Over the past couple months I’ve been becoming more and more aware of the importance of focus in a shot, in other words directing a viewer’s eye so they understand what’s happening on screen more easily. I just had the Incredibles playing in the background and noticed a couple of clear examples in quick succession so thought I’d highlight them.
There are a few factors that influence our focus but I’ll just point out 2 things: contrast in tone and contrast in movement.
1. Contrast in Tone.
If I show this picture, where does your eye naturally want to go?
Or this one:
Instantly it will go to the square, because that area has the highest amount of contrast within the frame. In this case the contrast is in tonal value.
If we look at just one frame from The Incredibles. There are 2 guards screen right, one on the ground and one higher up. Bob has picked up a rock and he starts weighing it up, so we get a sense he might throw it. If we look at the frame, can you guess which guard he throws it at?
If you guessed top right, you’re correct. How do we know? Because the higher guard has gained our attention more through tonal contrast. If Bob were to throw the rock at the lower guard, we’d be momentarily confused. The use of contrast can help direct our eye to what is important on screen and also what comes next.
Here we have 2 guards, but a bright moon is competing for our attention. Why?
Guess where the shuttle Bob has thrown is going to come from.
Because this happens so quickly, it makes sense to lead the eye to the shuttle as soon as possible, even before it comes in frame.
In the case below which character holds our attention more? Even though Edna occupies more screen space, the tonal contrast (along with depth of field on the camera and contrast in colour value) keep us focused on Helen and her conversation. Edna is secondary.
2. Contrast in Motion
If we now look at this shot, the visual contrast between characters is less. They both take up about a 1/3rd of the frame and are lit equally. If you play the clip below, even without sound we know where to look. But how?
When a character is talking they have bigger movements than the other character in the shot. It’s almost like a tennis game, focus moves back and fourth between the 2 characters simply by the amount of movement each character makes. All of this helps the viewer to understand what is happening more easily.
A more simple example, which square attracts your attention most?:
The same concept can be applied to a single character. Think of a magician for example. If he wants you to look at a hat in his hand, he’s not going to start kicking his legs and shaking his head, he’ll use hand movements to direct your attention to where he wants it.
Finally, give this a watch and notice how viewers eye movements are dictated by contrast in tone and movement.