May I suggest this…. The “film look” is bullshit

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Shallow focus and Rack-Focus is lazy. A ham-fisted and overtly slothful technique with little impetus other than to lead your viewer around by the nose, to force them to look exactly where you want them to look, when you want them to look there. As a tool, like all other cinematic tools at the filmmakers disposal, it can and may be very useful. But as a staple and default way to depict moving images it is as articulate as a house brick.

Shallow focus and Rack Focus is the cinema equivalent of spoon-feeding the audience one small digestible and banal visual morsel at a time. Handing to them a deliberately unsophisticated and unchallenging image platter. It is the camera equivalent of writing only in capital letters and short sentences for fear your reader/viewer may not understand precisely and exactly what you want them to understand.

via Mike Jones Digital Basin : Weblog. Thx, Grayson.

There Are 30 Comments On This Article.

  1. shallow depth of field is nothing without strong composition, good lighting, and an interesting subject matter. Like anything it can be over done, over used and obsessed over. Much like the stupid 3D movie craze.

    • The Messenger

      @Brian Smith,

      Spoken from Mr. F/16. I guess those old nudists in Florida would not look so good if they were shot wide=open on the Hassy eh Brian.

      Although, I agree with your sentiment about too much depth of field in an image, still or motion..

  2. If this is all this guy has to get really worked up about, he must lead a very sheltered and privileged life. There are a few people in Pakistan that may have other things on their mind…

  3. I can’t tell you how many videos I watch now that leave me thinking, “Well, it looks like someone got a 5D.” I’m not sure I’m ready to rant against shallow depth of field, but when I see a lot of it, it suggests to me use of a certain class of gear (whether that gear is actually what was used or not).

    Case in point: I can’t watch Louis CK’s new show without constantly thinking, “Was this shot on a bunch of 5Ds? It sure looks like it.”

  4. I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree on this point. If it’s a crutch, it’s bad. But sometimes your rock band needs a guitar solo.

    It’s just a tool in your box.

    The trends that are currently annoying me are (overcooked) HDR and tilt-shift miniature shots. They’re neat special effects the first few times you see them, but like the latest #1 radio hit – they get old. These are trends that may go out of style if they continue to get over-used.

    Guitar solos will never go out of style.

  5. Burn!!! Take that Laforet.

    Oh wait, I’m guilty too. I guess that’s what happens when you give photographers who focus on single moments the option to shoot video.

    I agree with @Mike Wood Photo above, though. If it’s done well, it’s a great tool. If it’s done badly, it looks like lipstick on a pig.

    • The Messenger

      @Lincoln Barbour,

      About time someone called that out. OOOh look, tilt/shift (lets copy Tucker) ooooh look, Aerial, lets copy Bertand, oooh, I know, I’ll make tilt/shift aerial and be the king of the hill, oooops, too late, Olivo Barbieri beat you too it. Oh well, maybe I can shoot shallow depth of field video…no one else has done that….

  6. I normally like your quotes, but this one was making a lot of noise in my head, so I went and read it all, with comments included. At the end, I would say that the substance of Mike’s message lays in one comment he makes at the end. Quoting him:
    “..my concern is simply that ANY technique that moves from being a deliberate creative choice to an ill-considered ‘default’ is a technique that has become defunct; a technique in desperate need of challenging and questioning.

    Every technique can be great when it’s used for good reason; every technique can be bad when it’s used arbitrarily. This is how i see the current state of indie-film and it’s love affair with shallow focus (reignited by the current waves of DSLR’s) – ‘shallow focus’ used as an expected ‘look’ rather than as a creative tool. “

  7. Form follows function. If the situation calls for shallow DOF, it’s a useful technique. But any technique or trick used over and over, will get old fast.

  8. Human nature. Since God invented art directors there has been a trend chase designed to have the latest “look” in a portfolio. The same goes for motion. Find the emotion in a scene and do what you must to turn up the volume so enough people feel what you want them to feel. Everything else is technique abuse.

  9. Anything taken to extreme or overused becomes annoying. I recently attended a class on commercial lighting for daylight shoots and found that the “hot trends” in fashion photography are dictated by a few ad agencies/fashion designers who wouldn’t know a good photo if it bit them. The “Evening at Noon” technique that I so popular now has been around since the invention of the lens aperture. A shining example from long ago would be the first chase scene in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” starring Errol Flynn.

  10. FYI, @ David, …Louis CK’s show is actually shot on RED.

    I get the overuse, but that’s because so many of us were stuck for years with “Pro” DV cameras that didn’t allow any beautiful bokeh or leading the viewer at all. Now, it is everywhere and used with a not-so subtle hand. (F1.2 can be a little overwhelming with a tight shot)
    There is a time for shallow depth of field and a time to explore the frame, but at least we can make that decision now.

  11. Bah I came here to find out why the film look is bullshit. Now I’m angry and I’m not going to take it any… what were we talking about again?

    One could easily say,
    Mindless angry ranting at something is a ham-fisted and overtly slothful technique with little impetus other than to lead your viewer around by the nose.

    Luckily Ariel saves this post and now I want to go read where this came from. Practically all ‘looks’ have been overused. It’s not about finding a ‘new’ look but questioning your own application of old standard techniques.

  12. c.d.embrey

    A couple of things.

    1) I was watching some dailys posted on one of the 5D sites – woman in phone booth at night, paper thin DOF – individual eyelashes would come in and out of focus as she moves head. Can you say annoying.

    2) Film makers who think their audience is not smart enough to follow the story on their own. So the film maker leads the audience around by the nose (rack focus). Part of the problem is that some film makers have no idea of how to properly stage a scene so that things reveal themselves to the audience without the crutch of rack focus.

    3) No real idea about how to make compelling movies. How to use space and let the actors act – things like letting them walk in and out of close-ups and overs, instead of cutting. At the end of “Inherit the Wind” the lawyer (Spencer Tracy) is talking to the newspaper reporter (Gene Kelly) as he packs-up his briefcase, the camera moves and the actors move – a well crafted scene.

  13. I love how angry this guy is. Wow. We all better start stopping down our lenses. Sheesh.

  14. Okay I’m getting ready to read this guy’s full post, but as it currently stands I couldn’t disagree with this quote more.

    If this is how anybody genuinely feels about a certain cinematic look then they probably have some pretty severe anal retention, possibly mixed with emotional problems.

    I shoot a 7D to get a look similar to the depth of field that Super35mm lensing produces. If I wanted deep focus then I’d shoot a Panasonic with some shitty built-in zoom lens.

    I also shoot a 7D because its low-light sensitivity combined with fast primes allows me to shoot in more difficult lighting situations with more mobility, which is great for documentary projects.

  15. scott Rex Ely

    Here’s the money quote for me:

    “That said, the problem is not Shallow and Rack Focus unto themselves as techniques but rather that they are not seen and used as deft Tools and problem solving Options. Rather they act as blithe and banal default methods fueled by a misguided desire for an association with nostalgic ‘high-art’.”
    Mike Jones Digital Basin: Weblog.090921. see link above

  16. Shallow focus is popular because video has gone two decades without it. Clearly it’s just part of an aesthetic, but a large one. Try shoot a strong video piece with infinite depth of field found on most video cameras more than five years old.

    Cinema in many ways has always been about forcing your viewer to see in your way, not ALL the time, but occasionally, it can be very well used. Even take a look at the Pixar film WALL-E. Shallow focus is used throughout much of the film, but when Wall-e gets to his “new world” the focus is much deaper, it does an excellent job making the audience feel more involved in the film.

    • @Luke Goodman,

      “Shallow focus is used throughout much of the film, but when Wall-e gets to his “new world” the focus is much deaper, it does an excellent job making the audience feel more involved in the film.”

      Yes, this is well done and thought out film making. Where technique and a certain style follow the story, rather than being used for its own sake of “because the tool is there”

      Like anything in life, only a few people are really good at their jobs. Pixar is good. Many others are not.

  17. Did anyone notice Mike Jones’ blog post was from Sept 09? Since then even more tutorials, workshops, and cameras have been made to create the “film look.”

    I liked these quotes from above.

    @Luke Goodman “Shallow focus is popular because video has gone two decades without it”

    @Bruce DeBoer: “Since God invented art directors there has been a trend chase designed to have the latest “look” in a portfolio.”

    I’ll add this. Many people could not afford these tools prior to all the new and fairly affordable technology. This could lead to more creativity eventually but we have to sift through all the dribble. I see this more of an internet problem more than anything. Everyone is now a producer and broadcaster. We saw less crappy work 20 years ago because getting to participate was more difficult and the standards were geared more towards seasoned pros/artists.

    If the first tool a film maker learns is the film look than let’s see what they can do next. I’ll still be using shallow DOF when I need to make the background less important.

    Content is still king.

  18. As a wanton abuser of shallow DOF I think it’s nonsense to decry it. Whats the point? Essentially your complaining that a bunch of people who are new to a very complicated field are cutting their teeth on a long process that involves going through trends.

    I like shallow DOF, and the type of films I make look GOOD with shallow DOF. Wasn’t possible to do with video, and I’m glad we can do it now.

  19. isn’t the whole point to lead the viewer around by the nose? when we choose an actor, their wardrobe, set up a shot, light it and edit the thing – aren’t we making choices that lead the viewer around by the nose? isn’t that the fun of it!!!????

    i’m not for shallow depth of field or rack focus all the time but – i don’t know. i consider it my job to lead the viewer around by the nose.