Like my articles on films with multiple aspect-ratios and “over the top” shots, this piece grew out of a single, small portion of my Camera Crash Course series of lectures. In a one-hour presentation about focus and depth of field, I show a handful of split diopter shots, with the caveat that “there are many more, and now you will see them everywhere.” And, as usual, I am my own “patient zero” for seeing them everywhere…but I also have the resources to capture them when I see them…and the compulsion to search for more when I start pulling a thread (a director or cinematographer who has used a split diopter once, would certainly have done it before…and would do it again).
So, here we are. Below, contained in a technical and aesthetic discussion of focus and split diopters are well over one hundred examples. And as usual, you’re welcome…and I’m sorry.
Focus as Tool
Filmmakers have many tools at their disposal to direct the attention of an audience, and one of the most useful is focus. If one object in a frame is in focus, and another isn’t, a viewer will focus attention on the one that’s, well…in focus. Look at this clip from Casino:
Robert De Niro’s face in focus, and the background is so out of focus that it becomes an abstract painting. Your attention is concentrated on his performance. It’s why portrait photographers often use shallow depth of field, and why Apple developed software to fake that effect on iPhone 7. In the next shot, the audience’s attention is moved, using focus, from one face to the next, finally ending on De Niro.
Beautiful and clear.
A change in focus during a shot is called rack focus. In this clip from Predator, focus racks from background to foreground, giving viewers no choice about what to look at:
Same with this famous rack focus from Rambo: First Blood Part II:
How Focus Works
If you need a refresher on the mechanics of focus and depth of field, watch this quick, four-minute lecture I recorded as part of a condensed version of my Camera Crash Course:
The important take-away is that normal lenses can only keep objects in focus on one plane parallel to the sensor. The depth of that plane can be deeper or shallower, but there can be only one. By adjusting all of the variables discussed in the video (aperture, focal length, distance from subject and sensor size) it is possible to achieve very deep focus, so that everything in frame, regardless of its distance from the camera is sharp. Or, a very shallow focus, so that only objects at a very specific distance are sharp, and the rest of the frame is out of focus.
Look at these guys:
I took these stills emphasizing a shallow depth of field (long lens, small aperture, large sensor, close to subject) and you can see that focal distance change from the plane occupied by the pair of hapless troopers to the one occupied by their jerk commander.
Look at this rack focus from True Detective. You can watch the focal plane move through the scene from Woody, to the blinds, to Matthew McConaughey:
Not only are viewers forced to only look at Maria and Tony, who see only each other on the crowded dancefloor, but their separation is emphasized by the 2.20:1 Super Panavision 70mm frame. In a theater, we’d be unable to look at them both at the same time unless we were seated at the rear of the auditorium!
“Hey, didn’t Robert Wise edit Citizen Kane?” you ask for no particular reason. “Why yes. Yes he did.”
Citizen Kane’s Deep Focus and Existential Crisis
Citizen Kane is well known for it’s ground-breaking use of deep focus. Cinematographer. Gregg Toland used every trick in the book to achieve very deep focus. Not perfect, but much deeper than had been previously possible.
My favorite college film professor, Arthur Taussig, claims that Kane is the first, great, existential film, because it leaves so many decisions up to the viewer, because it does not provide any answers. There is no single truth to the film. You figure it out. And by using deep focus, it demands that audiences be more active in constructing the narrative, and part of that active viewing is deciding where to look within the frame.
Look at this shot which has three distinct planes: Mr. Bernstein very close in the foreground, Thatcher in the chair opposite and the windows on the back wall.
Welles does go out of focus as he walks away, but not entirely. Also, how amazing is that perceived scale change when he gets closer to those windows? Kane’s size in frame is always important, and here it changes in response to the dialogue of the scene. His power and wealth is diminished, and so is he.
For contrast to Kane’s deep focus, look at this short sequence from Wuthering Heights, which Gregg Toland photographed two years before he shot Kane:
In that clip, you can clearly see that the most important visual element is in focus, and the rest is left to fall away into blur. Several of these shots have a moving camera, so the focus must be adjusted throughout, and one is a rack focus on Heathcliff’s hand. These are difficult shots to pull off.
Now back to Kane. Look at how your attention moves back and forth between Mr. Bernstein and Leland in the foreground, and the subject of their conversation, Kane, in the background.
Later directors used deep focus for a similar effect. In Paper Moon, director Peter Bogdanovich (a friend and protégé of Welles) and cinematographer László Kovács achieved a beautiful deep focus effect throughout the black and white film:
Like the scene from Kane we looked at earlier, this one features characters moving toward and away from a character in the foreground and plays with relative scale of each and the level of power that the character has within that dynamic. Deep focus allows that to happen.
“Hey, wasn’t Vilmos Zsigmond a close friend and Hungarian contemporary of László Kovács?” You ask. “Yes. Yes he was.”
Sometimes, a technical limitation forces a filmmaker into deep focus territory. Remember that a large camera sensor gives you a shallow depth of field and a small one gives you a deeper one. This is why the tiny sensor in your phone takes much different photos than a big DSLR. When inexpensive, high-quality DV and MinDV cameras came out, several low-budget theatrical films were made using the format. The sensor in a DV camera is much smaller than a 35mm film frame, and features like The Anniversary Party had to work hard to achieve any kind of shallow focus or embrace the depth:
Ok, now let’s look at one more shot from Citizen Kane:
That’s a much more successful creation of deep focus than the previous examples! Perhaps too successful. Also, look at the wall behind Kane. It’s out of focus. but then Leland, who is further from camera is in focus. That’s not possible! Remember, only one plane can be in focus at a time!
Welles, ever the magician, is cheating. What you are seeing is an optical composite. The shot was created in two parts which were joined together. Here is the seam:
Welles was shot in focus, throwing everything from his chair to the far wall, out of focus.
Then Joseph Cotten was shot walking into sharp focus, and presumably Welles would have been out of focus in the foreground. The two shots were joined, creating a shot with impossible focus.
Clever…but not what you came here to learn about.
We want to talk about shots that can have multiple focal planes in one shot, in-camera, without any post processing or compositing. And for that you need a split diopter.
The concept is pretty simple: add additional magnification to a portion of the lens and you can get a second (or third!) focal plane. By mounting what looks like half a lens to your camera, and carefully positioning the seam in frame you can split focus, and the audience’s attention.
Brian De Palma Loves Split Diopters
Let’s listen to director, Brian De Palma, discuss how he started integrating split diopter shots into his films:
And he uses them all the time…almost as much as he uses long tracking shots (a suitably long post about that type of shot is coming soon). Brian De Palma is a polarizing director, and often critics of his films point to his over-use of techniques like these. I think some of his films are really good and others are terrible. Here are some examples of how De Palma uses split diopters in films both good and bad:
If you really want to see all of them, out of context, Vashi Nedomansky did us a favor and cut all of them together:
That’s not a complete collection of De Palma’s split diopter shots, but it gives you an idea of how he has used them throughout his career…and we have so many examples to look at from other directors!
Remember that shot from West Side Story with the extreme focus? Remember that I mentioned that director, Robert Wise edited Citizen Kane? Well, deep focus, often using a split diopter is one of his favorite tools. He’s not quite at the level of De Palma, but close. Wait until we get to The Andromeda Strain!
For his screen adaptation of Micheal Crichton’s sci-fi thriller, Robert Wise presents as much of his frame in focus as possible, especially when the action moves to the underground Wildfire lab. His primary tool for this is the split diopter, which he even places in the center of frame, rather than bisecting it:
The design of the Wildfire sets is especially conducive to split diopter shots as all of the walls are painted with solid colors, making it particularly easy to hide the seam between focal lengths. An in-focus, evenly-lit orange wall looks the same as an out-of-focus, evenly-lit flat orange wall!
Sharknado 2 editor, Vashi Nedomansky, has written up a nice piece entitled “Split Diopter Shots in THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN” which includes a mosaic featuring stills from all of the split diopter shots in the film (he counts 206), as well as a super-cut of 71 of them.
Ok, here’s our first split diopter shot from Steven Spielberg, and it’s a really cool one. Instead of bisecting the frame vertically, this one splits horizontally! This can not have been easy to set up, but the shot is subtle and effective.
This! This is the split diopter shot most associated with Steven Spielberg. And it’s not even as interesting as the one from Sugarland Express. But, it does split your attention, just as Brody’s attention is split, between the demanding Amity citizen in his face and the perceived danger to swimmer in the background.
Elsewhere in the film, split diopter shots are more subtle, but still doing the job of telling the story.
Robert Wise again. Do you think he’ll use split diopter shots?
Um…yes he will use them.
Ok, so here we go. So far we’ve been looking at locked shots. But watch this amazing seven-minute masterpiece from All the President’s Men. DP, Gordon Willis built all kinds of interesting camera rigs to shoot this film, and was able to (ever so slowly) zoom from a wide shot of Robert Redford at his desk to a close-up of Redford’s face…all while keeping two focal planes steady.
The diopter itself is not connected to the lens, instead it’s mounted in front of it. This lets the shot zoom past the vertical post, keeping the group around the television in focus the whole time. Once they clear frame, the focus puller can concentrate on Redford’s face for the remainder of the shot.
Spielberg using a split diopter to connect characters in frame again.
Surprise! Robert Wise uses more split diopter shots. Another case of a set that lends itself to hiding splits.
I love the two shots from John Carpenter’s The Thing below. One features MacReady holding a bundle of dynamite in the background and the other has him wielding a gun. And in each, the thing that’s equally important is a scalpel. All important. All in focus.
Have we talked about how cost-effective split diopter shots are? It’s just the cost of a rental. So, even super-low budget films can use the technique.
1984 was the year that Harry Dean Stanton was the subject of split diopter shots.
See, here he is again!
I love these. Using a split diopter helps make visible the audio connection between Tom and Jane. She is high above him in the control room, but really, she’s whispering in his ear. Beautiful.
As a director, Danny DeVito has a distinct visual style, and his use of split diopter shots heightens and amplifies the ever-shifting power dynamics between the titular Roses.
You know what director Warren Beatty wanted Dick Tracy to look like? A newspaper comic. You know what newspaper comics don’t have? Shallow focus.
Friend of De Palma and student of cinema history, Martin Scorsese uses split diopters sparingly and well.
A late addition to the Split Diopter Club, Quentin Tarantino still gives De Palma, Wise and Spielberg a run for their money, starting with his first feature.
Quentin at it again.
Sam Rami likes to use every cinematic tool available to tell a story.
See. Sparingly and well.
More from Quentin.
The Wachowskis famously hired comic artists Geoff Darrow and Steve Skroce to design and storyboard The Matrix as if it were a graphic novel. Look how artificially deep focus helps capture that feeling.
I can’t just let this one go. Wet Hot American Summer takes place in the summer of 1981. This split diopter shot features a twenty-sided die, made all the more prominent by the technique. Two problems: the die in question has numbers higher than 9 on it and it has rounded edges. Twenty-sided gaming dice in the 1980s were numbered 0-9 twice. Players were expected to use a china marker or crayon to mark the digits on one set of 10 digits. If the marked 5 came up, it counted as a 15. If the unmarked 5 came up, it counted as a 5. Contemporary gaming dice squeeze double-digit numbers onto the die’s faces.
Inexpensive contemporary gaming dice are usually tumbled to round off their edges. This makes them roll easier, but it also makes it harder for them to decisively park on a face. I’m going to take a moment to plug Gamescience Dice, which manufactures sharp-edged dice for the discriminating role-playing gamer.
Here is Gamescience founder, Louis Zocchi discussing everything you need to know about dice:
So, yeah. Something as simple as an anachronistic d20 can pull the audience right out of a movie.
So, let’s talk about using digital technology instead of a split diopter to get multiple focal planes in one shot. If your shot is locked, like the one below, you can simply shoot once with Dr. House in focus, and then shoot again with the student in focus. It’s trivial for an editor to comp the two shots together. Remember the Citizen Kane shot with impossible focus? Same. But digital.
To be fair, there are probably a bunch of shots that I may be calling split diopter shots in this post that are actually composites. This is especially true for locked shots in films or shows made after around 2001.
Like this one! I know for sure that this is a comp, because my friends at ILM did this shot. Hi gang!
The Wachowskis again. These are certainly digital comps rather than split diopter shots. Also, this entire movie is bananas.
I love these, too. They echo the shots from Broadcast News. If you have David Lynch in your shot, he should be in focus. Also, you should have David Lynch in your show.
This Kevin Smith comedy-horror movie is full of split diopter shots and some of them are there just to sell a joke. I can get behind that.
This is John Maclean’s first feature and it has a distinct style. The split diopter shots make sense where he uses them.
Tarantino uses split diopters in combination with Super 70mm Cinemascope to great effect in The Hateful Eight.
So there you have it. More split diopter shots than you ever knew you wanted to see and more composited shots than we probably recognize. As always, you are morally bound to tell me when you see split diopter shots so I can add them to this article.