When it comes to 2D images, like a standard photograph or a film you’re watching projected on your local multiplex’s screen, depth is an illusion. From cinematography to photography to painting to hand-drawn animations, artists must fool the human eye into thinking it’s viewing something in a three-dimensional plane when it’s actually flat.
Piecing together a captivating story becomes easier when you master different techniques proven to add depth (or the illusion of depth) to a shot. Here are four tips that will help give your cinematography the power to convince viewers that they are experiencing a world as real as their own.
Focus is perhaps the most powerful (and common) method of creating depth in both photography and film. Our human eyes have evolved to do this wonderfully—hold out your finger in front of your eyes, focus your vision on it, and notice how everything behind it becomes a blur.
This lens technique, called shallow focus, allows filmmakers to achieve depth by fooling our brains into naturally believing there’s space in between the plane in focus and the one that’s out.
Light and Shadow
If there’s one natural agent that influences our depth perception in the real world, it’s light. Point a light at something, whether near you or behind other objects, and your eyes will be drawn to focus there. By using high contrast lighting, filmmakers are able to inject both depth and dimension to their compositions.
Whereas soft lighting can make an image appear flatter, sharper lighting delivers harsh shadows that help add an illusion of depth. Usually, the higher the contrast you create between shadow and light, the stronger depth you’ll get in a shot.
If you want a quick (and fun) way of better understanding linear perspective, take out a blank sheet of paper and draw from the perspective of someone looking down a long hallway, bridge, or railroad tracks. You’ll notice that to match a realistic sense of depth you’ll have to draw converging lines that start wide near the bottom and become closer as they recede toward the vanishing point.
By using camera placement in combination with wide angle lenses, you can add depth by making the horizon seem farther away. Veteran cinematographers learn to get creative by utilizing different camera placements to achieve depth and energy via varying perspectives.
Though it may seem like a simple concept, occlusion is a powerful tool for creating depth, especially in CGI films and video games. Occlusion refers to the visual obstruction of a distant object with another object in the foreground. Similarly, for astronomers, occultation is all about studying what stars become visible and hidden depending on the course of the Moon’s orbit around Earth.
In filmmaking, this technique works alongside parallax to create depth. Usually, this effect comes naturally when filming people and objects positioned in front of other things. But if you ever find yourself with a tracking shot that feels like it’s lacking depth, considering having more objects in order to have a sharper occlusion effect. If there’s one filmmaker who learned how to make the tracking shot his own by using different techniques, including occlusion, it’s Steven Spielberg.
You can find more information about studying cinematography at New York Film Academy here.