CINEMATOGRAPHY ANALYSIS:
DEEP FOCUS/ FRAME COMPOSITION

Orson Welles had much experience in the theater, and this background left its mark on his work as as a film director. In particular, it made him very aware of the expressive use of spatial relationships. For a theater director, the three dimensional space of the stage and the movement of characters within this space becomes a medium through which to convey more than is being said in the dialogue itself. In his work as a film director, Welles sought to use camera angles, camera distance, camera movement, lighting, and the changing spatial placement of characters to convey as much as possible to the audience. He once expressed this as an ideal goal: to render the story visually in certain shots so that, even without dialogue, the audience could still understand the essential dynamics of a given scene. 

Deep focus photography gave Welles a crucial means to strive towards this goal, and we will consider a striking example in the discussion to follow. Before examining the scene Ive selected, here are some key terms we should keep in mind: 

      1. Cinematography: As opposed to editing (the splicing together of individual shots), the actual photography employed in any given shot. It encompasses all artistic decisions made regarding camera distance and angle, camera movement, choice of lenses, and lighting effects.

      2. Deep focus: A method of photography in which the foreground objects near the camera, those in the distant background, and those in between are all in sharp, clearly visible focus.

      3. Mise en scène: French for “staging.” It consists of a film shots setting, subject (usually people or characters), and composition.

      4. Composition: The use of abstract formal relationships (shapes, masses, lines, shadows, empty space) in a shot for expressive purposes. It typically involves the creative arrangement of setting and subjects within the frame, which can in turn establish or enhance an underlying mood, an implicit relationship between characters, or a symbolic/metaphoric value in certain images.

a.)  Open composition: A relatively “free” arrangement of setting/subjects within a visual space that clearly extends beyond the boundaries of the frame; open compositions do not emphasize the outer edges of the frame as boundaries of our vision.  

b.)  Closed composition: An often more carefully staged arrangement of setting/subjects within the self-contained visual space of the frame; the edges of the frame are typically emphasized if not overtly marked by lines or shapes.   

c.)  Internal frames: The use of doors, windows, mirrors, or arches to help intensify the sense of enclosure in closed composition shots. Internal frames can sometimes suggest entrapment, or they can underscore the special status of a figure. In any case, they can effectively mark a space as “different” from the space around it– in a good way, a bad way, an ambiguous way, or an ironic way, depending on the context.        

d.) Balanced composition: A composition in which figures or shapes generally balance or counteract one another within the space of the frame (in a symmetrical composition, the balance is close to perfect: the figures or shapes take up equal space in the frame and divide it into mirroring halves).  

e.)  Asymmetrical composition: A composition in which figures and shapes are massed to a greater degree in one portion of the frame (left or right) than another. 

f.)  Dominant: The primary subject or figure that commands the viewer’s eye within the frame of a shot.

g.)  Subsidiary: Subjects or figures that command attention, but remain secondary or subordinate in relation to the dominant subject of the frame.   

For Welles, deep focus allows for a maximum use of space– both two dimensional and three dimensional space– to convey a wealth of visual information. In terms of depth, for example, the background images of the mise en scène can more vividly “comment” on the foreground images, or vice-versa. Within the frame, the movement and placement of figures can also set up different dominant and subsidiary relationships between them. While Welles’s use of deep focus typically sets up a closed composition, it also allows for varying compositional forms– symmetrical compositions, balanced compositions, or assymetrical compositions

This multi-layered use of mise en scène and composition in one deep focus shot offers an alternative strategy to editing, which provides its visual information through the juxtaposition of multiple shots. The film critic Andre Bazin gave special emphasis to deep focus in his praise of Welles, arguing that this technique involved a more holistic approach to filmmaking than in the case of rapid cross-cutting: for Bazin, deep focus gave the viewer greater freedom to engage with the image in a variety of ways, without being excessively manipulated by the director. While Bazin's thesis provoked debate among criticsand while we have already seen how the editing in Citizen Kane has its own expressive powerWelles's use of deep focus and his approach to composition remain essential to his filmmaking style. By analyzing how these strategies work in a particular sequence, we may develop a sharper eye for considering them in the film as a whole. In turn, we may be better prepared to consider such features in some of the other films we will watch this semester.

ANALYSIS: THE HOMESTEAD SCENE

[Click here for a streaming video clip of the scene being discussed.]

1. At first the shot features an open composition: we see Charlie in the outdoor snow, with no visual boundaries to the frame. After briefly cutting to Charlie's snowball hitting the sign, we return to the open composition shot. Then, as the camera pulls back, the composition becomes closed by the window frame, and eventually by the placement of the characters in dining room. Visually and metaphorically, we are now moving from a space of freedom and imaginative play to the more restricted adult social space that contains, manages, and eventually disrupts the space of childhood.  

     

2. Because we see Charlie first in this sequence, and because of the strong visual contrast between his figure and the blank space of the snow, he initially serves as the dominant of this shot. As the shot pulls back, we encounter the subsidiary figures of his mother (first, on the left side of the window), Mr. Thatcher (second, on the right side of the window) and his father (third, on the left side of his mother). As the shot continues to pull back, however, the dominant/subsidiary relationship clearly begins to shift: the visual dominant is transferred from Charlie's playful game to the three adults who are discussing Charlie’s future. 

3. You might notice how Charlie gets momentarily “crossed out” by the intersection of the window panes as the shot begins to pull back, which visually foreshadows his coming fate. Mrs. Kane’s head briefly appears at this intersection as well: her decision will be the key to his future.

      

4. As the shot continues to pull backwards, Charlie's mother walks towards us in the center of the frame, with Mr. Kane and Thatcher following behind her on each side. During this brief transition, the two men– the father and the soon-to-be surrogate father– roughly balance one another and situate Charlie's mother in the conflicting space between them.

5. Once the camera has pulled all the way back, the deep focus shot is fully established. As we hear the argument about the deed and who decides Charlie’s future, note the striking visual effect of the scene. Charlie's position in the frame is no longer dominant, yet he still serves as a visual magnet for our eye--at the same time that the other figures in the room demand our primary attention. There is a subtle tension between dominant and subsidiary figures in this scene: our depth perception shifts back and forth between the internal frame of Charlie in the extreme background and the action in the foreground. In the process, our experience of the dramatic conflict is considerably enhanced; the conflict we are witnessing is embedded within the visual dynamic of the scene itself.           

5. Three dimensional space: At extreme long range, Charlie and his world are now tiny, and what was previously an open area is now highly restricted, small, and remote– no longer completely free. We now see the father in the middle depth of the scene, lingering near the entranceway between the parlor and dining room and between Charlie in the far background and Thatcher/Mrs. Kane in the foreground. As he asserts his rights as a father, note how his position suggests that he is also “guarding” Charlie’s space behind him (while also appearing hesitant to move forward). Thatcher and Mrs. Kane both appear at the table in the foreground nearest to us, with the contract on the table for us to see. The contract in the foreground and Charlie in the background provide the extreme opposing poles of our three dimensional gaze, which highlights the impact this decision will have on the boy’s fate.

6. Two dimensional space: As a visual parallel to their personal conflict, the father and mother are situated at opposing sides of the frame– far left and far right, with Charlie and Thatcher (the focal points of their conflict) between them. The bordering figures of the father and mother– and the table at the bottom of the frame– emphasize the closed composition, with the frame of the shot tightly constraining the two parents.   

7. Two dimensional space: The vertical lines of the composition– the left and right edges of the window, and the right edge of the doorway into the dining room– help to segment the four characters from each other. Mr. Kane and Charlie on the upper/middle left balance Mrs. Kane and Thatcher on the lower right along an imaginary diagonal line as well. However, the balance is clearly asymmetrical: Mrs. Kane and Thatcher take up more space, with their dark clothes giving them more visual “weight” than the standing father and Charlie. They have more power in this conflicted, divided space.   

8. Three dimensional space: Each time our eye feels drawn towards Charlie in the deep background, our line of sight "slices" the room into two areas– the left section occupied only by the father, and the right section occupied by Mrs. Kane and Thatcher sitting together. So every time we re-establish Charlie as the focal point, our eye simultaneously marks out a field of tension between the other figures.   

9. Mr. Kane makes a final gesture to prevent the contract from being signed: "Mary, I'm asking you for the last time..." At this moment the composition slightly shifts as he enters into the foreground; the composition gets tighter. However, the visual barrier between Mr. Kane and Thatcher/Mrs. Kane is still not broken; the window frame still keeps them separated from one another. 

10. After Mr. Kane gives in (“Well, let’s hope it’s all for the best”), the camera moves and cuts him out of the frame for a moment, leaving only Mrs. Kane/Thatcher/Charlie in the composition. Appropriately, Mr. Kane “disappears“ from our vantage point at the very moment that Mrs. Kane signs the documents. Then we see the father walking back to the window to close it, with Mrs. Kane and Thatcher rising to dominate the foreground. Mrs. Kane then walks to the window: as we saw previously in the sequence, her head again appears in the crosshairs of the window panes. Reversing the father's gesture, she opens the window, balanced on both sides by Mr. Kane and Thatcher.  

   

11. The scene finally cuts to a reverse shot of Mrs. Kane’s face in a close-up, balanced once again by Mr. Kane and Thatcher behind her on both sides– a highly evocative composition which reinforces her own conflicting obligations, as it did in the early part of the scene. Yet the asymmetrical composition is again appropriate here: note how Thatcher’s “half” of the composition is much larger and open to movement, whereas the father’s “half” is confined and almost squeezes him out of the frame. Mrs. Kane shouts Charles’s name, looks out at the boy as Thatcher speaks, and says: “I’ve got his trunk all packed…” Her facial expressions are remarkably subtle in this shot, yet due to the composition (as well as her voice) we can still feel her stifled emotion. In the image we can sense the dilemma of a mother who remains torn between two unhappy options for her son's well-being.        

   

12. Outside the house the camera now pans left and cranes back to show us the scene by the snowman. As this sequence continues, consider the changing spatial arrangement of the figures, particularly Charlie's changing positions within the scene. The clearly visible “triangle” hanging from the porch of the house offers a nice visual counterpart to the dynamics of this scene.

           

FURTHER SCENES FOR CONSIDERATION:
DEEP FOCUS AND/OR FRAME COMPOSITION

Any number of scenes from Citizen Kane would serve as equally rich examples of how Welles employs such visual strategies. For your upcoming assignment on cinematography, you might consider reviewing the film to see if any of the sequences strike you as worthy of close analysis. The following short list is by no means exhaustive:  

1. Kane’s election speech. 

2. The “love nest” confrontation scene.

3. The election defeat conversation between Kane and Leland.

4. Susan’s attempted suicide.

5. Kane and Susan in Xanadu.