Originally Posted 11-01-13
Remember that legendary scene from Sunset Blvd?
One of the most infamous scenes in all of filmdom – about a close-up – and it wasn’t shot on a close-up...not even close. I am no film director. I don’t pretend to be. And who am I to second guess the great director Billy Wilder? Well, nobody, but I’m going to do it anyway. I’m assuming he had his reasons for not shooting Gloria Swanson’s scene about Norma Desmond wanting a close-up on a close-up. Might have been some artistic choice. What he essentially did was have her “walk into” her close-up. Then the music and the visual effects turn dark and grim revealing the monster she is as the scene fades to black. I think it would have been much more powerful to shoot Swanson on a close-up leading up to the line to clearly illustrate that she is deranged. We could have seen the whites of her eyes and the psychopathy of the moment. Yes, in the waist shot, which Wilder chose, we got that impression with her hands dancing and twisting in the air. But the power of the moment is what is revealed in any close-up, and we were denied that moment. The scene faded before the real close-up came. Maybe Wilder deliberately denied us of that moment. Or was he just denying Norma her close-up? Like I said, I’m no film director.
My point is, stop dancing around the close-up, just give it to us! That is especially true in newscasts and lighter news formats. People watch people. Period. If I can’t see your eyes, I don’t trust you. When a cop approaches you on the street or stops you for speeding, he does two things. He “invades” your space by standing a bit too close to you – and he wears mirrored sunglasses. The closeness combined with the inability to see his eyes makes you feel intimidated. If you saw his eyes, you would more easily connect with him. The eyes say a thousand words. And those thousand words effectively diminish his power. So he wears the sunglasses – and nine times out of ten – will ask YOU to take your sunglasses off. Hmmmm… now why do you suppose he would do that?
Now, turn that cop into a news anchor sitting behind a news desk reading breaking stories. What do you suppose viewers would do if your favorite news anchor was wearing mirrored sunglasses as (s)he read the news? Well, once you got over the shock of how ridiculous he looks, you’d stop watching and look for someone else who’s eyes you could see. And you wouldn’t necessarily do this consciously, you’re just conditioned to want to look into people’s eyes. This is basic psychology. It’s not my theory. I minored in psychology in college and have always been fascinated by the “psychology of television”. Close-ups are TVPsych 101.
More and more, producers and directors build their shows around graphics and monitors. And thus, they diminish the on-screen size of their anchor in the process. On many of CNN‘s prime news shows, their anchors are never, ever seen on a close-up. Wolf Blizter never gets his close-up on The Situation Room, because the room dwarfs him with all those useless monitors. He’s marginalized on camera by the walls and walls of monitors that end up consuming him. The camera shot of his reporter in the field is put into an even smaller screen on that wall, oftentimes lost amid the gigantic story slug graphics of the moment, such as “Casey Anthony Verdict”. Wolf, I want to see your face. I want to see the whites in your eyes. I want to see you right in front of me telling me the news. I don’t want to see the back of your head as you look far off into some monitor on the wall that’s projecting 10-feet tall graphics and photos of Casey Anthony. It harkens me back to the days of Clara Peller and a modification of her Wendys‘ slogan, “Where’s the host?”
In a newsroom, it’s easy to see the difference. Put CNN and Fox News on monitors next to each other. Fox News: Close-up of Megan, Closeup of Hemmer, Closeup of O’Reilly. CNN: Is that Wolf Blizter? What’s he doin’ waaaaay back there?
Recently, I was given a tour of a local TV station in a Top 10 market . The studio was populated by maybe 5 different shooting areas, each designed around monitors. The station manager and news director and various others were all very excited to show me how they had designed their newscast. “It’s fast paced.” “It’s graphic intensive”. “It’s fresh with a sense of urgency and excitement”. Wow! I was looking forward to seeing it.
When it came time to broadcast their evening news, I watched from the control room. Aside from me, there were three others in the room. Three computer operators. Each had his or her own monitor and keyboard. One had several screens and keyboards. The show just sort of started…with no real countdowns or cues. The robotic cameras on-set suddenly sprang to life and began zooming here and swinging there. The monitors all lit up with graphics and videos and other…stuff. The co-anchors were separated the entire show in different shooting areas. They were positioned around the monitors very much like spokes-models are positioned around merchandise on The Price Is Right. They even had similar hand gestures to Carol Merrill (ooops, that was Let’s Make A Deal). The camera would zoom toward the male anchor. But it would stop at his knees, so the shot was, I guess you’d call it a “knee shot” – from the knees up. He was standing next to a monitor with the relevant “slug” on it – such as “Taxes”, and at the precise moment, with a mighty push, he would slide that monitor out of frame, revealing another monitor behind it with an even more relevant slug on it, like “Going up”.
Meanwhile, in the control room, the only thing happening was someone pushing a spacebar. That was the extent of the input the, well, I guess you’d call them “producer” and “director”, that was the extent of their contribution to the show. The Overdrive automation ran the show. And we, the viewers, were pretty much at its pre-coded mercy.
So let’s review. The show is completely automated, reducing the director and producer to “space bar” pushers. The news anchors, who by the way, were not once, not once in the entire hour shot any closer than the knee up and were never together in the same space, they were reduced to news-models and monitor pushers. These are the people telling us the news. These are the people informing me that my neighbor down the street was killed in a car accident and that my taxes are going up. But not once could I see the whites of their eyes. Not once could I see the concern on their faces not even on the HD monitors in the control room. Imagine if Bill Bonds or Ann Bishop or Al Schottelkotte or Kelly Lange were shot like this. We wouldn’t have local TV news legends. And we certainly aren’t creating new ones – not with impersonal, I-need-my-opera-glasses-to-see-the-anchorman produced shows. Not a single close-up of an anchor on a newscast hosted by news anchors. WTF? Congratulations Dallas! You’ve replaced the “tele” in television (which means “bridging large distances”), with “tech” (which is defined as “mechanical and industrial”). That is the show you created!
Funny. 61 years after Sunset Blvd. and the people we hire, we PAY to put on screen are still denied their close-up. Norma must be in a tizzy!