Rack Focus and the Gradual Presentation of Information

Watch a video essay that breaks down a vital visual storytelling technique.
The Graduate Rack Focus
Embassy Pictures
By  · Published on November 21st, 2018

Have you ever seen those nice portrait photos where the subject is in focus and the background is blurred out? That blurriness is an aesthetic called bokeh and this type of photo is achieved by having a shallow depth of field. Depth of field basically determines what’s in focus in the frame based on how far the subject is from the lens and shallow depth of field photos are great because they center your attention on what’s visibly identifiable in the photo.

The latest blog article and video essay from StudioBinder are all about the rack focus, which is a cinematographic technique that actively pulls the focus from one subject to another in order to reveal new information to the character or the audience.

Watch the video below.

As the video describes, the rack focus helps the viewer process information along with the character. Rack focus shots usually start by focusing on the character, then pulling focus away from them to showcase something else that’s going on in the frame. StudioBinder explains the rack focus allows for a more focused direction, presents more layered images, utilizes visual storytelling, and develops an emotional connection with the audience.

The rack focus also allows filmmakers to save money, as they don’t need to spend the extra time moving the camera or shifting angles (but we don’t need to dive too much into that right now). These are all intentional cinematographic results that convey information without characters blatantly revealing it to the viewer.

The video uses Casino Royale as an example of the rack focus throughout, but let’s take a look at some other examples. Focused direction means the director or cinematographer is controlling what the audience is seeing in the scene. This way, information is presented intentionally to the audience, allowing the viewer to visually understand what’s happening in the frame.

Take this example from Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006). In this scene, Song Kang-ho’s character, Park Gang-du, has to escape from a hospital, so the camera keeps him in focus until we see a nurse in the background call out his name. It’s a fantastic scene where Bong keeps information hidden from the audience until it’s time to focus on another character, ultimately unleashing the drama.

A scene from Jean-Marc Vallée‘s The Young Victoria (2009) uses the rack focus not only to showcase the beautiful set and production design but also to layer the scene with drama and intrigue. Here, we get layers of beauty as Vallée showcases pristine Victorian designs, presenting incredible detail as he focuses in and out between the party’s atmosphere and immaculate shots of glass dining sets.

We also get to see who’s important in each conversation as the camera pulls in and out of the different reactions from the crowd as the drama begins to ensue. It’s a really beautiful scene, but it also allows the audience to fully comprehend everything that’s going on  by honing in on the importance of specificity.

Visual storytelling is when the actions on screen speak louder than words. In the 1967 classic, The Graduate, the eventual scene where Elaine (Katherine Ross) finds out that Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) is having an affair with her mother (Anne Bancroft) is a perfect example of visual storytelling using rack focus.

As Mrs. Robinson makes her way into the frame, she remains out of focus until Elaine turns around and sees her as the focus pulls in on her. Then, Elaine remains out of focus as she processes all this information until she finally understands what’s going on as she comes back into focus. This is a tremendous scene, the emotional weight of which stands on a simple focus pull.

Lastly, the rack focus can further layer emotion into a scene. Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008) is a great example of this. After Colin Farrell’s Ray accidentally kills a little boy, we see the boy in focus with Ray in the background, allowing us to process this moment slowly with him. This scene, coupled with somber music, is deeply emotional and is only accentuated by this rack focus as we’re able to connect with Ray and understand what he has just done.

Just like tracking shots or long takes can add depth to a film’s narrative, the rack focus is another intentional cinematography technique that can speak thousands of words. Understanding how the rack focus can be utilized to present information is just another way that film fans and film students alike can develop a deeper appreciation for the arduous process of filmmaking.

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Lover of coffee, the emdash, and General Hux. Journalism student at Biola University in Los Angeles.