The iconic Clint Eastwood may have more close up shots than any other film actor in history. How can any director resist taking advantage of those intense, piercing eyes? (Image from Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.)
We continue our discussion of Joseph Mascelli’s Five C’s of Cinematography, with the focus on Part 4 of the series: close-ups. (To begin at the start of the series with Part 1, visit here).
A series of close up shots of the legendary actor, Toshiro Mifune, in Akira Kurasawa’s Rashoman.
The close up shot is pretty much a staple of modern day drama. Arguably the most powerful advantage that film has over the live stage actor, the cut into a close up of an actor’s face can evoke an intensity or subtlety of emotion that can rarely be surpassed. A held stare into the eyes or face of an actor allows an audience to get right inside the mind and heart of the character, creating a most direct and intense connection.
Tom Cruise experiences a very personal and painful moment in P.T. Anderson’s magnetic drama, Magnolia. This director’s deeply-penetrating themes require the use of close ups as a main staple for getting us “inside” the character’s head.
In the words of Mascelli:
“Audience involvement is most successful when the viewers are brought into the picture … A sequence may be built to move towards cinematic close-ups. A sequence may (even) open with a close-up that surprises, startles or shocks an audience into attention.”
“Close-ups provide dramatic punch; point up story highlights; depict related action; comment on principal action; emphasize narrative by isolation of subject, and elimination of unwanted matter; or distract the audience to cover jump-cuts.”
Extreme close-up shot depicting the trauma Malcolm McDowell’s character experiences in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 dystopian film A Clockwork Orange.
The chapter on close-ups is incredibly detailed. Each section clarifies every use and style of the close-up shot; from over-the-shoulder close-ups and transitional close-ups, to cut-ins (which need to be established in a preceding wider shot) and cut-aways (which show vantage points, like an observer from a distance).
A cut-away (med) close up shot, from Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves — a shot that doesn’t have to be established because it is not part of the main event.
Now, not all films require extensive use of close ups. You have to pick your spots. Master film-maker Woody Allen was notorious for not using them. In Richard Lucks’ excellent article on the history of film close-ups, he noted how actor Michael Caine was deeply concerned over Woody Allen’s preference to be mostly “close-up” free during shooting. The actor reminisces:
“I was always told to save my best work for my close-ups,” the great Sir Michael Caine remembers. “Which was a big problem when I came to work with Woody Allen on Hannah And Her Sisters in the mid-’80s, because he doesn’t cutaway to close-ups at all – the only close-ups you get come organically out of the master.”
Michael Caine ponders carefully his next move, in Woody Allen’s 1986 classic, Hannah and Her Sisters. Despite the lack of close-ups, Caine still won an Oscar for his marvelously poignant performance.
But just because it isn’t absolutely necessary, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its place. When used properly and judiciously, the close-up shot adds information, texture and style.
“Close-ups add spice, the ingredient that enhances dramatic flavor of the finished film.”
The ultimate reveal in Bryan Singer’s wicked-cool 1995 cops and robbers mystery caper, The Usual Suspects.
In our next post, we’ll conclude our series on the Five C’s of Cinematography, as we discuss Part 5: composition.