What it is…

A shot that presents an actor from shoulder above, usually only her face. Although the term is generally associated with faces of actors, it applies to inanimate objects as well. The Close-up is a classic cinematographic device. Legend has it that audiences were terrified when they first saw a severed head on the big screen.

Why it is special...

The use of a Close-up directly takes cinema away from the territory of theatre since we stop seeing the entire body of the actor and observe just her face, in complete detail, with every crease, pimple and pore visible. This means doing away with expressionistic acting and instead relying on subtlety, where the twitch of an eyebrow, the quiver of lips or the sway of the pupils can speak volumes.

How it is used:

Portraiture

The Close-up provides a straightforward link between cinema and portraits and sculptures of European Renaissance. Directors have, time and again, paid tribute to their muses with the use of Close-ups, tweaking facial expression, lighting, framing and composition not unlike a painter's stylisation of his work. If the eyes are the doorway to the soul, the Close-up is the ticket.

Conceptual use

The Close-up can be used as an intellectual, abstract device. For instance, a tight Close-up might indicate entrapment whereas an extreme variant of it, with only a part of the face captured on screen, might suggest a larger-than-life persona. Coupled with a zoom, which can take an actor through all kinds of Close-up, the device can be utilised to illustrate a range of ideas.

When it is deployed...

The Close-up, clearly, has become a rare commodity in mainstream cinema. Actors and audiences, who were once taken by the grace of the human face, seem to be increasingly shifting their obsession towards chiseled bodies, denying Close-ups with their sunglasses. As a result, the device has sought refuge in cheap television shows, whose talking-heads approach drains its potential.

Where to find it...

Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) consists almost entirely of Close-ups of Maria Falconetti's face, and not for a moment does it give her some “breathing space.” Accordingly, the film becomes as much about the trial of Falconetti by Dreyer as it is about the trial of Joan by English prosecutors.