The Use of Deep Focus in THE LITTLE FOXES
Deep focus is a photographic technique by which all
objects in front of a camera, both near and far from its physical
placement, are sharply defined. Made possible by the development of
deep-focus lenses in the late 1930s, the technique required highly
sensitive film and a heavy increase in lighting, all of which were
difficult to work with on their own, let alone in combination.
However, in the 1940s, cinematographer Gregg Toland
pioneered new uses of deep-focus photography in such films as CITIZEN KANE
(1941), THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES
(1946) and THE LITTLE FOXES (1941).
effects of deep focus are multiple. First, whereas shallow focus (in
which one part of the screen is in focus and the rest is blurred) draws
the viewer's attention to whatever element of the scene is in focus, deep
focus is much more ambiguous -- allowing the viewer to choose for herself
which parts of the scene to concentrate on. The resulting shot
requires more active participation on the part of the viewer -- who must
decide for herself what deserves the most attention --, and at the same
time, challenges the director to develop new ways of calling his or her
own points of emphasis to the viewer's attention.
Second, deep focus heightens the viewer's sense of reality when looking at
the scene -- drawing her in. Normal human sight mandates that some
objects appear in focus when they are the focal point of the viewer's
attention, and other objects in the range of view remain blurred.
But despite these constraints, the human eye is capable of changing its
depth of focus extremely quickly, permitting the viewer to concentrate on
whatever she fancies seeing at the moment. Though upon first
consideration, shallow focus might seem closest to normal human sight (one
plane in focus, the others blurred), in actuality, because deep focus
allows the entire scene to be in focus at the same time, it comes closest
to human sight by allowing the human eye to focus on any part of the scene
at any given time, just as in reality. This advantage, combined with the
fact that deep focus minimizes the need to break up a scene into a series
of shots (cutting from one part of the scene to another -- as if the
viewer were turning her head back and forth, watching a tennis match),
serves to heighten the viewer's sense of objective reality when watching a
film shot in deep focus.
Note the use (and
non-use) of deep focus in the shots from THE LITTLE FOXES below:
The living room after dinner. A passive viewer would be content to focus
her attention on the conversation taking place between Regina and her
brothers in the foreground, but the deep focus of this shot invites more
active viewers to take note of Aunt Birdie's presence in the room and her
reactions to what is being said, giving greater insight into her character.
3 & 4:
Wyler uses these deep-focus shots -- the first, in which Birdie is seen
playing the piano in the foreground while Horace listens in the garden, and
the second, in which Horace appears in the foreground while Birdie is seen
at the piano in the background -- to establish the spatial and emotional
relationship between the two characters -- at the same time, isolated and
alone, and yet still connected.
SHOTS 5, 6 & 7:
Perhaps most interesting in the whole film is the non-use of deep focus
in the scene depicted in this series of three shots. At Wyler's
request, when Horace has his heart attack, Toland
switches from deep focus to shallow focus, subjectively drawing the viewer's
attention, not to the figure of Horace struggling up the stairs to find his
medicine, but instead to Regina's face and her reaction to the struggle she
knows is taking place behind her.
The deep focus in this shot permits the figure of Alexandra to intrude
upon the scene playing out below her, just as her actual presence, once she
draws attention to it by speaking out, intrudes upon the dealings in which
Regina, Ben and Leo are engaged.