July 8, 2013

Shots Falling Flat? Watch This Video to Find Ways to Add Depth to Your Scenes

Shot depthSince we shoot on a 2D plane, creating the illusion of depth is an important aspect of cinematography. Sometimes a few blocking choices, like filming your subjects against walls, can (not always) make a scene look flat and uninteresting. So, let's take a look at what gives a scene depth, and if there's a lack thereof, what options you have to bring your subjects from the dark and boring abyss of the background. 

The thing I love about the art of cinematography is that there are no hard and fast rules about how to shoot a beautiful shot. But, there are conventions that work well to create aesthetic energy and depth to your shot. Here is an excellent video by Vimeo Video School that shows you a few ways to do just that.

Again, cinematography is an art, so nothing is set in stone as far as how to set up a shot. However, just like in screenwriting, there are conventions that have worked  for ages that are definitely worth knowing. Learn them so you know how to break them! I think I read that in somewhere in Rebel Without a Crew years ago, and it has helped me become a better cinematographer

What do you think? How have you solved depth issues in your shots? Let us know in the comments.

Link: Adding Depth to Your Shots -- Vimeo Video School

Your Comment

54 Comments

Gotta love when a tutorial has out of sync audio.

July 8, 2013 at 3:40PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Jared

A little trick I use when doing industrial videos and such is to put a tad of the glow filter along with a gaussian blur to isolate the subject even if I have some nice depth as in the example above. It works beautifully when used the right way.

July 8, 2013 at 3:41PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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pacificbeachca

The artificial blurs added in made me want to punch a wall

July 8, 2013 at 3:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Michael

Ha!

July 8, 2013 at 4:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Edgar

+1 on that.

July 8, 2013 at 4:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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+2

July 8, 2013 at 6:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Chris

+ 3

July 9, 2013 at 4:59AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Marco

+4

July 9, 2013 at 6:04PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Leonard Veillon

+5 Totally pointless and distracting

July 13, 2013 at 2:17PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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+6 I was hoping I was not the only one!

Good points however :)

July 21, 2013 at 12:17AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Nick

No smoke machine? Did they really just hotbox that garage with car exhaust?

July 8, 2013 at 4:08PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Nothing says "shallow depth" like a carbon monoxide poisoning.

July 8, 2013 at 4:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

haha!!

July 9, 2013 at 1:12AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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VinceGOrtho

"Dave"
1981-2013
RIP

July 9, 2013 at 7:00AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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jay

I felt like i acquired a headache from watching this. It was a struggle maybe due to the horrible composition of the interviews, out of sync audio, distracting out of sync background, the horrific added blur or how the talent was squinting so much.

July 8, 2013 at 4:16PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Joe

Seems like a little elementary of a tutorial for NFS.
But thank you for the effort.

July 8, 2013 at 4:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Skeptic

have you tried pulling focus at f1.4??

July 8, 2013 at 4:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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pablopablo

I use an f/1.4 prime a lot. It's -- challenging to say the least.

July 8, 2013 at 7:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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avatar
V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

I work as a 1st for a couple of DP's who love shooting wide open on master primes or super speeds. Can't say I'm always happy about it, but it does happen somewhat frequently. Half of Oblivion was shot this way.

July 8, 2013 at 7:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Michael Solomon

some folks work on big film sets, theres always an A.C

July 8, 2013 at 9:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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thadon calico

Yes, with my feet.

July 8, 2013 at 9:49PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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JPS

Have you got anything for flat girlfriends?

July 8, 2013 at 5:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Fresno Bob

I feel like they just tried way too hard to make this look unique, while completely ignoring the same kinds of fundamentals they're trying to teach. The audio is tinny and out of sync, the angled shots are distracting, and the use of natural lighting in Eve's interview looks all out-of-whack.

July 8, 2013 at 5:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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A lot of very negative comments. Everyone on here must be amazing filmmakers already!

July 8, 2013 at 6:02PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Peter Kelly

LoL, true.

July 8, 2013 at 8:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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moebius22

+1

July 9, 2013 at 4:12AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Frank

July 8, 2013 at 6:04PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Ben Brooksby

can someone explain how a shot at 1.4 has more depth than a shot at f22? Its the other way around.

July 8, 2013 at 7:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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ryan

F22 reduces everything to looking like it's on the same plane. F1.4 creates greater depth for the eye, not the lens.

July 8, 2013 at 9:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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JPS

are u serious?

July 8, 2013 at 9:56PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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ryan

you're right in the sense that technically f22 gives a "deeper" DOF, but what this video is referring to is the depth experienced by the viewer and not the depth of the focus. f1.4 will give a much shallower DOF, isolating the subject and giving the illusion that the background further away, hence the "depth."

July 9, 2013 at 8:32AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Sotts

drawing focus to your subject is not the equivalent of DEPTH, depth is the convergence of the x,y, and perceived z plane in an image. 1.4 take your background and makes its a single plane, 22 allows for the convergence to be deep within the frame creating depth. the thinner the depth of the field the thinner the depth of your shot in the literal definition. Dynamic shots or shots that draw focus to the subject is something completely different.

July 9, 2013 at 11:06AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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ryan

+1

July 13, 2013 at 12:44PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Gary Simmons

Couldn't agree more, Ryan.

July 9, 2013 at 8:17AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Glenn

As Orson Welles / Greg Toland so successfully proved, deep focus lets the human eye focus on what it wants.
A shallow focus is no depth at all

July 9, 2013 at 8:23AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Fresno Bob

Thanks guys.

July 8, 2013 at 8:43PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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moebius22

I thought the video was nice and not dull like some... maybe alot of tutorials can be anyway the importance of back lighting has been reiterated for me... also brits probably aren't used to the sun as much as others hence the squinting

July 9, 2013 at 5:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Whispers

Ryan, the reference wasn't meant to be a mathematical but a psychological depth. Having something out of focus near the camera and everything behind the subject out of focus creates a "feeling" of depth. Depth can be created also by deep focus but then the set design plays a massive role in creating that depth, as cited Citizen Kane being probably the most famous example. So strangely both can be used to create a feeling of depth but they need to be designed to do so. A straight shot with a small aperture generally doesn't have a feeling of depth even though mathematically is does. Having shallow depth of field does create (for most people) a feeling of depth. I think most cinematographers would not argue with that but I'm sure some here will.

July 10, 2013 at 2:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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JPS

I'm sorry but you are drastically wrong on all counts, Flat and Deep space are incredibly well covered subjects so find a book and read about it.

I am a DP currently going out of my way to achieve flat space for a portion of a script as per the directors request.

July 10, 2013 at 3:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Anthony

Citizen Kane took deep depth of field so far as in to use split diopters to keep foreground and background in focus at the same time, big shots with 2 and 3 point perspective, sculpted light to show depth in the image by highlighting the various planes.

July 10, 2013 at 7:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Anthony

Ok, so I'm wrong on all counts. That means shallow depth of field produces a very flat image with no depth at all and set design in Citizen Kane played no part in helping to create depth on deep focus shots.
Looking forward to seeing your film do neither.

July 12, 2013 at 3:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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JPS

JPS, your post is spoken as a perfect example of the internet camera man and I'm sorry, a small swipe at what "my" current works will produce seems to suggest I've hit a nerve. I'm sorry but you have the components of depth confused with shallow depth of field and what the art department would bring to the film.

To the Underwater Realms credit they did disclaim that they are not experts but you seem to be defending what they showed as tactics to create depth and I'm sorry but any DP that has studied cinematography and not just pushed record on a 5D would know they have this wrong. In fact most of there examples are tools designed to reduce depth. Tip 1, depth of field, they have this backwards at F1.4 the background is a single mushy plane, its a level shot and she's essentially a person standing in front of a painting, there is no depth here. Tip 2 Backlighting, backlighting is not a depth cue, it does do everything she is talking about but there are no depth in the shot and this shot is flat, Tip 3, foreground, technically sound but the actual shot had no overlap between the actors, the foreground element was extremely out of focus and is now a diminished depth cue. Tip 4 Perspective, this is actually right! and if they paid attention to there own advice they would see that the first example of a flat background is exactly what is happening with the wide aperture on the other tips. Tip 5 Parallax is correct, camera movement is a depth cue. Tip 6 Aerial diffusion is essentially what they are talking about and this shot has depth because of the perspective lines and deep depth of field but the talent is standing in front of the only corner that we can see in the garage which is reducing depth and then they add diffusion, diffusion by its self reduces depth, think of a foggy day and a bright summers day and ask yourself can you see more or less depth when you look down the road on either of these days, i would hazard to guess that we can see less on a foggy day no?. They had more depth in the interview shots presenting the video than most of the examples.

Citizen Cane used deep depth of field in combination with low or high camera angles that are mostly off centre (up to 45 degrees) in order to cue 2 and 3 point perspective in to the shot as well as deep staging with the actors blocking, multiple planes via lighting and as i said even split diopters to give an apparent F60+ depth of filed to some of the shots.

When thinking of depth remember the classic train track shot, at the horizon line the tracks appear to converge on each other and in fact look like they get smaller in the distance, we know thats not the case, it is a "depth cue", when photographed you are looking at a 2D version of this but it still appears to have depth?, however the rules of cinematography (and yes there are rules) dictate that anything out of focus become flat, hence that if you use a shallow depth of field and put the background extremely out of focus you are moving towards eliminating depth cues and not enhancing them. Everything you think created depth in Citizen Cane (set direction, art department etc) would not have helped increase the depth cues if the DP had not shot that picture with an aim to use Deep Space and deep depth of field in the first place, to your credit, it wouldn't have looked half as great as it does if they hadn't worked on the set direction to balance the deep focus shots.

Now "my" film is not my film, i am the DP, its the directors and producers film. The director who understands flat and deep space wants a certain character who's true motive is hidden until the final scenes captured in flat space but once our main star figures her out the cinematography will move to deep space and we will use multiple planes, perspective lines, overlap, parallax etc to enhance the deep space around her, now the rest of the film is shot in deep space so that her scenes stand out, this is called contrast. We have 8 weeks of preproduction for the art department to make sure that the deep space shots look fantastic and that the background can be varied on the flat space shots.

Just read up on the subject, we all get it wrong at some point but its useless arguing with someone unless you know what you're talking about and are not just relaying the same info that the video is saying, you can call it psychological depth all you like but if the image is flat it isn't going to have depth cues and hence no actual depth, it would be down to the actor alone to portray this psychological depth you mentioned, maybe thats what you want maybe not but you have to understand the difference between deep and flat space is in order to make that decision and unfortunately a large part of the DSLR crowd are more worried about bit rates and sensor size these days than true cinematic skills. Ask the average DSLR user whats cinematic and they will say 24p, 2.35:1, colour grading and quote you lines like "filmic", please don't be one of those people, read the books or join the schools but either way don't be a sheep ;0)

July 15, 2013 at 5:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Anthony Brown

Sorry didn't really read most of your post. Too long but I will. Yes, you did touch a nerve but it had nothing to do with the arguments about what creates in the viewer a sense of depth. No, it was your rudeness plain and simple. Your suggestion that I read up on the subject is a massive assumption that you know all, that you have knowledge of my background, what I have done and read. It's simply arrogance. I don't mind arguing about the subject in hand. No problem at all but it would be nice if you posted more politely and with some sense of humility. Thanks.

July 16, 2013 at 2:58PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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JPS

Ok, now I've read your post fully and still you are being rude and making assumptions about who I am and what I've done. Calling people sheep isn't really very mature when you don't know them. Get to know and call me a sheep and I will listen to you because you know me. Otherwise play nice.

If you read carefully what I've said it was not in defence of the "tutorial". I don't think it's a particularly good video and demonstrated things badly. However the reason I pitched in is to say that shallow depth of field can create a sense of depth (if done properly). In the example, admittedly not a nice shot, indeed the background does become mushy with her in focus. What that shot creates is two planes of depth, her and the back ground. It does not become flat at all. It's kind of 2.5D. A better designed shot with a number of things in the frame at various distances, and with some lighting to create contrast and you have a shot with significant depth. The same shot with a much smaller aperture "may" not be as strong in it's feeling of depth. I put may in inverted commas since this is not a hard rule. By the way there are no rules in art, only in maths. You can shoot like a mathematician or an artist. There are however principles in art. Different thing.

And while we are on the subject of art, please stop assuming that if someone shoots on a DSLR that they don't have an eye. It's a bit like saying because I have a Panaflex Gold to shoot with I will automatically be a better DOP or that I drive a Ferrari so my ability in bed with women is awe inspiring. The tool is not the thing and you as an experienced DP will know that wont you? Ask you namesake, Anthony Dod Mantle (unless you are Mr Dod Mantle in which, wow, I thought you would be more open minded).

Your "tips" are fairly basic so wont deal with those here. I'm a bit confused about your referencing Citizen Kane though (it's not Cane by the way). I said in my first post that deep focus and set design played a massive role in that perception. What exactly are we arguing about here? I think you wrote me off too quickly and read into my post what you wanted to see, an argument against shallow DOF regardless of what shallow DOF does. So, yes, shallow DOF became easier to access because of DSLR's. Is it overused? Of course it is. Doesn't mean it isn't a valid method though.

Look, all I'm trying to get over is that these things can be used flexibly and creatively. DOF, shallow or not has it's uses, whatever cam your shooting with. If however you are saying that shallow depth of field can NEVER can create a sense of depth then I think we just part company there and move on. Thanks for taking the time to reply fully.

July 16, 2013 at 3:47PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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JPS

Only one more thing. I'm happy to have people look at my work and criticise it if they want. Be critical but be constructive too.

http://vimeo.com/channels/fluxology/37089102

Anthony, can you do the same. I'd like to see some of your work too.

Thanks

July 16, 2013 at 3:56PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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JPS

Only one more thing. I'm happy to have people look at my work and criticise it if they want. Be critical but be constructive too.

http://vimeo.com/channels/fluxology/37089102

Anthony, can you do the same? I'd like to see some of your work too even if you just post the IMDB links.

Thanks

July 16, 2013 at 3:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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JPS

God, that was a boring rant.... It's perfectly possible for a foggy day to give a feeling of depth by limiting the number of things you can see and manipulating and the relationship between them.

July 18, 2013 at 4:44AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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steve

What JPS is saying is valid, stop being a tool Anthony...

December 4, 2014 at 5:34PM

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What JPS said is valid, your dogmatic Aspergers rant is confused and rambling. And badly written.

December 4, 2014 at 5:52PM, Edited December 4, 5:52PM

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And shouldn't forget another depth creator "tele shooting". Breaking of optical perspective native is a mathematical depth impact but also a psychological one.Teleshooting has own uniqe blur (plus motion).And things at the back planes are not sized to they must be.This combination gives an uniqe depth maker that use the shallowing.

July 10, 2013 at 3:47PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Turker Metingul

Just stop people! Ryan is right. Opening up actually reduces DoF. Stopping down increases it. "Shallow" doesn't = "greater" or "more".

Shooting wide open in a narrative never really sits well with me. Although there is some DPs that do it well. I like the f4/5.6 area. To me the background slowly blurs out in lieu of just being non-existent. Just my opinion.

July 11, 2013 at 9:09AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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One is not better than the other, flat, deep and limited space have affects on the viewer and get used accordingly, check out the Shining for deep space cues or doubt for flat and deep space use especially as a style that signifies a change in the story. For example, the nuns in doubt are mostly painted in flat space until the head nun starts to suspect the priest of being to friendly with the school students, then we get deep space cues when the priest is on screen.

It's not a taste or opinion based subject, creating or restricting depth are tools cinematographers have at there disposal to bring the script to the screen. You won find Fast and Furious 7 pushing for flat space but because the DP knows what flat and deep space are he knows how to enhance either style. It's unfortunate that videos like this get this level of attention when there is so much literature on cinematography out there, unfortunately the sources of learning are becoming diluted with "videographers"

July 11, 2013 at 9:41AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Anthony

Anthony, what could you recommmed to read?

July 15, 2013 at 12:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Ed

Ed, if i could recommend one book it would have to be The Visual Story by Bruce Block, its the most literal explanation of light, colour, shape, space etc that I've read and is the principles we teach the interns that come into the camera department from film school

July 15, 2013 at 4:16PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Anthony Brown

How not to use 'The Dutch' angle...

October 29, 2015 at 2:56AM

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