It’s the ultimate special effect. You’re looking at a person’s face, often set against a background in soft focus, completely filling the screen. We see eye color, crows feet, skin discolorations, movement of small muscles. Intellectually we understand that there’s probably make-up involved for varying effects, professional lighting, special camera lenses, and more, but the point is that a close-up generally refers to seeing a person. A human. In close-ups we see someone who reminds us of the face we see when we check ourselves in mirrors. In close-ups we experience the kind of intimacy we see when we lean in to someone else for an embrace. We’re reminded of real life, but a close-up is real-life amplified. Even in the morning mirror, or in our most private moments with another, we don’t generally experience the sight of faces large enough to fill our vision, except when we see a close-up.
To be clear, I’m not talking about camera placements that are simply near an actor, revealing upper torso and shoulders and neck and head. This is about traditional close-ups, from the neck to the crown, with little space above or below.
Television traditionally kept its gaze wider, presenting living room sized scenes populated by actors instead of tight shots of singular faces. The tighter the shot, the more precisely it traditionally needed to be set up, lit, acted, and directed, and since TV used to be a medium done on the cheap, those kinds of set-ups didn’t happen very often. That’s less true now that television and cinema have drifted closer to each other. Cinema has expanded its frame in a blunt-instrument attempt to explain itself to audiences looking for id-gratifying stimulation, with phantasmagorical special effect vistas and wide-screen mis en scene. Conversely, television has moved in close, with what used to be considered cinematic emotions and fine-grained detail once only reserved for the big screen. Movies haven’t given that up, of course. The close-up remains a standard, go-to element for punching up a story because it presents a human narrative that harkens back to the most basic aspects of shared experiences with other humans. In faces we perceive measures of honesty and in honesty we feel grounded. Even with the most malevolent faces on screens—the villains, the leering bad guys, the characters we love to hate, or the characters we dismiss, disdain, or at whom we laugh—close-ups tell us where we stand.
A good, general rule of photography is “get closer”, no matter what it is that you’re shooting. Even when shooting super-wide landscapes or vistas, it matters to think about what must be in the shot rather than what you imagine could be in the shot. Wide shots still need to be selective. Getting closer matters even for the widest of scenes. That’s why the close-up is not something to take lightly. It’s the ultimate special effect, the trope that asks our complicity in telling a story so that it matters. And it is a special effect: there’s no way to see a person in close-up without a ton of technology and planning in advance of the shot. The moment of effortlessness that we experience when we take in an actor’s face is anything but effortless to acquire well. But that doesn’t mean it’s something we can—or should—easily dismiss. Without characters who speak to us, capture us, move us to feel something, most stories don’t amass the necessary heft to move us.
So what’s this mean for those who aren’t filmmakers? It reminds us to find moments of clarity and honesty in whatever it is we’re doing. It reminds us that the characters in the day-to-day stories of our collective, intersecting lives depend on a willingness to get up close to each other, to make sure that we are not only close enough to discern what someone else is trying to say, but to reveal enough about what we’re trying to say to someone else. That level of involvement in other people’s lives may not come easily, or naturally, or comfortably, but it is the means by which the most meaningful, successful interactions are built. In a close ups, subjects shine clearly, and in close-ups, we reveal what we really mean to say.