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(Credit: Warner Bros)

The Story Behind the Shot: A brief history of the ‘close up’

“Alright Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close up.” It is an iconic line that lands Sunset Blvd. in the realm of cinema’s most quotable movies. Just as ubiquitous as that famously sultry snarled line, is the close-up shot itself and it has a legacy that arches back to the very beginnings of the craft. We’re delving into the history of the shot and exploring some classic uses in a supercut below.

What is it about a close up that’s so noteworthy? Well, for the most part, cinema is trying to tell a story, and in order to tell that story effectively, it must cajole the audience into the fiction and convince them it is consequential enough to become invested. On the surface, sticking a camera seemingly a matter of inches from a character’s face might prohibit the enticing lure of fiction by permeating the story with something obviously cinematic, and yet it has been used time and time again to the contrary. The voyeuristic long and mid-range shots might gently coax an audience along, but the close up is the great cinematic grab of the collar and thrust into the action. 

Notable early uses of the shot can be seen in G.A. Smith’s As Seen Through a Telescope, which was released way back in 1900. A man looks through a telescope and then the footage cuts to a lady’s ankle framed in a circle to give the perspective of what he’s looking at down the telescope. According to the BFI, this specific shot pioneered “how to make use of point-of-view close-ups in the context of a coherent narrative […] Smith’s experiments with editing were ahead of most contemporary filmmakers, and in retrospect it can clearly be seen that he was laying the foundations of film grammar as we now understand it.”

This primitive, very literal ‘through the looking glass’ usage shows how the shot can be used to indicate what someone is looking at and thus, tell the story from a character’s perspective. The brilliance of this pioneering deployment is in the framing. The circular telescopic shot makes it unambiguous to an audience what has happened. In the process, Smith laid down the groundwork so that now when we see a shot of someone seemingly looking at something, followed by a close-up, we can unconsciously assume that what we are looking at is from the perspective of a character’s gaze. 

With the shot firmly established in the vocabulary of film as a narrative technique, it evolved along with the technology into more creative uses. Twelve years on from Smith’s pioneering close-up work, D.W. Griffith used the shot in an entirely poetic sense in the silent film, Friends. The story of the movie follows a woman (Mary Pickford) torn between two love interests. Over the course of the ensuing 13 minutes, she ends up falling into a relationship with one of them, only for the final scene to show her glancing at a photo of her new boyfriend and then cutting to a close-up of her face ambivalently staring through the camera, indicating that the true conclusion to the narrative is told in the countenance of the emotions etched upon her face.

Such a deployment seems as straightforward as they come now, but back then it was a truly Promethean feat that changed the discourse of cinema into an entirely more complex art form, filled with three-dimensional characters, not just pratfalls. Or as a line from the aforementioned Sunset Blvd. puts it: “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces.”

Although there are several other key examples from the early days of cinema – from the haunting portraits of despair painted upon the face of Maria Falconetti in 1928’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, to the grimace inducing placement of razors near eyeballs in Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñel’s morality debasing surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou – it was technology once again that transformed the shot. The introduction of macro lenses and 600mm lenses in the late 1960s made all sorts of new close-ups possible. 

It was Sergio Leone who quickly became the master of the poetry that technology now made possible. In The Good, The Bad and the Ugly his triumvirate of close-ups in the grand finale encapsulate vignettes with a backstory of their own akin to the early narrative usage of the silent films that first propagated them. The drama of the shoot-out is paired with the visceral edge of the personal imbuing the grand sense of a culmination. 

Elsewhere the shot can be used to shock; the classic example being Jack Nicholson breaking his face into view in The Shining, serving as a literal embodiment of how intrusive the technique can be. Even the old snot bubble scene in The Blair Witch Project has its place in the annals of close-up history as an example of how it can thrust the warts-and-all gore of cinema into the forefront of a scene. From the humble beginnings of narrative necessity, it now resides as the established sharp edge in cinemas arsenal of shots.

See the explainer, below.

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