Cinematic Storytelling (9)

Sheila O’Malley’s post on a close-up of Bud White in L.A. Confidential reminded us that characters with dimensions, with varying inner conflicts and emotions – a.k.a. depth – foster the right circumstances for great acting through close-ups.

CLOSE-UPS, BABY!

Of a moment in which we watch Bud, Sheila writes: “He is totally still. He doesn’t blink. He just stares. He seems like a snake, or some kind of predator. He’s looking out the window, but there is a coiled violence in him, a potential for action that vibrates in his expression. He is waiting for his moment. But the main reason why the close-up is so arresting, so startling … is that beneath all of that … somehow … is sadness.”

Matt Zoller Seitz had a great close-ups blog-a-thon, you must check this out. I love Jim Emerson’s Free-Association Dream Sequence. I love Stephen Bissette’s article on The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly. And I love Simon Hsu’s Emotion through Bodily Motion: Acting and the Frame in John Cassavetes’s Faces. “How maddening, in a medium that exists as a series of images, is it to find that dialogue has replaced what visuals should say?”

How maddening, in a medium that exists as a series of images,
is it to find that dialogue has replaced what visuals should say?

Another great article, Chet Mellema on Kubrick’s use of close-ups in 2001, focuses on the scene where Hal watches Dave and Frank speak to each other in the pod: “This close-up/warning not only functions as a plot point for Dave’s last-resort space walk later in the film, but it also forms for the viewer a general sense of foreboding and signals perhaps that what Frank and Dave are about to do may have unintended consequences if they are not cautious.

Frank and Dave do apparently isolate themselves from HAL’s ability to hear their conversation. Unfortunately, as we all know, they fail to hide from HAL’s paranoid, malicious gaze. Kubrick deftly conveys this information through a series of five, quick close-ups.”

Kubrick deftly conveys this information
through a series of five, quick close-ups.

And then there was Craig’s unexpected article about Shattered Glass: “It is the conference call scene in Lane’s office that marks the turning point for this transition. Glass’s most recently published scoop–a wild yarn about a computer hacker blackmailing a powerful software company–has been challenged by a duo of reporters (played by Zahn and Dawson, with Cas Anvar as their editor) at Forbes.com. While an increasingly panicky Glass attempts to deflect, dodge and stonewall their questions, Lane sits quietly and observes.

A scene isn’t just about a shifting of values,
pushing the story forward […]

And it is at this point, for approximately twenty-five seconds, the camera begins to push slowly toward Sarsgaard’s face.” A scene isn’t just about a shifting of values, pushing the story forward, escalating the conflict, creating reversals, twists, and revelations, who wants what from whom, etc, it’s also good to think about WHO that scene is really about.

We know from our Cinema Europe series that close-ups were historically designed to be a deterrence to illegal forgeries of popular silent films. Nothing could be a better stamp of actual authenticity than a human face. In fact, Episode 1 of Cinema Europe showcased many examples of early close-ups – characters looking through keyholes or spectacles or eating camera lenses just to show something different to bring audiences back for more.

Close-ups were historically designed to be
a deterrence to illegal forgeries of popular silent films.

There was G.A. Smith’sThe Sick Kitten in 1903 that showed a medium shot of two children in a room. One is holding a kitten. Then Smith cuts to a close-up of the cat taking a spoonful of medicine. There were concerns at the time that audiences, who were still accustomed to watching live theatre, would repel at such an intimate moment. But Smith insisted and kept the close-up because he thought audiences would want to see this curious action in greater detail. He was, of course, correct and audiences loved it.

Can we, as screenwriters, incorporate close-ups in our specs? Of course we can, even though we no longer write camera angles. They’re simple variations of Secondary Headings. And you can use this whether it’s a face or a hand or an object:

[scrippet]

Across the room

CHARLIZE THERON

licks her lips as she stares at Mystery Man.

[/scrippet]

– Mystery Man

In his own words, Mystery Man was “famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. A homebody jetsetting around the world. Brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.”

MM blogged for nearly 4 years and tweeted for only 4 months, then disappeared – mysteriously.

The Story Department continues to republish his best articles on Monday.

Here, you’ll also be informed about the release of his screenwriting book.

About the Author

Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in international movie rights acquisition, script development and production. He has trained and consulted to filmmakers all over the world, including award-winning screenwriters, and Academy Award nominees. Karel founded this website, as well as Logline.it!, ranks among the most influential people for screenwriting on social media, and speaks more than a handful of European languages (which should come in handy in his present hometown of Sydney, Australia).

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