There’s a softness in the sky behind the face of the person on screen. A blended, pleasing haze of color, diffuse like a soothing fog, fills the image. But you hardly notice. It takes a conscious effort to pay it any mind because you’re looking at the crisp, clear image of the subject’s face, the main focus of the image. What you may not realize is that it’s largely because the background is so smartly out of focus that we appreciate the singularity of intention portrayed by the subject of the image. The haze forces us to put our attention onto what’s sharp in the picture.
A moment later it all changes. The well-defined features of the subject’s face transform into a blurry diffusion, practically disappearing. What emerges is a sharp image of someone else, sitting on a park bench in the space where there had been nothing but blur a moment earlier. The camera has not moved, but the camera operator has “pulled” his or her focus.
This is an old technique, one stretching back long before electronics managed all of the visual details of our images. It describes a dynamic change in a composition where the focal point of an image shifts in depth from one subject to another. Employed well it’s a smart way to draw comparisons, to intensify relationships, or to juxtapose two ideas.
It’s also easy to understand from an experiential perspective. When we’re talking to someone on a sidewalk and the sound of a car door down the street pulls our attention over that person’s shoulder, we’re essentially experiencing the same thing as a pulled focus. Without shifting our position in space, we’ve changed what’s relevant for us to perceive.
On a movie set this can be a tricky thing to do well. Precise placement, movement, and velocity of a lens can make a pulled focus exciting or distracting, sloppy or sublime. But that doesn’t mean it requires years of elite training to do well. Ordinary video productions can use the technique to great, positive effect too. By shifting what’s in focus, the creative storyteller can adroitly shift the balance of perception where it needs to go.
Here’s the take-away: the principles of pulling focus matter even if you’re not a filmmaker. The most important, most easily overlooked details of a scene with a pulled focus is that there are multiple story elements right in front of you, even if you’re just choosing to send your attention to one in particular. What’s changing is how you choose to orient your perceptions. What’s changing is how you choose to observe. In business, in leadership, in education, and everywhere else where creativity has a place to shine, there are probably all sorts of things right in front of you that could play valuable roles. If you’re not seeing a solution to your problem, consider shifting your focus and see what pops into view. Chances are it was in the scene all along.