The Close-up Shot

Within the different shot sizes, the close-up shot has a special status. The Legend, reported (or dreamed) by Jean-Luc Godard, says that the famed American moviemaker David Wark Griffith was “taken by the beauty of his actress to such an extent that he invented the close-up to better stare at the details”. Jean Renoir thinks that the close-up shot is what differentiates cinema from any other art form; for philosopher Gilles Deleuze, it is the “affection-image”; for painter Fernand Léger, it’s the cinema’s only invention and as for Jean Epstein, it is cinema’s soul. The close-up sculpts the cinematographic shape and gives it its strengths. Its history follows.

The invention

The close-up is considered a simple enlargement of an object or human being in the image, and is as old as cinema itself. Georges Albert Smith (1864 - 1959) uses shots in different values for the first time in film editing. In the movie Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900), a close-up suddenly precedes or follows a larger shot. It is the birth of what will be later called “technical decoupage” (or shot-by-shot breakdown), but is it also the birth of editing?

The art of close-ups

It is David Wark Griffith (1875 - 1948) who will lend the close-up its value by using it to create an atmosphere, define a character, intensify a situation, elevating it to the status of a symbol. If, at the beginning, Griffith stayed loyal to the painting-like or theatre point of view (the long shot), since 1910/11 and especially 1913 (Judith de Béthulie), breaks up with the scenic framing by incorporating close-up shots in the action flow.

The face

“The affection-image is the close-up shot, and the close-up is the face” writes Gilles Deleuze. In coming closer to his actors, Griffith announces, without any doubt, the end of pantomime and theatrics. This trust in cinema, at the expense of performing arts, is greatly developed in Griffith thanks to the close-up shot. It is the beginning of the cinema actor. We no longer choose actors for their comedic qualities, but also for their physical uniqueness, the way they carry themselves, their gaze, the flutter of their lashes. It is not something mundane, because we are slowly swerving to a cinema where reality is at stake. It is no longer a simple image representation of reality as it shows itself, but the image now counts because of what it reveals about this reality. The sequencing of shots now produces a meaning, emotions, thoughts, and not only performing arts or events combinations related to the scenario.

The Russian close-up

Sergueï Mikhaïlovitch Eisenstein (1898 - 1950) who worshipped David W. Griffith openly, rethinks the close-up shot in terms of “synecdoche”. This literary figure adapted to cinema consists in showing the representation of an entire element in part. The director explains while using "Battleship Potemkin": “This movie made me rethink the role of the close-up shot, making it an element that is capable of waking the viewer’s conscience and feelings in regards to the whole element. The nose-clip of the medical officer hence becomes his substitute, at the desired timing, through the use of a close-up (…) reconstituting the whole through a representation of a part.” This sole object in a close-up will then represent the medical officer who wears a nose-clip in his first appearance.
Where Griffith the American uses his close-up as the key detail of a scene, Eisenstein the Russian integrates it in a confrontational procedure. “The American links the term to vision. For us, it is link to the appreciation of what is seen.” written by Eisenstein. However, in both cases, the close-up is intrinsically link to the editing.

The star shot

Hollywood has integrated the notion of “star” a long time ago by reckoning its considerable economic power. It will then be evaluated by counting the number of close-ups that the editing will award it. The iconic shot becomes a trading element, a myth creator and seller. In some movies, the starring actress or actor’s iconic shots will sometimes take up to half of the movie, massively intervening at the selective memory level of the viewer and his gaze’s direction. The feeling weaved by this image “is not autonomous neither is it disconnected. However, it offers itself also as the emotion behind a portrait, an ecstasy or tragedy of the face”, writes Pierre Berthomieu.

Hitchcock and the extreme close-up

In "Notorious" (1948), there is a famous shot that starts out in the great chandelier that dominates and embraces the entire reception hall, and ends its course on a key in a lock, tightly squeezed by Ingrid Bergman's hand. Hitchcock explains: “This camera movement clearly states: there's a big reception taking place in this house, a drama is brewing without anyone's knowledge at the same time, and it lies in one small object: this key”.

It is an entity, a unique image without past nor future
The objects that are shot in an extreme close-up in movies, although serving and nourishing action and intrigue in the first place, also have an unparalleled graphic value in cinema. A drawn key or eye, the line’s precision and even the sudden disappearance of any perspective in the field paved the way to formal research on an experimental cinema that is interested in the image’s materialistic side (granularity, chromatic value, refocusing, rhythmic flow, etc).

Contemporary and experimental cinema

In John Cassavetes' "Faces" (1962), the image reaches a physical intensity that can rarely be achieved. The faces that are closely observed by the camera/director’s eye and voluntarily unhinged in the editing, give scenes a type of abstraction where emotions are dominant. Close-up shots stop being used for their narrative function, and are instead used for their sensitive, affective perception. “Through the close-up shot, the cinema achieved a great change in the history of cinema: a smile becomes as important as a massacre”, writes Pascal Bonitzer.
The fluxfilm N° 15 Eye Blink (1966) shows Yoko Ono’s left eye. This extreme close-up shot of 36 seconds frees the film from perception standards, depth of field depth and even from the vanishing point; it is an entity, a unique image without past nor future. Looking at it is enough.