Film is a two-dimensional medium that’s manipulated by filmmakers to create three-dimensional worlds. With the right craft, lighting, visualization, and camerawork, that 3D illusion can be achieved with a handful of techniques. Altogether, the goal is to create a sense of depth in your imagery.
“Depth” in film refers to the ways you add layers to your shots to give the illusion of a three-dimensional image. Depth gives your audience the sense that they can see through the screen and into the world you created, as opposed to looking at a flat, two-dimensional image.
Often, the concept goes hand-in-hand with the shot’s depth of field (DOF)—essentially, how clear the subject of your shot, the area in front of the subject, and the area behind your subject will be. A deep depth of field means that most, if not all, of the environment and subjects in your frame are in focus.
“All the President's Men” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
A shallow depth of field means your subject is in focus, but the background or foreground (or both) is out of focus.
“The Dark Knight” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
“I ‘stack’ my shots with three main ingredients: foreground, middle-ground, and background,” says Neil D’Monte, storyboard artist for “Jurassic World” and director of “Bed Bug.”
“I like having objects directly in front of the lens to create a point just out of focus, much like that of a voyeur,” he says. “The middle-ground element is usually in focus and the main part of the storytelling for the scene. This can be two characters talking or fighting. The background element is also slightly out of focus. This is used to establish the ‘architecture’ of the shot and to show distance and perspective.”
“The Silence of the Lambs” Courtesy Orion Pictures
Crafting depth in your compositions is vital because it’s “one of the ways to make a shot feel real,” says Rebecca Berrih, president of Elysian Fields Entertainment and director of “BlackBerry” and “Glitch.” “If you’re shooting someone in a car, you want to see the other cars and the people walking in the streets. That’s one of the reasons why the audience believes the action is happening and forgets they’re watching a film.”
Alternatively, a shallow depth of field can illuminate specific details and make your subject stand out. “A shallow depth of field isolates the subject and brings attention to [it],” says Berrih. “We point the audience where we want them to look.” She highlights the work of director Michael Mann, who often uses shallow depth to “make his characters feel more important on top of being isolated.”
“Thief” Courtesy United Artists
To create depth in a shot, filmmakers can utilize a variety of methods, including:
Depth starts with your camera—or, more specifically, your lens. “A great trick to enhance emotions is to create a shallow depth of field that blurs out the background and puts a clear focus on your subject,” says writer-director Isabel Dréan (“Let Go,” “Strange Events”).
To create a shallow depth of field, you’ll have to shoot with a wider aperture (the amount of light streaming through the lens). You can control the aperture by adjusting the f-number (or f-stop) on your lens. The lower the f-number, the higher the aperture—which means more light coming into the lens and a shallower depth of field.
A simple way to achieve a sense of depth is to use “elements of color or an object that pops in the background,” says Dréan. This is particularly effective if the color contrasts or accentuates the colors you use in the foreground or the subject of your shot.
“The Royal Tenenbaums” Courtesy Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
Lighting and shadows
To study clear examples of depth in filmmaking, look to the noir films of the 1940s, which used stark white streetlights, slanted shadows, and high contrast between light and dark. By drawing such vivid distinctions between the subjects of a scene and the shadows surrounding them with chiaroscuro lighting, films such as “Double Indemnity” and “The Big Sleep” are filled with both depth and mystery.
“Double Indemnity” Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Fog, smoke, and haze
Creating depth means essentially adding layers to your images—something substantial in front of, behind, or around your subject. For an atmospheric option, consider fog, mist, smoke, or haze, a technique that filmmaker Martin Scorsese often utilizes.
As in painting or drawing, diagonal lines moving toward a vanishing point create a sense that a 2D image goes on into the distance. Placing your camera low in front of settings such as bridges, sidewalks, pathways, and railway lines can create depth.
“Stand by Me” Courtesy Columbia Pictures
Whether it’s a zoom, dolly shot, or pan, you can achieve depth by shifting perspective through camera movement. For example, if you keep your subject static but slowly push in closer to them, the audience gets a sense of moving forward or backward as objects or entryways pass them by.