How Denis Villeneuve Uses Shallow Focus To Make Us Squirm

What's that in the background? Ah yes, mounting dread.

Denis Villeneuve Blade Runner Shallow Focus
Warner Bros.

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video about how Denis Villeneuve utilizes shallow focus.


It’s no secret that Denis Villeneuve is a highly visual filmmaker. After all, his knack for substantive style is one of the reasons he’s been able to carve out a niche for himself as “the guy you call when you want to adapt an unfilmable project.” There’s a lot of show don’t tell in Villeneuve’s work. And considering he regularly sees fit to tackle densely plot-heavy fare like Dune, that’s probably not a terrible strategy.

One of the less obvious, or at least less flashy, cinematographic techniques in Villeneuve’s toolkit is his use of shallow focus.

Simply put, shallow focus is accomplished when the aperture of a camera’s lens is wide open. This creates a shallow depth of field, which limits the distance of what can remain in focus in relation to the camera. Ergo: shallow. The ultimate result is that the foreground subject remains very sharp while the background is very blurry.

As the video montage below emphasizes, what makes Villeneuve’s use of shallow focus unique is how he weaponizes it to underline a sense of unease. Shallow focus is especially good at focusing our attention. And Villeneuve frequently asks us to focus on a subject while something else of equal or greater importance transpires on the periphery.

Consequently, we’re plunged into a state of hyper-attention while feeling simultaneously drawn to and alienated from the background action. It is an uncomfortable place to be, and Villeneuve knows it.

Watch “Denis Villeneuve: Shallow Focus“:

Who made this?

This video essay was created by Jacob T. Swinney, a Baltimore-based video essayist, filmmaker, and cinephile who has essays featured on Fandor, Slate, and others. You can check out Swinney’s back-catalog on Vimeo here. And you can follow Swinney on Twitter here.

More Videos Like This

(Senior contributor)

Three toddlers in a trenchcoat. Currently running The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope.