Monday, October 15, 2007

Close-ups, Baby!

Matt Zoller Seitz is having a great close-ups blog-a-thon until October 21. You must check this out. So far, I love Jim Emerson’s Free-Association Dream Sequence. I love Stephen Bissette’s article on The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly. And I love Simon Hsu’s Emotion through Bodily Motion: Acting and the Frame in John Cassavetes's Faces. (“How maddening, in a medium that exists as a series of images, is it to find that dialogue has replaced what visuals should say?”)

Sheila O’Malley’s post on a close-up of
Bud White in L.A. Confidential was a great reminder that characters who have dimensions to them, who have varying inner conflicts and emotions, a.k.a. depth, fosters the right circumstances for great acting through close-ups. Of a moment in which we watch Bud, Sheila writes: “He is totally still. He doesn't blink. He just stares. He seems like a snake, or some kind of predator. He's looking out the window, but there is a coiled violence in him, a potential for action that vibrates in his expression. He is waiting for his moment. But the main reason why the close-up is so arresting, so startling ... is that beneath all of that ... somehow ... is sadness.

Another great article, Chet Mellema on Kubrick’s use of
close-ups in 2001, focuses on the scene where Hal watches Dave and Frank speak to each other in the pod: “This close-up/warning not only functions as a plot point for Dave’s last-resort space walk later in the film, but it also forms for the viewer a general sense of foreboding and signals perhaps that what Frank and Dave are about to do may have unintended consequences if they are not cautious. Frank and Dave do apparently isolate themselves from HAL’s ability to hear their conversation. Unfortunately, as we all know, they fail to hide from HAL’s paranoid, malicious gaze. Kubrick deftly conveys this information through a series of five, quick close-ups.

And then there was Craig’s unexpected article about
Shattered Glass: “It is the conference call scene in Lane's office that marks the turning point for this transition. Glass's most recently published scoop--a wild yarn about a computer hacker blackmailing a powerful software company--has been challenged by a duo of reporters (played by Zahn and Dawson, with Cas Anvar as their editor) at While an increasingly panicky Glass attempts to deflect, dodge and stonewall their questions, Lane sits quietly and observes. And it is at this point, for approximately twenty-five seconds, the camera begins to push slowly toward Sarsgaard's face.” A scene isn’t just about a shifting of values, pushing the story forward, escalating the conflict, creating reversals, twists, and revelations, who wants what from whom, etc, it’s also good to think about WHO that scene is really about.

We know from our
Cinema Europe series that close-ups were historically designed to be a deterrence to illegal forgeries of popular silent films. Nothing could be a better stamp of actual authenticity than a human face. In fact, Episode 1 of Cinema Europe showcased many examples of early close-ups – characters looking through keyholes or spectacles or eating camera lenses just to show something different to bring audiences back for more. There was G.A. Smith’s The Sick Kitten in 1903 that showed a medium shot of two children in a room. One is holding a kitten. Then Smith cuts to a close-up of the cat taking a spoonful of medicine. There were concerns at the time that audiences, who were still accustomed to watching live theatre, would repel at such an intimate moment. But Smith insisted and kept the close-up because he thought audiences would want to see this curious action in greater detail. He was, of course, correct and audiences loved it.

Can we, as screenwriters, incorporate close-ups in our specs? Of course we can, even though we no longer write camera angles. They’re simple variations of
Secondary Headings. And you can use this whether it’s a face or a hand or an object:

Across the room


licks her lips as she stares at Mystery Man.

Yes, that really happened. Okay, so, what are some of the dramatic reasons behind close-ups? I give you 23:


To examine beauty / ugliness:

To illuminate a glance we would not have seen (as in
Lady Snowblood):

To establish an essential prop in the narrative (thanks to
Keith Uhlich):

To insert an important text or image that pushes the story forward:

To inspire using a much-loved visual symbol:

To convey non-verbal emotions (like confusion and embarrassment):

To emphasize a word(s):

To make us face a face that we may not wish to see:

To intimidate:

To emphasize power, influence, obsession, or one individual's absolute resolve to stay the course:

To create a feeling of unease and paranoia:

To punctuate the severity of a tragedy (as in Battleship Potemkin):

To convey isolation and emptiness:

To show a different side of a character, such as an army leader’s personal, private breakdown:

To terrify (as in

To disorient (thanks to
Jonathan Lapper):

To tantalize (as in Malena):

To show a moment of extreme intimacy:

To make a visual statement about a character (as in Miller's Crossing thanks to the
Opening Shots Project):

To reveal a sought-after MaGuffin:

To capitalize on a heightened emotional near-death climax:

To provide a moment of humor:

And to give resolution to a conflict:


Anonymous said...

Great screenshots ... I have been so enjoying the whole blog-a-thon!! Thanks for the shout-out too.

Unknown said...

Ok, MM

You forgot to mention that Charlize had barbeque sauce on her lips.....or maybe she wanted to let you know about the barbeque sauce on your lips.... he he. If you got charlize theron to lick her lips at you, then you have transcended your status as Guru, to Major Diety.

One question and one comment-
question- How far do we go in showing an emotion in a close up? I fully agree that a look or body language can be far more powerful than dialogue. In my script I'm working on, the protag is essentially silent for 50-60% of the script and his non-verbal reactions to things is critical. But I worry that I'm being too subtle not wanting to create actor's direction.

Comment- I think this trend away from strong visuals and reliance on dialogue is symptomatic of the age in which we live, less human interaction, communicating through email, less time to pick up the nuances in peoples' faces and their body language.

Laura Deerfield said...

The interesting thing is - how do you write a close-up?

Mim said...

Writing a close-up:
Jeremiah holds up the pendant as he examines it.

It is an angel wielding a fiery sword carved out of wood so old it has turned black.

MM, no boogery nose shot from Blair Witch?

Mystery Man said...

Sheila - Great to meet you.

Bob - Sparingly and briefly. Are you talking about that silent script? In that context, I would imagine you'd use close-ups far more than normal and it would be fine. I can't wait to read that thing. Re: Comment - I think it's symptomatic of so much of the teaching of the gurus, because they say "show don't tell" but they don't teach it, nor do they really emphasize it. We MUST think more like filmmakers to really succeed.

Laura - treat it like a secondary heading. Case in point:

"...and she turns to Mystery Man.


smiles with a beaming countenance."

Or something like that. I've been drinking.

Mim - Would you prefer this:

"...and she turns to Mystery Man.


smiles with what's usually a beaming countenance except for the fact that she has excessive boogery nose snot."


Mim said...

It also depends on how close a close-up you want to imply.

Mystery Man leans closer and sees...

...a tiny piece of spinach stuck between her teeth.

And then pull back a little:

The snot rains over her lip, obscuring his view of the spinach.

Mystery Man said...


wcdixon said...

Nice postage...

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, man.

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