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Gordon Willis and his use of Split Diopters


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#1 Christopher Garland

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Posted 30 November 2005 - 10:23 AM

Hi All,

I just saw "All the Presidents Men" last night, in Boston, followed up by a Q&A by the films cinematographer Gordon Willis. He briefly talked about his use of split diopters throughout the film and its use in a specific scene. It is where Robert Redford?s character is talking on the phone and to his left the rest of the characters are watching the TV, with very deep focus. As the scene progresses the camera pushes in on Redford and the diopter is moved along with the camera move so as to be out of the shot. What makes this interesting is that Mr. Willis said that the day of the shoot his 2nd AC was so scared he didn't show up so he had the move the diopter himself.

I'm very interested in the use of split diopters and how cinematographers have used them effectively. I'd like to hear what you all think of them and if you use them in your productions?
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#2 Wendell_Greene

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Posted 30 November 2005 - 11:35 AM

Didn't Gordon Willis have some sort of geared diopter rig that held split diopters on both sides of the frame, made up especially for that shot? I thought I remember reading that somewhere.

Speaking of Redford, I recently watched him in the DVD of "The Last Castle" directed by Rod Lurie. The DP Shelly Johnson used split diopters in nearly all the scenes inside the office of the prison's Colonel played by James Gandolfini.
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#3 Christopher Garland

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Posted 30 November 2005 - 12:23 PM

Didn't Gordon Willis have some sort of geared diopter rig that held split diopters on both sides of the frame.

Could be, he didn't get too into the technical aspects of the film, at least not as much as I would of liked him to.

As for "The Last Castle" thats very interesting I'll have to watch the film again. Thanks for your reply.
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#4 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 30 November 2005 - 01:51 PM

I'm very interested in the use of split diopters and how cinematographers have used them effectively. I'd like to hear what you all think of them and if you use them in your productions?


Off hand, they were used in 'The Untouchables' where Sean Connery and Costner are talking in the church
They were used alot in Technirama movies. I think alot throughout 'King of Kings',certainly in 'The Long Ships' in some S.Portier scenes.

In Bonderchuk's 'War and Peace', in Natasha's first ball. At the start of the scene, the dioptres are moved across the screen to follow her.

---LV
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#5 Ignacio Aguilar

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Posted 30 November 2005 - 02:16 PM

I like split diopters a lot, they are a beautiful tool, but in my opinion they can create distracting effects if not used with proper care. The best of the recent diopter shots that I recall was during the night car conversation between Clint Eastwood and Hillary Swank on "Million Dollar Baby". Very tasteful and very well hidden. There were two or three more on that film.

Off hand, they were used in 'The Untouchables' where Sean Connery and Costner are talking in the church
They were used alot in Technirama movies. I think alot throughout 'King of Kings',certainly in 'The Long Ships' in some S.Portier scenes.


Stephen H. Burum, ASC seems to be very fond of them; I distinctly remember a few split diopters shots with the characters around a table on "War of the Roses", though it was 1.85:1. Of course, Brian De Palma has been using them too since his early films ("Carrie", "Dressed to Kill"). The same goes for Robert Wise ("Andromeda Strain", "The Hindenburg" and "Star Trek: TMP"), who edited "Citizen Kane" and fell in love with deep-focus photography.

I believe "King of Kings" must be the first film in using them. I have heard that they were developed at that time together by Franz Planer, ASC and Manuel Berenguer, ASC, but I don't know it for sure.

Edited by Ignacio Aguilar, 30 November 2005 - 02:17 PM.

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#6 Jozo Zovko

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Posted 01 December 2005 - 02:31 PM

Hello -
In reply

Chris>>>
I'm very interested in the use of split diopters and how cinematographers have used them effectively.

ME>>>
Some of the best work with the split diopter is in one of the greatest works of art ever made.
The Film "Come and See"
Its use is daring in every way. It isn't used in the traditional way. The filmmakers didn't try to hide the edge in any way. But when it's used a couple of times throughout the film, emotionally it just hits a grand slam every time.

The film is on DVD. Try to find the double disk version made by RUSICO/Kino ? not the wretched single disk Kino version. Any one that has not seen this film should run out the door to the store in a foaming, rabid, animalistic fashion the moment you finish reading this sentence.

Back already?? Wow! Hope you like the film as much as I do

Chris>>>
I'd like to hear what you all think of them and if you use them in your productions?

ME>>>
I worked on a film where the cinematographer used a split diopter in a "backwards" kind of way - he used it to make a person MORE out of focus. It was an over the shoulder; the characters were not overlapping though. One actor was playing a ghost in the scene and was placed further back and in line of the diopter while the lead actor was in the clear area, in sharp focus.

Have a nice day,
Joe Zovko
AC - IA 600
LA, CA
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#7 Evan Kubota

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Posted 02 December 2005 - 01:14 AM

Yes, "Idi i smotri" (Come and See) is a fantastic film. I wasn't aware that split diopters were used - it looks like the shot could have been done by taking two separate takes of the scene with different parts in focus then optically blending them later. Same with one shot in Reservoir Dogs where Harvey Keitel is in the foreground and Mr. Pink is on the floor in the background - it looked to me like the shot was done twice and composited, but I guess a diopter could have been used there. There is a very visible blurred line between the halves of the frame.
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#8 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 02 December 2005 - 01:20 AM

I posted these before, but I believe that "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" has a record number of split-diopter shots, perhaps 60% of the movie. Here are some of them, the last one has a split-diopter on each side of the frame with a gap in the middle. The second to the last must somehow have a diopter in the center but clear on each side!

Posted Image

Posted Image

Posted Image

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Edited by David Mullen, 02 December 2005 - 01:22 AM.

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#9 Christopher Garland

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Posted 02 December 2005 - 11:43 AM

This is all great information! Thank you to everyone who responded, I'll have to rewatch a lot of films and some new ones you've posted. Thanks again.
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#10 Andrew J. Whittaker

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Posted 02 December 2005 - 07:51 PM

What makes this interesting is that Mr. Willis said that the day of the shoot his 2nd AC was so scared he didn't show up so he had the move the diopter himself.


Hello Chris,

I believe you have this wrong. I was at the event as well and it is my understanding that Mr. Willis was refering to his 1st AC as the one who did not show for that day.

-Andrew J. Whittaker
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#11 Jozo Zovko

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Posted 07 December 2005 - 01:34 AM

Hello -

'Evan Kubota' wrote
I wasn't aware that split diopters were used >(in "Come and See")< - it looks like the shot could have been done by taking two separate takes of the scene with different parts in focus then optically blending them later... ...it looked to me like the shot was done twice and composited, but I guess a diopter could have been used there. There is a very visible blurred line between the halves of the frame.

ME>>>
Here are two screen captures from the film (Come and See) - this is my first time posting pictures to the web - so I hope this works - I'm posted them as attachments - so if there is a better way - please tell me

Have a nice day,
Joe Zovko
AC IA 600
LA, CA

Attached Images

  • Come_and_See__1.jpg
  • Come_and_See__2.jpg

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#12 Jayson Crothers

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Posted 07 December 2005 - 03:15 AM

Not specific to split diopters, but if anyone is interested in hearing the NPR interview with Gordon Willis.....

http://www.npr.org/t...storyId=1149802
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#13 Luke Prendergast

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Posted 07 December 2005 - 03:16 AM

That 1st one is very cool and weird - in- then out- then in-focus. The 2nd looks like a bad comp.
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#14 Thomas Loizeaux

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Posted 19 December 2005 - 10:06 PM

A more subtle way of getting focus on more then one lateral plane is the use of tilting lenses. Panavision came out with some of these many years ago. The advantage of these is that you can tilt or swing the plane of focus only as much as you need, keeping the effect more subtle. Also, there isn't the out of focus band that the split diopters creates.

Tom
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#15 Mark T. Ingham

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Posted 20 December 2005 - 12:35 AM

I just watched Dick Tracy. Storaro employed split-diopters very effectively throughout that film. Great care was also taken in the compositions to hide the line. That's one aspect of "All the President's Men" I find slightly distracting; the diopter line being very obvious in some shots. Still, it's probably only cinematographers that are ever going to notice those lines. Of course it could also be a stylistic choice to not worry about hiding the demarcation between diopters.
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