison, patented August 24, 1891, employing 35mm perforated film and intermittent film feed system by “ratchet wheel”. Between 1891 and 1895, Edison performs some seventy movies 1 . ” The aesthetics of these early films is influenced by that of the music hall and beyond their subjects are, essentially, artists known benefits of the American scene. From 1892 , in the first cartoonsof cinema , that their director Émile Reynaud calls luminous pantomimes , with his process of projection on screen of the Optical Theater in the format 70 mm , displacements follow initially a frontal trajectory, then, with notably Around a cabin , in 1894 , complex displacements in the depth of field. The story of Around a booth , which lasted between 4 and 5 minutes (duration that could be increased to fifteen minutes by the operator of the Optical Theater by performing at will rear steps , stops on image…) of which there are only 2 minutes, is spent on the beach of Etretat , where are installed a diving board on the right and several cabins of undressing on the left, with at bottom the famous cliff of Aval. A young boy, a secondary character, enters to the right of the field on the diving board at the end of which (moving away from our eye) he launches himself into the water and disappears. A well-rounded lady walks behind him, as the boy, returned from the off-field, pushes to the water where it spreads on the back. It is then that the central figure, an elegant young woman, long dress and capeline, carrying a poodle, appears and ventures on the sand. An old handsome, hidden behind the cabins (so in the depth of field) notices and advances to meet him, saluting. The dog escapes his mistress who falls into the sand trying to hold him back. The old handsome helps him get back on his feet and begins to follow her. She goes to a cabin where the guy spies through the keyhole. Arriving from behind the cabins, a well muscled bather sees his indiscretion and boot the posterior voyeur who does not ask his rest and leaves the scene. The elegant fate of the cabin, dressed in a swimsuit and a bathing cap. With deference, the bather accompanies him to the edge of the water (the two characters move away from our eyes) where they enter and begin to swim, disappearing to our sight behind the alignment of the cabins. A boatman, following the opposite path, stops and unfurls the sail of his skiff, on which is written: “The performance is over”, ancestor of the words “End” or “The End”.

We note that the final actions, the breaststroke of the couple who is hiding in our eyes, and the passage of the end boat, are front passages, in a direction perpendicular to the axis of shooting (assimilated to the eyes of the draftsman ). But the other actions take place well in the depth of field, or at least, since they are drawings in a flat, in this illusory drawn space that begins with the beach, whose depth is suggested by the installed diving board on the diagonal of the field , continues by the seaside and continues to the cliff of Aval, seen in the distance, which closes the scene while giving the impression of depth 2 . Émile Reynaud had already used the displacement in the depth of field for the drawings of his optical toy, the Praxinoscope , with for example The Little Waltzers , where the dancing couple approaches and moves away successively from our eye. “His predecessors seem to have limited themselves to turning a character or a couple on the spot. Émile Reynaud made move away, then get closer to several groups of waltzers, skaters, schoolboys, clowns 3 . ”

Louis Lumière

The objectives of the first animated cameras all had, by construction, a great depth of field, provided however to operate with a full sun. The first film studio , the Black Maria , designed by Thomas Edison in 1893 , and later the first French studio, that of Georges Méliès , built in 1896 , were dependent on the sun, because at the time, the adaptation of Artificial lighting at this kind of work was not yet done. The Black Maria, a light wooden building and tar paper, was installed on a circular rail to follow the movement of the sun whose light fell in shower by the sunroof. Georges Méliès had opted for a completely glazed building, a kind of greenhouse where the sun was king at all times.

Louis Lumière, instead of choosing to reconstruct scenes in a studio, chooses to go to meet his subjects directly on their places of existence. For him, the only valid “animated photographic views” (as he called his reels of impressed films) reproducing life. “It is the very nature taken by the fact, exclaimed with admiring astonishment the first criticisms. The realism of the work of Louis Lumière determined his success 4 . ” Including his comedic views ( The Jumping coverage , The Vaulting , especially the sprinkler sprinkled ) are in imitation of nature, even if the subjects are presented in a deliberately mocking angle.

Thus, while in 1893 Laurie Dickson filmed a workshop of blacksmiths that he reconstructed in the Black Maria ( Blacksmith Scene ) with three Edison collaborators who play blacksmiths and unfortunately give the forge work a simplistic and condescending view, their gestures are approximate and caricature their characters drinking beer straight from the bottle, after just a few hammer blows 5 . Louis Lumière, no doubt acquainted with this scene by his father, Antoine Lumière , who had just attended in Paris in September 1894 at a demonstration of the Kinétoscopehaving given him the idea of ​​asking his sons to improve the American invention by making a Light 6 kinetoscope , records a similar scene, but in a real forge where, except for a somewhat incongruous tie that the craftsman has tied up for On occasion, we recognize the gesture of the true blacksmith by the controlled rebound that the hammer does with every blow. Behind the three fake blacksmiths of Laurie Dickson, there is the black background of Black Maria , a neutral background that the eye ignores, while in the film of Louis Lumière, behind the master and his apprentice, in the depth of field we see the windows that close the workshop, bringing it the necessary lighting, and that authenticate the veracity of the premises.

Most of Louis Lumière’s “animated photographic views” are treated in such a way as to give the scenery a documentary importance that allows the width of the plane and the use of the depth of field. The commercial success of his productions during seven years will incite Thomas Edison to lighten his heavy Kinétographe , in particular by removing the electric motor and replacing it with a crank like the Cinématographe brothers Lyon, and he will send many operators through the world, in imitation of Louis Lumière, in order to bring back documentary films in one plan, built like those of the French director, with the use of the depth of field: first views of New York, his streets, park, then Niagara FallsThe departure of the transatlantic liners, sportsmen gatherings, train passages launched full steam … everything that a “picture” impresses minds when its dimensions are magnified by the space around 7 .

Edwin Stanton Porter

At the beginning of xx th  century, the most famous director across the Atlantic is undoubtedly the star of the Edison Manufacturing Company , Edwin Stanton Porter , who turns in 1903 the first Western American Film: The Great Train Robbery ( The Great Robbery train ). In the last sequenceof the film, the director skillfully uses the depth of field in an action scene. The bandits, after robbing the train and killing a mechanic and a traveler, stopped in the wilderness to share their booty. In the distance appear the pursuers who have dismounted and advance with precaution, hiding behind the tree trunks (the silent cinema makes this arrival in silence more likely). When the bandits see the police presence, it is too late, they are shot without further trial. ES Porter had previously, in 1901 , fingered the mystery of time on screen with What Happened on Twenty Third Street, New York City ( What happened in New York on the23 th Street? ) where the filmmaker had achieved a spatio-temporal effect with a simple ninety-second-long shot and without any editing effect. The camera, planted on a pavement films the pedestrians in the axis of their wandering. Nothing special happens … After a minute, “finally, our curiosity receives its reward. In the distance, in the depth of field, a young and well-dressed couple advances. We differ from other passersby because they do not seem to go about their work, apparently, they are happy to live and walk together 8 . “Advancing towards the camera, the couple passes over the air vent of the subway which we then only notice the presence in front of us. Under the breath, the long dress of the young woman lifts and discovers her calves and knees, supreme audacity at a time very collet-mounted. The wait caused by the approach of the couple, the “background” of the image in the foreground, reinforces the unexpectedness of the end of the scene.

Jean Renoir and Orson Welles

Film theorist André Bazin analyzes how filmmakers such as Jean Renoir in The Rule of the Game and Orson Welles in Citizen Kane and La Splendeur des Amberson have reintegrated the depth of field of primitive cinema into contemporary film language. dial plans that “by no means” registration “passive action photographed in the same frame 9 ,” but research that challenges the cutting action plans and several attempts to reconstruct the dramatic unity which underlies this action. What André Bazin calls”The particular effects that can be derived from the unity of the image in time and space 10 . ” These” special effects “are an invitation to the public to recognize a universe less forced than the cutting where ” all you have to follow the guide 10  ” and enter a world where he can guide him – and even feel closer to the scene being played because he finds elements of reality in shots (either long shots or shot-shots ) that he has time to explore. It is no longer a book of images that one flips through before one’s eyes, it is a book in which the viewer can venture on a personal basis. Behind the close-up or close-up faces of movie stars1920s, 1930s and 1940s , the “blur in the image only appeared with editing. It was not just a straight technical easement to use close-ups, but the logical consequence of the assembly, its plastic equivalent 11 . ”

Techniques and uses

Influences of the light and the objective

The power of the light that bathes a plane, determines the depth of the depth of field. The stronger the lighting, the more the part where the objects are sharp in their image will be extended in depth, the weaker it is, the shorter this area will be. The objective employed plays an even more important role. “A short-throw lens, called a wide-angle lens , has a large depth of field, from less than ten centimeters from the front lens, to infinity. With regard to the very wide angle, the fish-eye , the focus is even from the contact of the front lens. A long focal lens, said telephoto, has little depth of field, it can start three or four meters from the camera and end a few meters away 12 . ”

In David Lean’s film , Lawrence of Arabia , released in 1962 , a scene is based on depth of field that creates a suspense and is also justified because in the desert, see as far as possible and distinguish a danger before its enemy, are a vital necessity for the Bedouins , divided into hostile or allied tribes. Lawrence has become a friend of a Hazini , Auda, who accompanies him and has already taught him some basic rules of trotting and galloping on camels. The Bedouin draws water from a Harith wella tribe whose own is the hereditary enemy. Suddenly, he suspends his gesture and lets fall his off at the bottom of the hole. A camel driver approaches in the distance, at first a harmless little cloud of dust, then a distorted and trembling image in the space of the overheated sand. Lawrence does not understand his friend’s panicked reaction. The newcomer crosses a few hundred meters in several long shots. No word is exchanged between Auda and the Englishman. When Lawrence finally understands who the rider is, a Harith , this one is only a few tens of meters away and he has just fired with his old rifle, killing net Auda, the “water thief”. The dramatic force of this scene lies entirely in the use of depth of field.

Reconstructed depth of field

Sometimes the desired depth of field is impossible to obtain and must be reconstructed by special effect or trick (or trick) .

Thus, in Citizen Kane , the hero, Charles Foster Kane, galvanizes the public of a meeting with a moral program of fight against the malpractices of the politicians, and more particularly those of his adversary, Gettys, that a plan shows us only in a box lost in the heights of the room where the public applauds frantically. Gettys understands that Kane will kill him in politics. Although he is above the public and the stage where the speaker roars, “the depth of field on the room does not put him in a dominant position … but in the position of spectator, it already seems out of play 13 . “During filming, it was impossible to obtain such a large depth of field. It would have been necessary to use a wide angle lens which would have distorted the verticals of the room, giving an expressionist effect , whereas the wanted style of this plan is that of the documentary, a slice of the fight to death for the power. This depth of field has been reconstructed. “Gettys was first filmed alone, and in front of him there was only a black velvet curtain. The room, Kane and the audience were filmed separately, and the two shots were shuffled together, taking advantage of the black reserve placed in front of Gettys 14 . ” The trick was performed on an optical printer .

We also remember The Man who knew too much , and the concert at London ‘s Albert Hall where an assassination attempt on the person of an ambassador is perpetrated. Alfred Hitchcock took the precaution of having the terrorists explain that the single shot of the cymbals in the score will cover the detonation of the killer’s weapon they hired. Listening to the symphonic movement, the audience of the film wait and dread the fateful cymbal, a suspense made dramatic by the strength of the cantata Storm and clouds of the English composer Arthur Benjamin. The cymbalist is already waving his two cymbals in front of him and watching for the sign of the conductor, which can be seen between the two huge bronze pieces, with behind him the audience, in a famous shot of the film. To obtain this subjective shot of the cymbalist, it required a depth of field that would have required lighting incompatible with the atmosphere of a concert hall and its audience, and it was unthinkable to film with a short-focus lens that would have distorted grotesquely the two discs of the great symphonic cymbals. Alfred Hitchcock preferred to turn the plan in two stages.”The cymbals, held to the left and right of the camera as two blinkers, were filmed in the studio in front of a” transparency “, a translucent screen on which we projected from the back a shot shot before, showing the orchestra of back and his leader – Bernard Herrmann – from the front, just like the audience sitting behind him. The development was obtained on both cymbals placed just behind the screen, and the depth of field has been reconstructed in this manner 15 . ” Today, the same effect would be achieved with a green background and a digital overlay.

Point toggle

In the same shot, the director sometimes wants to highlight a character and forget a second character, present in the framing, making it fuzzy compared to the first. Then, during the plan, the second character becomes clear and the first becomes vague, on occasion, usually, an exchange of dialogue. This selective shift from one focus to another is called ” rack focus ” by audiovisual professionals.

This style effect is incompatible with a large depth of field. The difference between the two tweaks would be imperceptible. To perform an eloquent point toggle, it is therefore necessary to install a relatively weak light and use a long-focal optics. “In the sequence of The Lord of the Rings , when Gandalf and King Theoden gather on Theodred’s grave, the point shift was achieved by the use of a telephoto lens and a slightly actinic light, no doubt an end Afternoon Afternoon 16 . ”

Burlesque use

Already in burlesque comedies of the 1920s , depth of field was used to create gags. Laughter is caused by the gap between the hero who ignores a distant event that the public is privileged to witness. Thus, in The Mechanics of the “General” , during the Civil War , Johnny ( Buster Keaton), at the controls of a second locomotive, sets off alone in pursuit of an enemy commando which has stolen “his” General and his precious cargo. To delay it, the northerners detonate a car that stops in front of the chasing locomotive. Johnny hits the obstacle and propels him onto a divergent path that he believes is a siding. He leaves immediately, doubling his steam. Busy with the boiler, Johnny does not pay attention to what is going on outside, but the spectators are witnessing it.”An extraordinary shot, in slight dive on the tender, the watch loading wood, while in the depth of field we see the wagon ride parallel on the other way. A second switch is presented, the car returns to the first lane and is found again in front of the locomotive. Johnny did not see anything. He joins the driving shelter and his mechanic’s position in another superb plane where he realizes that the car is still there. Johnny shakes his head, he does not believe his eyes 17  ! ”

In newer movies, as well Hot Shots! What is there finally a pilot on the plane? , the use of depth of field sets up a secondary episode completely irrelevant, both the battalion training, seen through the window, behind a dialogue in field / backlight, which starts to dance the Cancan in hot shots , that in the airport Is there finally a pilot on the plane? where there is drastic surveillance”The fact that a poor grandmother is unceremoniously arrested, the police are throwing herself on her because she took away her knitting needles, in the background in the depth of field, terrorists, armed with a machine gun and of a bazooka, take advantage of it to enter without being worried 17 … ”


  1. ↑ Laurent Mannoni (celebration of 22 March 1895 French year of the invention of cinema), Lexicon (special issue), Paris, SARL Libération , al.  “Supplement” ( o 4306)p.  3
  2. ↑ Marie-France Briselance and Jean-Claude Morin , film grammar , Paris, New World ,, 588  p. ( ISBN  978-2-84736-458-3 ) , p.  22
  3. ↑ Georges Sadoul , history of world cinema from its origins to today , Paris, Flammarion ,, 719  p. p.  14
  4. ↑ Sadoul 1968 , p.  22
  5. ↑ ( in ) Charles Musser , History of the American Cinema, Volume 1, The Emergence of Cinema, The American Screen to 1907 ,, 613  p. ( ISBN 0-684-18413-3 ) , p.  72
  6. ↑ http: //www.institut-lumiè  [ archive ] Light | The Cinematograph
  7. ↑ Musser 1990 , p.  118
  8. ↑ Briselance and Morin 2010 , p.  105
  9. ↑ > André Bazin , What is cinema? , Paris, Editions du Cerf, coll.  “7th Art”,, 372  p. ( ISBN  2-204-02419-8 ) , “The Evolution of Language,” p.  74
  10. ↑ a and b Bazin 1994 , p.  75
  11. ↑ Bazin 1994 , p.  73
  12. ↑ Briselance and Morin 2010 , p.  483
  13. ↑ Briselance and Morin 2010 , p.  485
  14. ↑ Briselance and Morin 2010 , p.  485
  15. ↑ Briselance and Morin 2010 , p.  487
  16. ↑ Briselance and Morin 2010 , p.  465
  17. ↑ a and b Briselance and Morin 2010 , p.  488

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