The Close-up is today, arguably one of the most striking and powerful images at a director’s, or cinematographers disposal. But during the Sound Age of cinema (1930s – 1940s) the shots being employed were predominantly long to medium shots. This was due to the size of the cinema screens being used at the time. (An early exception is D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, 1915) The large screens used in cinemas were adequately detailed for directors to mainly use long-medium shots as they held enough detail for the viewer to easily follow the narrative. But with the sudden advent of home television sets the close up would begin to become far more prominent.
Early television sets had such extremely small screens that the viewer simply couldn’t see enough detail on the screen to understand what was taking place. To address this new problem the neglected, almost shunned, close up was adopted by television directors and eventually became the norm. (A close up of an actors face to show emotion, a close up of a watch to show the time to the audience)
The close up slowly permeated its way into feature films as younger film directors graduated from television. Close ups are now also used in film as useful bridges and continuity between shots. A wide shot may be used to show a character walking up to a door, but a close up is then employed to show said character inserting a key into the door, then the character walks through the door. This sudden change in scale was once thought to be too jarring for the audience by mainstream Hollywood.
“Television has greatly increased the use of the close-up. The compensate for the small size of the screen, the close-up is used to bring us into closer contact with the action.” (Katz, 1991, pg 125)
During dialogue sequences of the 1930s – 1940s, both actors could be shot simultaneously, so there was no problem with eye-line matches. So when the close up began to be used it was absurd to think that you could produce a close up of two actors. Therefore the close up shot-reverse-shot needed be invented. But this then raised another problem: The eye-line match. When shooting dialogue where only one character can be on screen to at once, the convention is to shoot all of one actors dialogue, then move the camera, and shoot the adjoining dialogue from the other actor. So when editing these sequences together, you might find that the actors do not appear to be looking at each other.
“Viewers are particularly sensitive to incongruities in the sight lines between subjects who are looking at each other and in most situations can easily detect when the eye match us slightly off.” (Katz, 1991, pg 125)
This could be due to poor camera placement. For example, crossing the line of action, or not adhering to the Triangle System, or even a mistake on the actor’s part.
Out of close up dialogue sequences an interesting effect emerged in relation to aspect ratios. When two actors are placed in the centre of the screen for their dialogue, the viewer’s eyes stay in the middle of the screen for each cut. This lack of left/right eye motion results in a lack of tension. So directors began experimenting by placing actors at opposite ends of the frame for close up dialogue. This resulted in there being far more dramatic tension within a scene. So with the arrival of a widescreen aspect ratio, actors would appear to be further and further apart. So therefore the effect of increased tension became more and more pronounced.
“The off-centre compositions in alternate close-ups creates a left/right eye motion that is dynamic. This effect becomes pronounced as the width of the screen increases.” (Katz, 1991, pg 125)
Katz, Steven D, 1991 – Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen, Michael Wiese Productions