Whenever somebody equates "shallow depth of field" and "cinematic look," it's good to remember that the opposite is sometimes true. Gregg Toland, ASC was the first master of extreme depth of field, and movies like Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath forever changed what it is possible for humans to do with cameras. Here's a look at what that means for YOUR shooting.
Whenever somebody equates "shallow depth of field" and "cinematic," somebody else brings up cinematographer Gregg Toland, the first master of "deep" depth of field.
He is most known today for 1942's Citizen Kane, but his first big year was 1940, when he was both nominated for an Oscar (Intermezzo: A Love Story) and WON for Wuthering Heights, both in the "Cinematography: Black and White" category! This was also the year that he lensed Grapes of Wrath for John Ford.
However, Toland's work on Citizen Kane put him in a new kind of spotlight: Orson Welles shared his own card in the credits with Toland.
It was entirely unprecedented, and entirely deserved. His work in Citizen Kane was every bit as daring as anything else in this daring picture. Depth of field is only one part of it, but a really, really big part, and redefined what was possible for humans to do with movie cameras.
When you see them on a proper screen in Blu-ray, or heck, VHS on an improper one, you can see all of this more clearly than in these skanky web pictures, but here's one of the pivotal scenes from Citizen Kane. There are the three people in the foreground, with young Charles Foster Kane playing outside the window, but there's much more to this than just foreground and background. Look at the extra layers provided by the sheet of paper, the doorway, each the beams of the ceiling, and the chair - before we even get to young Kane in the window!
This is another of my favorites shots, which is also an example of the use of ceilings in the movie. That's a discussion of its own (largely because movie studios didn't, and still often don't, have ceilings at all) but look again at depth. There's the rail, the speakers, and, perhaps most dramatic to me, the ceiling lamps. I'm trying to sound calm, but I remember nearly falling out of my chair the first time I saw this one:
(This is one of the examples that illustrates, if we're going to talk about Toland's cinematography, we have to talk about lighting - and you do, but I'm not. This got started with a talk about depth of focus, not the way to achieve it.)
I have some other great examples from Citizen Kane, but I wanted to jump to Grapes of Wrath. I first SAW Toland's work in Citizen Kane, but I truly fell head over heels in love with it in Grapes of Wrath. I guarantee that it's been too long since you watched this movie, and I guarantee you'll be floored by it.
Not an iconic frame like the ones from Kane, or others from Grapes, but a bizarrely effective example of deep focus. Even in a shot as simple as this one first appears, start peeling back the layers and see how many individual focal points he could have chosen.
(If this was school, I'd ask you which one you think he chose, and ask you if you think I just asked the right question.)
When we're talking about layers, though, this shot from William Wyler's Best Years of Our Lives (1946) may be the best example. Check the guy in the phone booth all the way in the back. On your way back there, try to isolate each layer as you think about throwing away the idea of foreground and background altogether. There's not just one of each.
Now remember that every one of these frames was in motion.
Here's the thing. Toland played with this all the time. He was never bound by his own rules.
This is another image from Kane that made me gasp the first time I saw it. It's hard to say what's in focus and what's not, because it's mostly just light and shadows. That said, the guy in the background is mooostly in focus...but seen through the smoke, it's hard to say, and ultimately beside the point. The point is that all journalism is smoke and mirrors. (This movie did a lot of that kind of thing, another reason it's remembered as one of the all time greats: shot after shot both SHOWS the story and COMMENTS on the story. So yeah, smoke and mirrors, both the newspaper mogul CF Kane, and these guys "documenting" him.
Another shot that made me gasp, the opening shot of Grapes. The trick is almost how much Toland was able to taper off focus without shortening the depth of the frame.
Now, as much as his work is most identified with those super-deep shots, some of Toland's images that moved me most are the ones that play with reflections. The question again is, where's the focus? Which depth of which field are we talking about?
From Ball of Fire
(1941). Shallow DoF on the layers at the front and back (the hands and the woman), and actually quite deep from the top of the matchbox to the one match that seems to be floating in space. I say that THAT part of the frame is deep DoF even though the entire physical context is only a few inches deep, because as close to the table as he clearly is, you'd never expect the DoF to go even THAT far. Try it some time if you don't believe me.
How would you describe it then? It's two shallow layers sandwiching a layer that's physically only a few inches big, but taking the reflections into account, shot as if it's much bigger.
Reflections, eh? The same trick in reverse, from Kane - another of that movie's shots that made me gasp.
Now he's just messing with us. The depth is coming from the two mirrors reflecting on themselves, so it's just one guy and one flat surface -- the mirror, right?
But part of the story is that Kane is all alone in this huge house that he built to indulge his own ego, his footsteps echoing through the emptiness of his own vanity. But to actually get that shot, think about where Toland needed to be relative to Kane (close enough to not have his feet in the frame), and how far the two of them needed to be from the mirror on the opposite wall: far enough to keep THOSE feet IN the frame.
And notice that the ONLY feet in the frame are the ones reflected in the mirror. Discuss! Hint: Roger Ebert thinks that this is the key shot in the whole movie.
Those shots made me gasp. This one broke my heart.
Think back to the early 70s. There was no HBO. (It was still "The Green Channel," with a few thousand subscribers in lower Manhattan.) Cable as we know it was still years away. Art house theaters were playing A Clockwork Orange, Jules et Jim, La Dolce Vita, Last Tango in Paris - modern stuff. Old movies? What? Why play those when you have the New Wave?
Which is how I came to see Grapes of Wrath in EIGHT mm, projected on a WALL in my junior high classroom. THE WALL. Dude, the THERMOSTAT was in the MIDDLE OF THE PICTURE.
And yet, my heart was breaking.
This is by no means the most dramatic single frame from the entire sequence, just one I happened to find, where once again, you really need to see the whole shot in motion. John Ford was obsessed with the American west, and he emphasized its immensity wherever he could. Toland hit this one out of the park for him.
After losing their Oklahoma farm, the Joad family has driven through the desert to California - to them, quite literally the Promised Land. In this scent, it's almost dawn after an emotionally devastating night. Most of the family is still asleep, so we're in tight on the men of the family. But as the sky starts to lighten, they start to see what's in front of them: lush, green hope, as far as they eye can see. The exceptionally shallow depth of field - pretty much just the windshield -- plays precisely opposed to the massive landscape opening up before their eyes. The point of the scene isn't EITHER the faces OR the landscape, but their RELATIONSHIP, and the windshield is where that's focused.
So, it turns out that the guy who opened up the depth of the frame more than anyone before or since wasn't afraid to flatten it out.
Okay, so what's that mean about cinematic values? For me, it means "composition." Everything in its place.
In the first Kane image, there's a chair between the old man and the back wall. Maybe the one and only reason that the chair is there is to provide one more layer -- but you can tell it's not there by accident.
The Kane shot that's mostly just shadows and light -- everything in its place.
The shot from Best Years of Our Lives would have taken a day to set up as a STILL photo shoot. In motion, you just don't know how they pulled off, but EVERYTHING is in its place, and composed so finely that it all stays where it belongs through the entire shot.
There's cinematic for me. Everything with a unified intent. Depth of field, blocking, everything that goes into the nature of composition. The frame is composed. The scene is composed. Even in the context of 24-year old Orson Welles, his filmmaking flamboyance is rooted in Kane's self-aggrandizement....oh all right, and the hotshot radio kid showing off to his sedentary cinematic elders, but to pull it off, everything was in its place.
The biggest problem with focusing (haha) on depth of field is that it reduces the whole question to some combination of foreground and background. Look at any one of Toland's shots above: the fewest number of layers is three, and even the sharpest and deepest of them (to my eye, that's the one Best Years) has a dozen layers, easily discerned even if they're almost exactly in the same amount of focus.
And yet, you also still know exactly where to look, and you know that the room has a specific depth, and where everything is placed in that depth.
The shot is COMPOSED. Everything is there by INTENT. Intent and composition are merged, and set at the service of larger storytelling priorities.
And yes, this applies to a spot or a show open every bit as much. Composition, intent, priority.
Whatever you do, do it for a reason that stretches past any single frame to unify the shot, and to unify the shots into a larger whole.