Creating an Illusion of Depth in Film & Television

By: Domonique Salberg

Without an illusion of depth, movies become static and dull and lose what sets them apart from any other artistic medium. That is where cinematographers come in to make stories appear as lively, affecting, and realistic as possible. It begins with considering cinematic composition and creating an illusion of depth by employing several different techniques we will address in this article.

1.) Movement of Subject (Fixed Frame)

When using a static frame (a shot devoid of camera movement), the director creates the illusion of depth by filming the subject moving toward or away from the camera, either head-on or diagonally. A purely lateral camera movement, vertical to the direction in which the camera is aimed, creates a two-dimensional effect and should be minimized to avoid a flat image.

2.) Movement of Camera

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A camera mounted on a truck or dolly can create the illusion of depth by moving towards or away from a relatively static object. As it passes by or goes around objects, we become more aware of the depth of the image. Due to the camera eye moving, the objects on both sides of its path constantly change their position relative to one another. The change then varies depending on the altering angles from which the moving camera views them.

3.) Change of Focal Planes (Rack Focus)

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Most cameras, including still cameras, are designed to focus on objects at different distances from the lens. Moreover, since the eye is usually drawn to what it can see best, the object is the sharpest focus. So, the cinematographer can create a kind of three-dimensionality by using rack focus—in one continuous shot focusing the camera lens, in turn, on objects at different distances (depth) from the camera. For example, if the frame includes three faces, all at different distances from the camera, the cinematographer may first focus on the nearest face, then, while the shot continues, focus on the second face and then on the third, thus, in effect, creating the illusion of depth within the frame.

4.) Deed Focus

In direct contrast to the change in focal planes is deep focus—the use of specialized lenses that allow the camera to focus simultaneously and with equal clarity on objects anywhere from two feet to several hundred feet away. This depth of focus imitates most clearly the ability of the human eye to see a deep range of objects in clear focus. The sustained use of this technique has a profound effect on the way the audience views the dramatic action since action can be created in the foreground, middle, and background,

5.) Three-Dimensional Arrangement of People and Objects

Perhaps the most important consideration in constructing a three-dimensional image is how to arrange the people and objects to be filmed. If they are placed in separate focal planes, the cinematographer has a truly three-dimensional scene to film. Without such an arrangement, all the previous techniques do not have any real purpose.

6.) Foreground Framing

A three-dimensional effect is also attained when a shot is set up where the subject is framed by an object or objects in the near foreground. When the object that forms the frame is in focus, a strong sense of three-dimensionality is achieved. When the foreground frame is thrown out of focus or seen in very soft focus, the three-dimensional effect is weakened somewhat but not lost, and the entire mood or atmosphere of the scene changes.

7.) Special Lighting Effects

By judiciously controlling the angle, direction, intensity, and quality of the lighting, the director can further add to the illusion of depth. Sometimes, the director may even control the source and direction of the lighting to expand the frame’s limits. By positioning the light source out of camera range—to either side of, or behind, the camera—the filmmaker can cause the shadows of objects outside the frame to fall inside the frame, consequently suggesting the presence of those objects. When these shadows come from objects behind the camera, they can add greatly to the three-dimensionality of the shot.

These seven techniques, along with a combination of ingenuity from filmmakers, can create an illusion of depth and exceedingly compelling, vivid scenes.

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