Basic Film Techniques: The Extreme Close-Up

The extreme close-up is a shot that would only show an eye, mouth or portion of an actors’ face. This form of shot produces a sense of importance in the minute, the apparently insignificant and normally imperceivable. From a normal range we may not see any emotion on a face, however cutting to an extreme close-up a welling up of tears in the eye of the apparently emotional-less face could be shown. The extreme close-up allows a director to reveal something normally unseen; the extreme close-up imbues the image it shows with a sense of importance. In Blade Runner an extreme close-up of an eye in the introductory scenes leads one to wonder about the significance of perception and leads the audience to become reflexive about their own participation in watching film. In an action film a director may show an extreme close-up of a spring flicking to indicate the small mechanical processes which lead to the large subsequent explosion. The extreme close-up ensures, because it fills the scene with a minute aspect of a larger whole, a sense of importance and significance is evoked. The extreme close-up also becomes a revealing technique: a quiet whispered secret rather than a loudly proclaimed revelation.

Here’s a link to an article which explores Hollywood’s view of the close-up.

Hollywood’s view of the close-up

The Untouchables (1987)

In this film, as a man falls off a roof top to his death, i am reminded of the philosophy of the close-up and Hollywood’s reliance upon it. As he falls we are given a close-up [a rather cheap looking one] of his face showing the fear in his eyes. He is an evil man so we are not welcomed into feeling pity or regret.

Bela Balazs said that the close-up ‘radiate[s] a tender human attitude in the contemplation of hidden things, delicate solicitude, a gentle bending over the intimacies of life-in-the-miniature, a warm sensibility. Good close-ups are lyrical; it is the heart, not the eye, that has perceived them.’♣

Although the falling of a man to his death is not ‘warm’ but cold it is true that the close-up communicates the hidden nature of things. The tough-rough “anit scared of death” man has been exposed by the close-up, his fragile human nature is uncovered. The close-up becomes a tool in-which the director can show that hard-nosed ultra-violent policing is correct because only when faced with their death do the gangsters show any morsel of humanity. Good policing is bringing back the humanity in a convict either through prison (rather tellingly called a correction facility) or death and according to this movie, death, is the only way that one is brought back to their own humanity.

Hollywood cinema relies upon the close-up to communicate human attitudes tender or not however the consequence is a continouous message of individual responcibility when outside forces should take a portion of the blame/credit for the production of an individuals morality. The close-up focuses upon the eyes and lips and therefore aesthetically removes the outside world from the production of that emotion. The man who falls to the floor falls isolated emotionally because of the close-up technique and the only time he is reunited with society is when he hits a car roof.

♣ Bela Balazs ‘Theory of the Film’ in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism, Oxford: Oxford Uni Press (1979), pp. 288-298. p. 289.