The filmmaking world lost a legend with the passing of director Jonathan Demme on April 26. Through his work (Demme was making movies nonstop for more than 50 years), he was able to tell many different stories, from comedies to concert documentaries, and from complex dramas to classic horror films.
The Oscar-winning director’s influence can be seen everywhere in cinema today (Paul Thomas Anderson is a known superfan), most notably via Demme’s frequent and masterful use of the close-up. He wasn’t the first director to get up in the actors’ faces, but he was certainly one of the best when he did it. But why is this technique so powerful? And how did Demme make it work so well? Let’s break it down a bit.
The Basics of the Close-Up
In filmmaking, a close-up is when the subject takes up the most, or the entirety, of the frame. A medium close-up (MCU) is when the subject (an actor’s head and shoulders) is the focus; a regular close-up is when the subject (an actor’s head) takes up the whole frame; and an extreme close up (ECU) is when a detail of the subject (e.g., eyes, nose, mouth) takes up the entirety of the screen.
There is also the lean-in (moving closer and closer to the subject as the scene progresses — American Psycho has a good one — the lean-out (moving further and further away as the scene progresses), and a regular old lean (going in and then coming back out).
Typically, filmmakers are taught not to make their close-ups center-framed, but Demme completely ignored that and put his subjects right in the middle, staring at us, making us feel very uncomfortable.
Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs
The Emotional Aspects of Close-Ups
The key to making an audience feel a certain emotion has much to do with a great acting performance, of course, but Demme’s use of the camera enhances that performance and put us right where we need to be to fully experience it. When we’re focused solely on the close-up, we’ve got nowhere else to look as a viewer, and this is how we are artfully manipulated.
Staring down the eyes of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in the “quid pro quo” scene in The Silence of the Lambs or watching Denzel Washington’s Joe Miller experience the aria from La Mamma Morta in Phildelphia are huge emotional moments, because you’re looking right at these characters, up close and personal. Demme moves the camera in closer and closer and closer until we are locked in as an audience, and the emotion of the scene takes over.
The next thing you’ll notice is that not only are the actors in the middle of the frame, but they are also looking directly into the camera. This puts us right in a character’s point of view, so that we experience everything through their perspective. It allows us to become immersed in the scene and forget that we’re observing people play pretend.
Thandie Newton as the title character in Jonathan Demme’s Beloved
The other technique Demme used is having his actors look ever-so-slightly off-camera. This keeps us in the action, but allows us to take a break from having to be a part of the story. We can observe, but from up close. This breakdown does a great job explaining this technique:
Other Aspects of the Close-Up
Close-ups on faces are amazing for getting an emotional response, but it’s also possible to do it with close-ups on regular objects or hands or feet. Think of the opening credits to David Fincher’s Se7en. It’s a gritty, grim sequence of a serial killer at work, all done with close-ups. We get a sense of everything that’s going on emotionally without any dialogue or faces (and with the help of a great score by Howard Shore, the same composer as The Silence of the Lambs).
Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs
The point is, getting up close with the camera can create an entire world and experience of its own within the world of the movie. As long as it’s coherent and motivated, a great close-up can work wonders to lead your audience through a viewing experience that’s sure to stick with them for a while, and no one knew this better than Jonathan Demme.
For more proof, check out this supercut of Demme’s close-ups, and marvel at his mastery behind the camera.
Are there particular moment’s from Demme’s long and varied career that stick with you most? Share them in the comments below.
Top image: Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs