Depth of Field in “Kiss Me Deadly”

Blowhard, Esq. writes:


A while back I watched KISS ME DEADLY and was struck by the excellent composition by director Robert Aldrich and cameraman Ernest Lazlo, in particular the way they were able to draw your eye through the frame. Check out some of these examples.

About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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3 Responses to Depth of Field in “Kiss Me Deadly”

  1. agnostic says:

    Deep staging / focus wasn’t so bad in the Midcentury because restraint was a key part of the zeitgeist. So they tended not to pack shit in at all distances from the camera, unlike today’s revival of deep focus where EVERY FRAME IS SO DENSE (quote from moron producer of the Star Wars prequels).

    In the Midcentury deep focus shots, it’s like you can clearly see a tick mark 100 feet away — but there are only a handful of other clear tick marks between 0 and 100 feet. Not busy, messy, and distracting.

    In Millennial-era deep focus shots, that 100-foot distance has 10,000 tick marks evenly spaced out. It prevents the viewer from feeling the rhythm of placement of the objects across space. There’s no real space separating objects that lets your eye and mind rest before roving from one place to the next, just one damn thing back-to-back with another, all the way into the distance. It’s cacophonous.

    The worst offenders are these awful kiddie movies where the whole thing is CGI. They set the default depth of field to include everything right in front of the “camera” to infinity. Not even with the deepest-focus lens set-up could you do that in real life — your eyes can’t focus right in front of your nose *and* all the way out to infinity at the same time. But good ol’ computer animation can solve that constraint of the human eye or camera lens.

    Not to mention being able to effortlessly CTRL+V a bunch of identical bullshit objects throughout the entire depth of the clearly defined zero-to-infinity field.


  2. agnostic says:

    One of the things that can severely distract the viewer in the background of a shot is human faces. Our eye is naturally drawn to them, they’re so distinctive and important. Lots of clearly defined faces in the background makes it impossible to focus on the faces of the characters who we’re actually supposed to be attending to.

    In the deep focus shots from Kiss Me Deadly, they’ve done something clever (original or not, I don’t know), which is to have the would-be distracting faces turned sideways or even partly away. That makes their shapes less prototypically face-like, compared to facing us straight-on, and therefore don’t light up the face recognition lobe of our brain as much.

    Still, even with faces turned sideways, if they’re too close and in-focus, they are a bit distracting, like the shot with Mike and the bartender. The two patrons in the back are a little too well defined for their not so important role (just establishing that there are other patrons, possibly within earshot), and should be blurred out.

    This analogous shot from The Parallax View is way more effective in that regard, as well as creating an eerie tension from not being able to read fine detail on these spies in the distance:

    That’s the only major nit to pick, though.


  3. agnostic says:

    The shot of the car driving through the alley shows how important it is to leave the environment mostly devoid of objects if you’re going to be staging and focusing that far back. Imagine how much potential clutter there would be if it were shot today — throngs of pedestrians, constant traffic across the back of the alley, etc.

    They only used a couple of key moving objects to “sound the notes” across space that establish depth — the car, the couple of pedestrians, and the air trolley thingie. There are only a couple of standalone buildings, too. Mostly empty space / silence.

    It’s like a landscape by De Chirico, making the mundane feel eerie.

    Similar landscapes from The Parallax View and Chinatown (which is full of shots like this):


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