Today’s post in honor of John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi / horror film The Thing is dedicated to the shots where he used a split-focus diopter to create the illusion of deep focus, that people or items in the foreground and background are in equal focus. A split-focus diopter is a lens attachment that basically makes half the lens nearsighted. However, it also creates a blurry line where the two halves of the lens meet, so it’s best used in shots where that line can be hidden with something in the scene, like a piece of scenery or a person, or in scenes where the lighting is very low-key. Which, incidentally, made it an ideal bit of camera trickery for Carpenter to use in The Thing, since many of the film’s scenes take place at night or on sets that are low-lit. Once again, SPOILERS AHEAD.
The use of split diopter was prevalent in the 1970s, particularly in Brian DePalma’s films. DePalma almost always had at least one scene where he would halve the screen somehow, often with the diopter or with an actual split screen (typically marked by a black line between two differing shots). For as many times as I’ve seen The Thing, I never before noticed that Carpenter had used this bit of trickery in a couple of scenes. My shriveled little film geek heart went all a-flutter. So, after taking three passes through the film, I believe I’ve screencapped all or at least most of the scenes where Carpenter uses a split diopter to even the focus and create a bit of visual tension between foreground and background.
[note: please forgive the so-so quality of these screencaps, I’m working with stock programs here]
Here , MacReady (Kurt Russell) encounters Fuchs (Joel Polis) after Blair (Wilford Brimley) has gone berserk and smashed the radio equipment. Fuchs, in the foreground, is in focus as MacReady – also in focus – approaches and startles him. They discuss Blair’s suspicions about the nature of the alien, but soon Fuchs falls victim to either the invader or to his own cracking mental state (it’s unsure if he’s killed or commits suicide). The two men share several scenes together throughout the film, giving the audience the sense that even though MacReady purposefully distances himself from the others in the camp, Fuchs trusts him almost explicitly.
In this scene, MacReady has been cut loose and locked outside by Nauls (T.K. Carter) after checking in on Blair, post-breakdown. MacReady, having broken back into the camp and holding a bundle of dynamite with the fuse shortened, is threatening to blow himself and the entire base sky-high if anyone attacks him. Soon after this confrontation, Norris (Charles Hallahan) begins to suffer what appears to be a heart attack. As the men gather in the lab to perform CPR on Norris, Nauls, Childs (Keith David) and Clark (Richard Masur) keep a close eye on MacReady. In the shots above, Clark has spotted and quietly taken a scalpel from a nearby tray of surgical supplies. In the background, Nauls and Childs flank MacReady, who are all in focus, as Clark’s hand, gripping the scalpel, comes into the foreground, also in focus. We get some good information here: Clark, who has already had suspicion laid on him early in the film as possibly infected, is now becoming more of a clear threat. We’re not sure if he’s grabbing the scalpel to protect himself or to protect everyone else from MacReady. Carpenter also gives us a little foreshadowing to the upcoming blood-test scene, where Clark advances on MacReady while clutching what’s presumably the same scalpel:
In the shot above, the blood test scene is about to play out. Under the high tension, MacReady has killed Clark, shooting him in the head. Clark and Copper (Richard Dysart), who died in the previous scene when his arms are torn off by the Norris-alien, lie on the ping-pong table in the background. In the middle ground, Nauls, Childs, Garry (Donald Moffat), and Palmer (David Clennon) are tied to the furniture by Windows (Thomas Waites), while MacReady, in the foreground, prepares the blood test. Carpenter sets up the scene as one against five, keeping MacReady to the extreme left while the others face him to the right. Previously in the film, MacReady has been set up as a loner and later a reluctant leader, but now the film positions him as distinctly separate from the other men, moving more definitively into the “final man” role.
One of my favorite things about watching films is that often, on repeat views, I’ll discover or realize things that I hadn’t before, even in films that I feel like I’ve seen countless times. Watching The Thing, I was thrilled to see the use of a split diopter. I think part of the reason I hadn’t really picked up on it before may be due to the fact that between now and the last time I sat down this film, I’ve watched far more DePalma movies, where the use of split screen and split-focus diopters is really noticeable. This is the wonderful thing about cinema: you begin to see tricks and angles and all kinds of cinematic conventions pop up across all kinds of films. It creates a cohesiveness that’s a kind of magic.
Tomorrow’s post concludes this three-part series on The Thing, in which I share some of my favorite shots from the film. These range from a few fan-favorites, to small moments that particularly interest me on a visual level.