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When to use tilt-shift lenses?


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#1 Liam Howlett

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Posted 20 May 2010 - 12:17 AM

The most prominent example I can think of the moment the term "tilt-shift" comes up is Dominic Sena's "Swordfish"

you can see the opening scene here if you aren't familiar with the scene

in this instance, it was mostly used for stylistic effect, as the whole film was in itself.

MY question is, besides using it for stylistic purposes, when would one use a tilt-shift lens in film? For some reason I think about using this effect as a POV shot, when one is dizzy or trying to focus on something when waking up, etc etc.

Besides my own thoughts, are there any kind of standard "rules" for tilt-shift uses in film if any? I would like to know about them.

Thanks
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 20 May 2010 - 12:48 AM

Tilt-focus lenses were used here in "Remains of the Day" for a faux deep-focus effect:

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I've used the Panavision 90mm anamorphic tilt-focus, sometimes for a blurred-edge effect, other times for a deep-focus effect:

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#3 Liam Howlett

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Posted 20 May 2010 - 01:20 AM

VERY interesting David!

with Akeelah screencap, this effect kind of reminds me of the - the term escapes me - effect that DePalma likes to use a lot and of course other filmmakers. Where you have both characters in deep focus. Though something tells me that effect is not achieved with a tilt-shift. Am I correct?
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#4 Andrew Rieger

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Posted 20 May 2010 - 02:22 AM

VERY interesting David!

with Akeelah screencap, this effect kind of reminds me of the - the term escapes me - effect that DePalma likes to use a lot and of course other filmmakers. Where you have both characters in deep focus. Though something tells me that effect is not achieved with a tilt-shift. Am I correct?


The DePalma effect you are talking about uses split diopters, most recently seen in Tarantino's Death Proof. They were also used in some of the Star Trek films.

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Edited by Andrew Rieger, 20 May 2010 - 02:24 AM.

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#5 Andrew Rieger

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Posted 20 May 2010 - 02:43 AM

This is what a split diopter looks like...

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As you can see in my first post, the tv set and wall behind the actor at the far left is out of focus while the wall behind the three men is sharp. Use split diopters with backgrounds that will not draw attention to this effect.
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#6 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 20 May 2010 - 12:44 PM

The main difference is that a split-diopter allows two different planes of focus, whereas a tilt-focus lens allows a single diagonal plane of focus receding away from the camera.

Split-diopters work better at wider apertures but medium-to-wider focal lengths -- you want the split in the glass where it goes to clear to be in soft-focus but not too blurry either otherwise you have this big band of blurriness in the middle of the shot, so it's hard to get them to work on telephoto lenses. And too stopped down and you see the sharp edge of the glass too.

Tilt-focus lenses, when used for a faux deep-focus effect work better the more you can stop down and get true deep-focus, reducing the odd distortion where the same background one side of the frame is so much blurrier than the other side. They also work better in the medium-to-wider focal lengths.

Split-diopters are good when you want an extreme effect of something close to the lens being in sharp focus, as well as something in the far background.

I used a mild split-diopter here to hold Akeelah in focus in the foreground and the teacher in the background giving her the questions, since I didn't want to rack back and forth between the questions and the answers (especially not on an anamorphic lens which breathes like crazy):

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In this case, I opted for the split-diopter because there were two distinct planes of focus, and nothing between them.
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#7 Andrew Rieger

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Posted 20 May 2010 - 12:53 PM

Thank you David for explaining split diopters in more detail. I have never used one so I only have a basic understanding of how they work, I do recognize their use when I see them in films however :)

Edited by Andrew Rieger, 20 May 2010 - 12:53 PM.

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#8 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 20 May 2010 - 12:55 PM

Horizontal lines on the set get broken by the split-diopter, usually the giveaway. When the split is buried in a flat area of set or a vertical line, it helps. All of these shots in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" used a split-diopter. I think the movie holds some sort of record for number of split-diopter shots, over 50% probably:

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This shot somehow used a special diopter in the center with the sides clear:
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This shot actually has two split-diopters over the left and right characters, with the center clear:
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#9 Mei Lewis

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Posted 21 May 2010 - 06:45 AM

David, on a thread about your "Star Trek obsession" you said

...I've carried a tilt-focus lens on a couple of movies, but I rarely get a director who understands effective deep-focus staging, so the lens ends up never being used.



What do you means by effective deep focus composition? Could you give a couple of pointers?
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#10 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 21 May 2010 - 10:40 AM

Staging important action, actors, or picture elements in depth so that is dramatic tension from having them in the same frame in-focus, creating visual conflict. Imagine if this scene was staged against a wall with everyone having to be shot in separate shots:

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#11 Mei Lewis

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Posted 23 May 2010 - 03:38 AM

It seems kind of obvious when you say it like that! (Which means your explanation is a good one!)

I guess the hard thing is composing a shot so that there are several distinct points of attention, relating to each other in the desired way and as prominent as they should be?

For example in that Citizen Kane shot the person at the back is only as clear as he is because he has been silhouetted and because the straight lines of the banister, pillars and joists frame and point towards him. That took some artistry and it's harder to do that than it would be to just isolate him with a very shallow DOF, and have a sequence of shots like that alternating between characters.

It seems that this might lead to fairly formal compositions, as in the case of the Citizen Kane shot.

Also if there's more than one character involved and we want to see their faces then they're going to have to be facing toward the camera and at least one of them away from the others. That's true in all the above shots, except the shot from the forest where the T/S was used for a different effect. And that's not natural most of the time if the characters are interacting.
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#12 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 23 May 2010 - 11:46 AM

Yes, deep-focus often does encourage formalist compositional effects, though a lot of day exterior work in "The New World" was shot in deep focus, mainly to keep the background alive as part of the scene even in closer shots. Otherwise, it does not rely on very formal compositions.

This is why I mentioned that a director has to know how to take advantage of deep-focus once given to him as an option (being that it is more work except outside in daylight). If he ends up staging every dialogue scene with people facing each other in over-the-shoulders, it's probably a waste of effort to use that much light and stop down.

The thing to remember is that you are increasing the density of visual information with a deep-focus shot, therefore you HAVE to control where the eye goes. That's why the smallest of figures in that "Citizen Kane" shot is in silhouette. It draws your eye to a small portion of the frame.

It all becomes even harder in color photography because color is another layer of visual information, and you don't necessarily want the audiences to be thinking about the color of unimportant background objects, which is why deep-focus color photography often looks aggressive (and even tacky) except in period movies or other genres (like war) where the colors have been muted and controlled.

Most interesting deep-focus compositions set-up a visual conflict between A and B (though in the case of this shot from "Citizen Kane", A and B and C), as opposed to a shallow-focus image where only A or B can be in focus. So it requires some breakdown of the dramatic structure of the scene to understand how to arrange objects in a way that matches the tension of the scene.

Now in the case of the Bridge set in "Star Trek", you have a space that naturally forces the actors to face in one direction rather than each other. A scene in a movie theater or lecture hall may be another example of actors facing in one direction.
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