Deep Focus: 'Us' and The Split Diopter

The classic cinematic tool forever tethers its performers and characters.

Us Ending
Universal Pictures

Every frame is designed to reveal narrative, whether its job is plot or character. Overviews, inserts, extreme long shots, extreme close-ups, etc. They’re all stitched together to manipulate empathy from the viewer. That’s a movie, and we love it. One technique does not necessarily hold more skill over another, but film fanatics get giddy over certain cinematic expressions.

There comes a critical moment in Us, one in which the dark machinations of the seemingly supernatural are revealed, that achieves its storytelling through a much-beloved visual flourish. The use of a split-focus diopter immediately sends shivers down the spine of ’70s era nostalgists. Every single Brian De Palma movie rushes through your brain whenever you encounter this particular shot in a contemporary context. It’s the price you pay for the life you’ve chosen.

Once movie geeks dry off their moist palms and regulate their breathing, an uncontrollable biological response of the De Palma download, consider the presence of the split-focus diopter. Writer/director Jordan Peele is not a filmmaker beyond sentiment, and much of Us requires some understanding of ’80s pop culture (see our own Matthew Monagle’s dissection of the film’s climax). However, the way in which he and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis apply the diopter in Us goes further than a simple fanboy nod and a wink. It is a tool that perfectly captures the theme and the terror of the entire film.

Before we get there, though, let’s appreciate the rise of the tool itself and why its average appearance in a film acts as a slap to the face of the viewer. There is no other frame quite like the split-focus diopter shot. There is an alien quality, or a sense of invasion whenever a filmmaker cuts to its design. All of life is never all in focus. This effect only exists on the screen allowing audiences a totality of perception we imagine occurs in our daily existence but is actually denied by the organism we inhabit. Never blink and life is one long Birdman, get twitchy with your lids, and you’re more than likely living the rapid-fire splicing of a Tony Scott wet dream.

The Average Shot Length (ASL) has shortened dramatically during the modern era of moviemaking. Appreciate the ASL shrinkage from 12 seconds to 3.6 seconds between the 1933 version of King Kong and the 2005 remake. Is it any wonder that Film Twitter gets steamy when a filmmaker like Alfonso Cuarón loses himself in a long take? A few extra beats existing within a shot is a radical experience demanding our attention. Adopting a measured pace is an invitation to soak in the art.

With diminishing ASLs, so too came the loss of deep focus in which filmmakers relied on a large depth of field, allowing the foreground, middle-ground, and background to remain sharp and clear to the audience. Why bother with mise-en-scéne when you’re splicing 47 angles into your shakey-cam fight choreography or your Bohemian Rhapsody lunch meeting? Master shots in which two actors square off against each other are quaint and outdated. Tight close-ups in which the camera lives in the gob of the character are the weapon of today when assaulting the talky bits of a movie.

Dammit, sometimes, we need to see everything. Pull back and let the performers control the set. With the creation of the split-focus diopter, directors and cinematographers got their chance to eat their cake and have it, too. Placing a piece of half convex glass in front of the main lens of the camera forces one half to be nearsighted. One side can now focus on the background while the diopter keeps the foreground section crystal clear as well. It’s a trick; a cheat. There is no actual continuous depth of field on display, and you can often spot the illusion in the center of the frame where the space between the two objects is out of focus. Of course, CGI wizardry can now mask that illusion as well.

Us Spoilers Below↓

The final confrontation between Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her Red dopplegänger occurs below ground, beneath the Vision Quest hall of mirrors where the first two met as children in the summer of 1986. Prior to this conflict, we’ve seen glimpses at the secret network of tunnels and rooms underneath the Santa Cruz boardwalk (and that most likely stretch far beyond it), but now is the time for Red to explain the nightmare that Adelaide has been fleeing for decades.

Red explains that “The Tethered” were a project concocted by the US government as a means to control the actions of its citizens. The idea was that a soul could be halved and manipulated within the clones born below. Close, but no cigar. The experiment never quite gelled, and the pathetic puppets were abandoned to their subterranean hell where all they managed were pathetic acts of mimicry of those above. Until Red orchestrated a rebellion and led the army of dopplegängers up top where they would sever their connection with their doubles and accomplish a Hands Across America solidarity that originally only reached cheap commercialized sentiment with the surface world.

The climactic clarification of the fantastical element driving Peele’s metaphor on the class system operating in America is one major information dump, and in some ways plays like Jack Nicholson pushing Dick Miller up against the castle door in Roger Corman’s The Terror. What’s going on? Buckle up; Miller is going to reveal all in one strenuous release of breath and plot. For those that don’t deal with mystery thanks to a bad case of narrative OCD, here is the scene to illuminate every physical and emotional horror Peele propelled upon his characters and audience.

Did we need it? In some ways, the scene sheds light on the events. In others, it demands more questions. If Peele and Gioulakis had shot this exposition in traditional tight close-ups that cut together like an exchange of machine gun bullets the moment would most certainly have fallen with a thud. In choosing to lay it all out there in the basement classroom with the camera positioned inside the chalkboard looking out at both parties and capturing them equally with the split-focus diopter, Peele takes a scene meant to appease those sitting up in the nosebleeds and visually underscores the emotionality of the entire film. 

Left and right of the frame tethered as one. Adelaide and Red are linked; unified as both opponents and victims. There is no difference between the two. The final revelation explaining their reversal of status that forcibly occurred in 1986 acts as the ultimate understanding that both characters were willing to upend the other to obtain the good life. Hero? Villain? Neither. Adelaide and Red are just desperate to live anywhere other than the bottom of human misery.

For Us, the split-focus diopter is not a nifty tip of the hat to the masters that came before (although it is that, too), but everything its filmmaker is screaming throughout the movie’s runtime. Here we meet Adelaide and Red on one battlefield, ravenous and furious to protect what they had. Two women enter, only one shall leave.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.