Understanding Space in Film (Part 3)

By Danny F. Santos (doddleNEWS)

Sunset Over the Indian Ocean (NASA, International Space Station Science, 05/25/10)

In part 1 and part 2 of this series on understanding space in film, we explored the idea of the frame creating the illusion of space both in it and outside of it. Continuing with that, we’ll introduce some more kinds of spacial concepts.


Foreground Mid-ground and Background

Showing the difference between foreground, midground and background

One way of creating depth in an image is controlling the foreground (FG), mid-ground (MG) and background (BG). A simple way of approaching this is to think of each plane as a plate of glass where you place your subject and various other objects within the frame. A simple OS (over-the-shoulder) shot uses all 3 of these planes. The person closest to the camera (who the shoulder belongs to) is in the FG, the subject we’re focused on is in the MG and everything behind the subject is the BG.

Orson Well’s Citizen Kane used deep focus to create depth in many of his scenes by using this approach. He staged his actors in different planes and kept them all in focus.

Orson Welles staging actors using deep focus


Limited Space

Limited space uses two or more of the frontal planes to create depth. The idea is to create a flat plane which separates one plane from another. If there is only one plane, the image is considered flat.

So how do you create limited space? Let’s say you have a wall in the BG with an open doorway. By placing one character in the doorway and the other in the MG closer to the camera, you’ve just put the idea of depth in the viewer’s mind.

Using limited space in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The key to this is that each plane needs to have some kind of cue that the human eye understands instantly. A person is the easiest cue since we roughly understand the approximate height of a person. Another thing to watch out for is to avoid using a shallow depth of field. By blurring the BG, you create negative space around your subject and it flattens the image.


Ambiguous Space

Ambiguous Space

In order to create the idea of depth, you usually have to relate it to something. Ambiguous space is the removal of those cues so the viewer doesn’t know what they’re looking at. A normal place at an odd angle or a close up of a part of an object are 2 examples.

Even with an object in frame, you can still create ambiguous space such as a hall of mirrors. You know the relative height of the subject but in a hall of mirrors you don’t know which is the subject and which is the reflection. By adding many images or textures you can disorient the viewer.

Many times you can reorient the viewer with movement, the subject walks into frame in an oddly framed place, picks up an object away from the camera revealing it’s full shape or the mirrors all shatter revealing the subject on his or her own.

In the next several parts, we’ll start introducing all the cues you need to create or limit depth! Feedback, comments or questions, are welcomed below!

About doddle 16507 Articles
Doddlenews is the news division of the Digital Production Buzz, a leading online resource for filmmakers, covering news, reviews and tutorials for the video and film industry, along with movie and TV news, and podcasting.

1 Comment

  1. Fantastic, i need more in regards to space and Movement. Especially on how to create motion on screen. Thanks.
    Vijendran P

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