Extreme Close-ups Are Defining the Current Movie Moment

Willem Dafoe.
Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate. Photo: CBS Films

Less than ten minutes into At Eternity’s Gate, director Julian Schnabel’s biographical reimagining of the final days of Vincent van Gogh (which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival last month and hits theaters November 16), the camera does a curious thing. In the sequence, we see Willem Dafoe as the Dutch Post-Impressionist returning to his tiny Arles domicile — he’s cold and dripping wet from painting en plein air during a thunderstorm. Suddenly, the shaky, handheld camera pulls in jarringly close to his face and lingers there for what seems, by most movie standards, an eternity. The screen is consumed by the hollows of Dafoe’s cheeks, the deep-set furrows in his brow, the arcing wrinkles etched around his mouth; his tightly shut eyelids hallmark the tortured artist. Then, without warning, the camera flips onto its side. And the van Gogh visage goes horizontal, filling up at least 95 percent of the screen: the most extreme of extreme movie close-ups.

“There are moments when the camera feels like an intruder,” says At Eternity’s Gate cinematographer Benoit Delhomme. “It can be like a microscope. The way I was using close-ups in this film was to capture van Gogh’s soul — not Willem’s soul, for sure. The face becomes a landscape. What is more interesting than the face? So much to see in the face.”

At Eternity’s Gate is hardly the only prestige drama to chart the topography of facial landscapes with long, uncut close-ups this awards season. A host of prestigious films that premiered on the festival circuit — including First Man, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Favourite, and A Star Is Born — similarly utilize camerawork that pulls viewers in super close to the films’ stars to provide what can often feel like a forensic examination of their dramatic emoting. Long a staple of television, the technique has gained traction in recent years as an antidote to the kind of smash-cut film editing that first became popular in the ’90s before passing into cliché.

But the execution of extreme close-ups requires a certain bravery on the part of actors: nary a blemish, a crow’s-foot wrinkle, or clogged pore will be spared the camera’s unblinking scrutiny. Which has led to an unspoken corollary of all this up-close-and-personal camerawork: In an era when almost every movie in wide release employs some almost imperceptible form of computer-generated facial retouching — digitally edited in during postproduction, usually to make movie stars look younger or more attractive — filmmakers are showing a greater willingness to let the camera linger on actors’ faces, secure in the knowledge that CGI will erase any distracting imperfections. In effect, the current vogue for extreme close-ups can be viewed as a by-product of Hollywood’s increasing finesse with extremely tasteful digital face-lifts.

“Audiences are demanding to get closer to your characters, closer to your actors — that’s why we go to the movies, to see our stars bigger than life,” says a movie producer with an upcoming awards-season movie featuring several extreme close-ups. “But with ‘bigger than life’ comes all of life’s wrinkles and scars. Now, we have the ability to fix those flaws whenever the filmmaker, the actor, or the studio deems appropriate. It’s just a flick of a button and a line item on a budget.”

If Beale Street Could Talk, director Barry Jenkins’s follow-up to his Best Picture Oscar–winning drama Moonlight, is an adaptation of a ’70s-set James Baldwin novel. KiKi Layne portrays a woman seeking justice for her wrongly convicted husband (Stephan James) before the birth of their child. The film’s extreme close-ups largely serve to establish the couple’s love connection: At certain points, the camera stays languorously fixed on the faces of James and then Layne (or vice versa) for extended periods, to show the viewer the tenderness with which they view one another. The overall effect is not dissimilar to those ads for iPhone’s portrait mode, where everything past the subject blurs away in the distance.

The logistics of shooting this way, however, mean that a cinematographer’s proximity to an actor can sometimes push past the limits of his or her comfort zone. “When we’re doing this close-up work, we get as close to the person as we physically possibly can,” says Beale Street’s director of photography James Laxton. “For example, for those close-ups of [James’s] eyes, his lips, the lens is in the realm of two and four inches away. Part of my role is to make the actors comfortable in these places because the camera is not another actor. You’re clearly intruding on their personal space.”

(In a recent interview with Vulture, James admitted the difficulty of working this way but praised the onscreen payoff. “The camera is in your face,” James says, “but it’s this weird thing where it allows emotions to unravel and allows you not to premeditate your performance. Whatever is going to happen, you’re going to see every inch of it right now.”)

To hear it from A Star Is Born cinematographer Matthew Libatique, the romantic drama’s two key close-up sequences utilize camera movements that hone in on and linger on the actors’ faces for several beats longer than most movie close-ups in an effort to “graduate into the mental state of the characters.” Specifically, in the scene where Bradley Cooper’s country superstar character Jackson Maine and Lady Gaga’s pop ingenue character Ally first meet in a bar, and the scene in which they get married, the DP used a 65 mm macro anamorphic lens, moving the camera to within just a foot of their faces while shooting. That proximity to the performers, he felt, as opposed to shooting them in close-up from across the room using a telephoto lens, results in greater emotional connection for viewers.

“It’s really intimate,” says Libatique, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on 2010’s Black Swan. “It’s a technique that gets the audience, the mass of people, to see the vision of that one character.”

Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s First Man digs beyond the myth creation surrounding Neil Armstrong by focusing on his quiet fortitude and personal struggles; numerous extended close-ups do much of the dramatic heavy lifting. For many stretches, the face of Ryan Gosling (as Armstrong) fills the screen. And he is more often than not totally silent: a thoughtful astronaut pondering the vagaries and dangers of his profession, rather than some chest-beating conqueror of an unknown realm. Claire Foy, portraying his wife, Janet Armstrong, gets a similar treatment.

The close-up camerawork in The Favourite, by contrast, can be jarring in the way it vivisects its characters’ roiling emotions. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lobster), the pitch-black period dramedy follows a unique 18th-century palace intrigue: The ailing and mercurial Queen Anne of England (Olivia Colman) is tended to by her close friend and de facto chief of staff Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) until Sarah’s fallen-on-hard-times cousin turned servant turned royal consigliere Abigail (Emma Stone) attempts to use charm and guile to displace her. This sets off a bitter rivalry between the women to become the queen’s favorite courtier.

For The Favourite cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the intent with the movie’s forensic close-ups was to provide alternative narratives: what the actresses were saying onscreen versus what is written on their faces. “It’s very much about characters — three women and how they’re all trying to get ahead,” Ryan says. “They’re trying to hide their feelings, so they’re playing a game of poker to a certain extent, where they’re keeping their cards close to their chests. So any flicker of emotion, any small little thing that you might see in their expression, tells the audience one thing or another. You’re very much drawn into the close-up.”

Without exception, all of the cinematographers contacted by Vulture say the actors in these films featuring extreme close-ups did not do anything in particular to prepare to have film equipment shoved within inches of their faces. They insist that no additional makeup was applied nor any CGI edited in during postproduction to polish away unflattering characteristics — not even for world-class diva Lady Gaga. “Honestly, there was nothing,” says Libatique.

Ryan, for one, says he was struck by how “brave” the Favourite actresses remained in the face of such intrusive — and within modern beauty’s impossible-to-reach standards, potentially career-imperiling — camera movements. At Lanthimos’s request, they kept the use of things like foundation and concealer to a bare minimum. “There’s very little makeup in the film,” Ryan says. “It was very naturalistic from that perspective and Yorgos was very keen on keeping it spare unless it was necessary. He’d always make sure there was as little makeup as possible.”

But to hear it from a producer who spent tens of thousands of dollars on computer-generated imagery when the Oscar-winning star of one of his films didn’t like the sight of his earring holes onscreen and asked to have them removed, and who recently dropped another $50,000 to digitally diminish the wrinkles from a 50-something supporting actress in his upcoming movie, computer-generated retouching has become standard operating procedure in Hollywood. And it is absolutely crucial when showcasing extreme close-ups.

“The cinematographer does not give a fuck about wrinkles — in fact, that’s what they’re zooming in on, ‘cause that’s real,” he says. “The cinematographer wants to get closer because he knows the audience wants to connect with these actors, and you can’t do that from a distance. The closer, the bigger, then everything is shown off there. It is not the cinematographer’s job to make them look good. It is the editor and the director who then manipulate that.”

For A Star Is Born’s Libatique, the current popularity of forensically revealing, tightly focused, lingering shots of actors’ faces is indicative of a shift in how filmmakers are shooting and how the public is consuming movies these days — a transfer from flash-bang/attention-deficit cinema toward something more contemplative. “I think people are trying to move away from a ‘cuttiness’ in films and maybe move back to a more patient storytelling technique,” says Libatique. “The one thing you can’t deny is the power of a face and the emotion that’s been created by an actor. So if you’re going to hold on a shot without cutting, it might as well be a close-up.”

Extreme Close-ups Are Defining the Current Movie Moment