Tag Archives: citizen kane

What is… Chiaroscuro?

Chiaroscuro, Italian for light-dark, is a lighting technique created by stark contrasts between light and shadow. It is used in almost all forms of art and was popularised by Renaissance painters to give depth to three-dimensional objects in their work. Caravaggio was one of the biggest proponents of the technique, as shown in an example of his work below, Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes is an example of chiaroscuro in Renaissance paintings

Fast-forward a bit from the Renaissance era and chiaroscuro is used to great effect in films, too. Nosferatu, the 1922 vampire flick, uses shadow very effectively, whilst it has become an integral part of some directors’ work, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock to name but two. See below for a couple of examples…

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What is… Deep Focus?

Deep focus is a cinematographic technique that allows objects or people to appear in focus on various planes of a shot. Simply, it means that things in the foreground and the background are in focus. It does this by using a large depth of field, which can be created using bright lights, a narrow lens aperture and by using a wide angle rather than a long lens. Deep focus can also be achieved through image trickery and manipulation if so required. It is the opposite of shallow focus, whereby only what is in the immediate foreground is in focus.

Although not invented by, Orson Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland have been widely accredited with popularising the technique. Other auteurs such as Jean Renoir, Hou Hsao-Hsien and Abbas Kiarostami are also renowned for using deep focus in much of their work. Some like to use deep focus purely as a stylistic choice, although some employ it as they believe it gives a more accurate representation of reality. After all, when looking at something in real life, you can choose how far to focus, whether to look at something in the foreground or the background. Deep focus helps to give that level of choice.

One could go on for hours about the intricacies of focal length, light gauges and so on (well I couldn’t, but some could) when discussing deep focus, but the best way to understand what it means is to look at some examples.

Le Regle de Jeu

Here, in Jean Renoir’s Le Règle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game), you can clearly see that the couple through the doorway in the background are in focus as well as the two men in the foreground.

Citizen Kane

This scene from Citizen Kane is one of the best examples of deep focus and the uses it can have beyond the purely aesthetic. Here we can see three different planes all in focus. We have the mother in the foreground, the father a little further back in the doorway and then a young Charles Kane in the background outside viewed through the window. So just why is deep focus so instrumental in this scene and, consequently, the film as a whole? Well, we have Kane’s mother in focus signing the control of her son’s life away, and because of her positioning in the frame along with the character’s eyelines, we are drawn to this act. Normally, however, Kane playing outside would be out of focus, but by using deep focus, combined with the positioning of the window and the contrast in colours, we are also drawn to watching him play; the last few moments of him truly having child’s life. Having both these important events in focus links them semantically, providing the real crux of the story.

Deep focus is not used nearly as much as it was, especially in Hollywood films, primarily because the way films are made has changed. Lighting is lower to make working conditions more comfortable, shot length is shorter, multiple angles are now shot thanks to the ability to have more cameras on set, and you could argue that Hollywood films tend to focus less on the smaller details of filmmaking as the average moviegoer may well miss them. Still, the above example from Citizen Kane goes to show that deep focus can be an effective technique that can really enhance not just the look of a film but various other aspects too.

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What is…a MacGuffin?

Hitchcock - famous for using MacGuffinsVery simply put, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or Maguffin) is the thing that drives the plot of the film forward. It very often provides the conflict between the protagonists and antagonists but actually has very little, if any, other significance or importance whatsoever.

A MacGuffin may take any form, perhaps something concrete like a briefcase of money or something more abstract like a quest for power or glory. A good test to see whether something is indeed a MacGuffin is whether it is interchangeable with something else. Does it really matter if everyone is searching for some secret blueprints or could it quite conceivably be a cure for a disease? If so then it’s probably a MacGuffin.

The term was invented (or at least popularised) by a certain Mr Alfred Hitchcock (some say it was actually screenwriter and friend of Hitchcock, Angus MacPhail who coined the term) who became renowned for using the technique in his films. In an interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock described the MacGuffin as follows:

One man says “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?”, and the other answers, “Oh, that’s a McGuffin”. The first one asks “What’s a McGuffin?” “Well”, the other man says, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands”. The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands”, and the other one answers, “Well, then that’s no McGuffin!” So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

Clearly not one for clear explanation is Mr Hitchcock. Still, nice to hear it in his own words. He has also said that the audience doesn’t actually care what the MacGuffin is, which could explain his rather ambiguous description of it. George Lucas on the other hand said that the audience should very much care about the MacGuffin “almost as much as the dueling heroes and villains on-screen.”

The theory behind a MacGuffin has been around since before Hitchcock, however. Back when films were told with title cards and over-exaggerated facial expressions, an actress named Pearl White starred in serials that would have MacGuffin-like plot devices, although she would refer to them as ‘weenies’. Not quite as nice sounding as ‘MacGuffin’ is it?

Examples of MacGuffins

  • Rosebud (Citizen Kane) – The search for the meaning of Charles Foster Kane’s last word is perhaps the most famous example of a MacGuffin and one that has become engrained in film culture and parodied countless times in popular culture.
  • R2-D2 (Star Wars) – Some may not realise it, but R2-D2 is probably the central character of Episode IV, as it’s the mischievous little droid who carries the Death Star plans the Rebellion need to plan an attack but the Empire is doing its best to track down.
  • Unobtainium (Avatar) – The precious mineral found on the moon of Pandora, unobtainium is the focus of a mining colony who come up against the local Na’vi. This soon becomes secondary to the other events of the film, however, making it an excellent example of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin.
  • British military secrets (The 39 Steps) – Arguably the most famous of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins, the military secrets (and the meaning behind the 39 Steps) are what drive the entire film, but are ultimately not of huge consequence to the story.

These are just a few examples but there are countless more. In fact, most films contain a MacGuffin of sorts, although some are easier to spot than others. Do you have any particular favourites? If so, feel free to leave a comment.

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