On foreground, middleground and background

In cinematic storytelling the camera moves along the coordinates of our environment with X as the horizontal axis, Y as the vertical axis and Z representing the depth. The Z axis is effectively an imaginary line that runs from the foreground to the background. In cinematic terms, it is connected to the depth of field as it carries the illusion of depth. So in order to focus our attention and control perceptions, even emotions, cinematic storytelling manipulates axis and the three planes of pictorial composition: foreground, middleground and background (FG, MG, BG). In pictorial composition, FG is the composition of the visual plane closest to the viewer, BG is the visual plane furthest from the viewer and therefore MG is the plane located between the FG and BG.

In our surroundings however we don’t experience FG, MG and BG as two-dimensional planes but within a three-dimensional environment. Depth is essential to our perceptions. So much so that in his book ‘The Sense of Space’ David Morris immediately tells us on page 1 that ‘depth is what gives bodies volume in the first place, it is what makes situations possible. As Edward Casey puts it, following Merleau-Ponty, depth should really be called the “first dimensions’ rather than the “third”; that is depth is the most primordial dimension, not a ‘bonus’ added to the other two.’ (2004: 1)

Peripheral vision also plays an important role in spatial immersion. It enables us to capture and evaluate the multiplicity of meanings experienced as we move through space. So the three layers of perception established by the FG, MG and BG in any given environment are not constant. As we move though it MG becomes FG and in turn what was initially BG becomes MG and the perceptual formation of a new BG has occurred beyond the original boundaries. Unlike cinematography, it’s not the camera that changes the focus but we do, as we move.

It is a process of transformation and development that enables spatial designers to influence the relationship of the body with its environment. The language of architecture and interior design utilises a terminology that references the layers of perception in FG, MG and BG – focal point, lines of sight, areas of interest, rhythm, axis, vistas, to name but a few. Immersive design is therefore the careful manipulation of FG, MG and BG and the sequencing of events that occur as we progress through our surroundings.

Morris, M. (2004) The Sense of Space State University of New York Press: New York

The page below are extracts from a 2012 project ‘The Culture of Architecture. 3 buildings, 3 periods, 3 ideologies.’ The research and analysis was compiled into a book written for the Making Interior Space journal on the MA Interior Design at the University of Westminster. A pdf copy of the book is available from academia.eu