From television I learned a basic lesson that extends beyond the studio into every corner of daily life. The face is the perfect register of the human condition.
Novice television directors need to learn early on that the art of video is largely built on the close up, sometimes called the “reaction shot.” The traditions of film-making still include the idea that the long-distant shot, or “coverage” of a scene, can be useful for defining locations or clarifying who is within earshot of a key figure. But the video image that matters most is the tight close up of someone who is giving or receiving important information. Frequently the director’s choice is to focus on the actor who is simply reacting to another’s lines. As many performers have noted, some of their best work occurs when they are allowed to let their character’s face represent their feelings.
I learned about the importance of the television close-up the hard way as a less-than-gifted student director in a television production class. Directing my own scene from the control room, I asked a camera operator in the studio to pull way back for a very wide shot. I think he was eventually pinned against the back wall trying to accommodate my request. And it was at that point my instructor leaned forward to deliver in a whisper what I’m sure he would have preferred to shout in the quiet control room: “Woodward, you are not David Lean shooting Lawrence of Arabia. This is television. It’s an intimate medium. Forget the wide shots.” In truth, the 35-foot wide studio was never going to yield up anything like the distant speck of Peter O’Toole crossing an empty desert. And that was not what I really wanted. But I learned a basic lesson that extends beyond television into every corner of daily life: The face is the perfect register of the human condition.
The angle of the head, the averted or astonished eyes, the position of the brow, the muscles of the face and the position of the mouth: they are all there to give up our secrets because they so easily reveal our feelings. Children begin to require the capability of reading faces even before their first birthday. We learn early on that they eyes are sometimes a more accurate indicator of a person’s true state of mind than what they say. Watch actor Tom Hanks as Walt Disney during his first meeting with the starchy P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks (2014). The story of his twenty year effort to get the rights to make a feature film built around her character, Mary Poppins. At first he uses all of his down-home Missouri charm to flatter Travers, shaking off her icy hostility. But then she takes a step too far, tossing off the observation that she doesn’t want Poppins in “one of your silly animated films.” At that point Hanks suddenly goes quiet, but the camera is in close to register the kind of hurt a anyone might feel if they have just been told that their life’s work has been a waste of time.
British actor Michael Caine’s classic masterclass on performing for the camera is helpful in understanding how important reactions are in bringing a character to life. His advice to actors to connect with an audience by allowing only one eye–not both–to look at the camera is especially interesting. It’s available here, on U-tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBzReBMU2s8
The larger lesson is quite simple. The loss of access to another’s face when we are talking to them is an enormous handicap. I can’t confirm the accuracy of the old saying that ‘the eyes are a window into the soul.’ But it is surely the case that the complex musculature of the face is rich in meaning and nuance. It’s absence in the kind of text-only content that is increasingly the norm in digital platforms puts us at a significant disadvantage in understanding others.