Karen Kriss – Tactility and the Changing Close-up

The continued evolution of film in the digital realm, and the increased reliance on CGI and VFX elements in Hollywood film, have made it imperative to analyse not just the effect of these on image production, but also on the narrative techniques within cinema. Contemporary films now contain a significant proportion of computer graphics; at times entire filmic worlds are constructed within a computer.[1] This type of cinema relies on what D. N. Rodowick describes as “photographic realism,” and this continues to “remain the Holy Grail of digital imaging” (Rodowick 2007, p. 11). An underlying problem within CGI’s cinematic development is that the aesthetic requires significant time, resources and skill, to both create an effect, and to conceal it. It is especially difficult to disguise CGI when the imagery being created is in close-up. With the increasing presence of CGI and VFX in film, there are indications across a range of film genres that this technology has impacted on the narrative direction of the films themselves. I argue that this shift is evident, for instance, in the diminished use of the close-up in films that rely on a significant portion of digital effects and animation. The desire for the image to look as unaltered and as close to the photographic as possible has resulted in directors resorting to wider close-up shots where once extreme close-ups would have had far greater impact. This technical shift away from the close-up has required a rethinking of methods in order to convey intimacy or tactility within a story. CGI’s pursuit of hyper-realism raises an important question: namely what impact does this potentially have of the tactile and haptic qualities for the spectator?

In this paper I argue that the decline of the close-up within CGI-mediated film has translated into a loss of what Laura Marks describes as haptic visuality: a tactile mode of experience which requires the viewer to ‘touch’ cinema kinesthetically and directly involves the viewer’s body (Marks 2000, p. 162). As a result, the change in use of the close-up has the potential to disrupt or alter the viewer’s experience of cinema. To develop this argument, a comparative analysis is made between full-length, wholly CGI films including The Lego Movie (Lord & Miller, 2014), Big Hero 6 (Hall & Williams, 2014) and two-dimensional film, The Lion King (Allers & Minkoff, 1994).

The affective power of the close-up

The close-up is a long established and significant element within narrative cinema. It is often utilised to reveal an object up close, or an actor’s expression in detail. The close-up brings the filmic subject closer to the audience, and enables an intimate relationship to form between the spectator and the spectacle. It often functions to emphasise particular elements of an object, or is employed as an important narrative tool in the film’s overall story. In early cinema[2] the close-up was originally considered “grotesque” in that it forced viewers into an extreme proximity with the human face that they found confrontational, even terrifying (Persson 2003, p. 126). Whilst we might consider that viewers are now largely accustomed to this –sometimes – confrontational – technique, the power of the close-up in cinema has not diminished. It has the potential to reveal hidden meanings and nuance, by placing the viewer closer than expected, or closer than normally allowed (by nature or circumstance); fostering a sense of intimacy in order to establish emphasis and importance. The close-up allows a character’s emotional state to be disclosed or afforded prominence, or an object’s complexity or significance to the story to be revealed, providing the audience with new meaning or insight into the story and its characters. It may also allow viewers to re-evaluate an object or character’s purpose, simply by seeing them from a different perspective. All of these possibilities serve to affect our view of the world, and subsequently deepen our understanding of the power of the image.[3]

Walter Benjamin (2003), Mary Ann Doane (2003), Jean Epstein (1981), Bela Balázs (2010), and Gilles Deleuze (1983) all attest to the affective power of the close-up but it is Laura Marks and her book – The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (2000) – that suggests that the close-up is linked closely to tactility, through her analysis of T. Kim-Trang’s film Aletheia. Marks uses the phrase haptic visuality to signify the tactile connection that vision enables between the spectator and objects on film. Haptic visuality is separate but complementary to ‘ocular visuality’ (seeing with the eyes), where the two can be seen to work together. Marks describes haptic visuality as that condition where the eyes function as a faculty of touch. Marks maintains that tactility is created by the viewer’s ability to sense touch – not by actually touching the film, but rather through the film’s ability to appeal to sense perception. The corporeal senses (smell, touch, taste) do not have to be physically experienced by the viewer in order to feel ‘them’, in and through their evocation within a film. Rather, the body is responding kinaesthetically to filmic sources of sensorial embodied meaning. Laura Marks describes the films surface in close-up as the place where the viewer and the subject come together. She says that “Haptic looking tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into illusionistic depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture” (p. 162).

In Aletheia (Kim-Trang, 2009), Marks argues that the filmmaker utilises objects close-up in frame to validate and reinforce the film layer as that place where tactility is activated. Aletheia is an exploration of blindness as a metaphor for truth and Trang explores this truth as exposure to the blindness of several themes including racism and sexuality. One scene in this film evokes various corporeal senses through the display of tactile elements such as the stretching of skin in a plastic surgeon’s office, the overlaying of fragments of a map of Los Angeles and also the use of multiple extreme close-ups. At one point, we gaze at very close lingering shots of faces, represented as a montage sequence of various moving portraits. It is precisely this level of filmic tactility that I maintain is important, as it affords the viewer greater access to a ‘felt’, rather than simply an ‘ocular’ experience of cinema. The close-up enables the viewer to feel cinema; to penetrate the film’s skin, in order to experience its tactility and its full affect.

The impact of CGI on the close-up

Having established the significance of the close-up in cinema as a narrative and emotive device (and its relationship to tactility), it is time to turn our attention to how it functions within CGI animated films. The possibility of displaying or revealing technical production errors within a close-up shot is amplified within CGI-mediated images. In the framework of Hollywood’s photo-realistic imperative to conceal error, this subsequently places restrictions on both the storytelling and the narrative techniques used to create an empathetic bond with the characters in CGI film. For instance, traditional narrative techniques used to create empathy – such as cutting close – are compromised in CGI, precisely because of its capacity to reveal error, or break the illusion of photorealism. Stereoscopic rendering, which is increasingly prevalent in contemporary film, also presents limitations as to which elements can be presented close-up to the camera.[4] I am not claiming that full CGI films do not include close-ups but rather that they almost never employ the kind of durational close-up witnessed in Aletheia, either in terms of length, or in distance/closeness. If a close-up does approach this proximity, the image is often obscured, or the shot does not linger long enough for the viewer to perceive any of the CGI details.

In suggesting that the diminishing use of the close-up in CGI film (both in terms of its frequency of use, and the visual limitations of its technical deployment) serves to create a distance between the viewer and the moving image, it could be then suggested that it minimises the film’s sensory impact. A viewer’s ability to connect on a sensorial level to digitally enhanced cinema may be compromised when compared to traditional film without the close-up.

In Virtual Life of Film, D. N Rodowick (2007) describes the transformation in the phenomenology of watching movies that has been brought about by changes in filmic technology. According to Rodowick, the specific film that can be said to have generated a shift from photographically driven content to digital imagery was Steven Spielberg’s seminal Jurassic Park (1993). It marked a turning point in filmmaking whereby it no longer had to wrestle with physical reality as CGI could now construct almost anything conjured by the imagination. The limitations were now not photographic, but were instead defined by the capacity for CGI’s realistic integration with the photographic.

The visual effects industry, which was in its infancy when Jurassic Park was made, has since grown in both size and complexity. Films laden with visual effects or CGI animation are still required to function story wise as it has done in traditional film or animation; an audience used to a set of narrative conventions requires it in order to understand the story of the film. The close-up is an important aspect to the sequence of shots within an edit. However the types of CGI shots which are used, and the frequency of their deployment, is often determined by the technical capacity of VFX /animation studios and the individual CGI artists capacity to represent photorealism on screen.

The aversion for the close-up can be seen in in early visual effects films, including Jurassic Park: The Lost World (Spielberg, 1997). In a scene close to the end of this film, when offered the opportunity to ‘showcase’ the film’s CGI capabilities with a close-up of a Tyrannosaurus Rex stomping through a petrol station, the visual effects/special effects team opted to cut to a robotic version of the creature (Bell 2015). Rather than risk revealing an as yet underdeveloped CGI close-up render, the audience is shown a physical model. Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995) – the first fully animated CG feature film – seemed to avoid the medium close-up or extreme close-up.[5] It would be fair to assume that, considering these films are approximately twenty years old, that significant advancements in this area would have been made in the ensuing years. In the midst of writing this thesis, Terminator Genisys (Taylor, 2015) was released showing close-up renders of a CGI Arnold Schwarzenegger. This might suggest that we have passed a tipping point in VFX films, where the close-up is no longer avoided, or seen as a technical (and thus narrative) limitation. However, the shot was not shown as an extreme close-up. It is also worth noting that Terminator Genisys was a large budget (approximately $155 million) blockbuster that could afford to spend a great deal on its VFX components and subsequently on shots designed specifically for close-up.[6]

The Lego Movie, Big Hero 6 and The Lion King: an analysis of the close-up

As discussed, the close-up functions as a narrative device in conventional cinema, capable of imparting an emotional impact on crucial aspects of a film’s narrative. Here I will examine the use of the close-up in the recent CGI film The Lego Movie (2014), in comparison with another wholly CGI film Big Hero 6 (2014) and the two-dimensional animation film The Lion King (1994).

It was while watching The Lego movie (2014) that it struck me to look into this line of research. During one particularly scene I wondered why the director had not chosen to cut to an extreme close-up. This scene is an emotionally climactic one where the main character, Emmet, hatches a plan to plunder President Business’s office in order to save the world. Within the film’s plot, the success of this caper is designed to display the protagonist’s newly acquired sense of self-belief. However, in an unexpected twist Emmet’s mentor Vitruvius is beheaded by President Business – with a flying coin. As Vitruvius utters his last words to Emmet, the camera moves closer toward Vitruvius and the audience is presented with an over the shoulder (OTS) shot of Emmet, after which it cuts to a still wide shot (WS) of Vitruvius. It is in this camera sequence that the narrative is set up for Emmet to realise that he is not “The Special,” and that he will not be able to fulfil the prophecy around which the film revolves.

It’s a traumatic situation wherein we might expect the camera to move in quite close, possibly to an extreme close-up (ECU), as the filmmaker attempts to create an intimate connection between the viewer and protagonist’s emotional state. Emmet cries, “Vitruvius. Noooooo…” and the camera pushes toward his face, but stops at a full close-up. The audience is denied the ECU that, arguably, would have been critical at such a significant point in the story to bring us closer into the psyche of the character.

There are other instances, however, in The Lego Movie where the close-up is tighter. In the opening sequence the camera slowly pushes closer towards the character Vitruvius until it offers an ECU of his face. Here, however, bright lighting and a moving background hides the majority of his face, successfully distracting the viewer and obscuring any technical limitations. Such sequences are carefully planned in pre-production; with texture and modelling detail being increased for those aspects of the character that will be revealed in the shot. However, the modelling and texturing detail is not infinite, and there is a limitation to how close the camera can move toward the character. If the camera moves closer than has been designed in pre-production, the film risks revealing the elements of the CGI creation, such as texture resolution or modelling details.

Another instance of a technical workaround for using an ECU involves a shot of the protagonist Emmet’s eyes during a crucial early sequence in the movie involving a fast-paced dream sequence montage of both future and past events. The cuts are varied and include very short ECUs of Emmet’s face. The ECUs never last for more than two seconds, and therefore do not allow the viewer to focus on the details of his face. The ECU is covered by a vignette – a lens effect often used to help integrate CGI into the realm of the photographic. Such a technique has a long history and can be found in a close-up of the 1928 film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928). The same sequence also uses chromatic aberration, a photographic effect that occurs in filming when the camera lens has trouble bringing all of the wavelengths of colour into focus at the same time. This is often mimicked in CGI by offsetting different colour channels, and in this sequence the compositors have taken artistic liberties by offsetting different colour channels in each eye. The effect of all of these techniques is twofold: they work towards ensuring that the CGI elements are disguised, as well as creating a more photographic aesthetic in order to convince the viewer that it is not, in fact, CGI: that the viewer is witnessing the filming of a real, live Lego person.

If we compare The Lego Movie (2014) with The Lion King (1994), we are able to see a very different approach to dealing with close-up shots. The Lion King is an animated feature created in 1994 – a year before the release of Toy Story (the first full length feature CGI animated film). In one dramatic scene, we encounter the baby lion Simba at the moment his father is trampled to death by a herd of stampeding wildebeasts. This sequence shows a series of close-ups as it reveals Simba realising his father is dead. As Simba pleads, “Dad? Dad, come on? You gotta get up. Dad? We gotta go home,” we follow Simba towards his father as he tries, in vain, to revive him. He runs into camera, which moves to an ECU as he yells, “Help!” The camera cuts wider, showing Simba in a haze of dust and alone as he again yells, “Help! Somebody? Anybody?”

When comparing these two films, the use of the close-up is significantly more prolific in the non-CGI The Lion King. Not only does this sequence involve close-ups of both Simba and his father’s despair, the pivotal close-up of Simba is much tighter, focusing on his eyes for maximum emotional impact. As Simba moves close to the camera, one of his eyes completely fills the frame. This contrasts with Emmet’s close-up in The Lego Movie, where the emphasis is placed on the gesture of his face, and his hands coming up to express his despair. The shot used in Emmet’s scene is much wider, and would be considered a ‘full’ rather than an ‘extreme’ close up.

Marks states that the threshold where haptic visuality’s response occurs is marked by the space between the screen and the viewer; the skin of the film. Here the film’s skin or surface forms a density that “spreads out over the surface of the image instead of penetrating its depth” (p. 137). The viewer is as inclined to be engaged with the ‘texture’ associated with the object portrayed on screen as much as with the object itself, where this texture evokes a sensory phenomenon. Within films where this texture is deliberately withheld – the tactility and sensory engagement can be said to be reduced.

We can see this effect (reduction in texture) in fully CGI animated film – Big Hero 6 (2014) – a film that is wholly CGI animated and also does not shy away from close-ups. In one sequence where the audience is presented with a series of shots showing both a close-up of main character – Hiro Hamada – as well as a tight shot on his hand and pencils, it can be said that these shots are closer than The Lego Movie and much more like those in The Lion King. What these lack is certainly not a lot of work, but to the layman’s eye they may lack a lot of texture and detail. In the same way that The Lego Movie utilises effects to mask CGI’s creation and therefore any errors, Big Hero 6 reduces its complexity of texture in close-up in order to conceal its creation. On the face there are no freckles or wrinkles. There are no knuckles, and a distinctive lack of skin texture on the fingers that are shown in extreme close-up. In another shot where the table is brought into close-up with Hiro’s hands, the table is barely seen in shot and strategically depth of field hides most other objects. In a following close-up of Hiro Hamada’s face, the depth of field quickly shifts our view from the face to the pencil which is small in frame but I argue is not extreme close-up. All of these shots are gently obscuring the viewer’s ability to see the CGI’s tools of construction. This texture that Marks describes as being critical for haptic visuality is not missing altogether, but conveniently reduced.


The close-up affords a sensory impact to narrative film that can be seen to be diminishing from a considerable amount of CGI intensive cinema, resulting in, I argue, a reduction of tactility within the film’s space. Detailing this move away from the close-up in narrative-driven Hollywood cinema with large CGI components, I have highlighted how this can be seen and contrasted in The Lego Movie and The Lion King. The form of storytelling used in CGI film is often constructed in such a way as to avoid the close-up, because of the risks it poses to breaking the illusion of realism. While the close-up exists as a mechanism through which CGI might invoke a filmic tactility, a convincing close-up is expensive to create, as each shot must be designed and created specifically for a particular amount of detail. The director cannot make a decision to move the camera toward a CGI object unless the required level of object complexity is designed in the early stages of production. Often the texture of CGI is reduced in order to accommodate the medium. This translates into a loss of control for the production of the film, wherein there are restrictions on how close the viewer can get to a character, and subsequently, how closely the viewer can feel what is being portrayed. Exposing these production methods and materiality goes against photorealist filmic conventions. Therefore, a movement toward or away from this kind of explication emerges as a trade-off between a desire for unbroken photo-realism, and the capacity to sensorially engage the viewer through narrative devices, such as the close-up, which risk revealing the materiality of CGI.

I am not arguing that there are no close-ups in CGI inflected film but rather that there has been a shift in the way that narrative has been approached with films containing CGI in the past due to the complexity of creating CGI in close-up. Whilst it may be true that we have reached a point where the close-up and the extreme close-up may now be more prominent, time will reveal this.  Within planar two-dimensional and stop motion animation there has been less of a move away from the close-up due to the long history of development and experimentation in this medium (compared to CGI).  Moving forward I would hope that animators and filmmakers look at the importance of the close-up to the spectators’ experience of haptic visuality, because it is this affect that enables a deeper emotional response.

Karen Kriss is an artist and animator and is currently completing her Master of Philosophy at the University of New South Wales, Australia. She works in the faculty of Art and Design, UNSW within the area of Media Arts and Design.


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Bell, D. C. (2015) 6 Reasons Modern Movie CGI Looks Surprisingly Crappy [Online]. Demand Media, Inc. Available from http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-reasons-expensive-films-end-up-with-crappy-special-effects/ Accessed 28th November 2015.

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[1] A report by the Hollywood Reporter titled 2013 Feature Film Production Report that focused on the main six studios located in California stated that 44 of the top 50 movies of all time were driven by VFX (McDonald 2014, p. 2).

[2] Between approximately 1895 and the 1920s, as the star system in Hollywood was being established, actors began to be made recognisable due to close-ups (Marshall, 2002, p.229). Prior to this, these closer shots were considered very confronting, due to fact that objects and people we being seen larger than before on screen (Persson 2003, p. 126).

[3] And today, the proliferation of mobile devices with smaller screens continues to alter the impact and style of the close-up, and be reflected in the content created. In a journal article; ‘A close-up on Mobile TV: The effect of low resolutions on shot types’, it is argued that mobile phone technologies’ small screen has ensured that there is an increase in the use of the close-up in the content made for this kind of display (Knoche, McCarthy, & Sasse 2008).

[4] Stereoscopic three dimensional (3D) film production also presents a shift in production techniques from traditional film. Stereographer Alonso Homs points out that while filming The Great Gatsby (Luhrmann, 2013), the close-up was used to place the audience in the 3D space with the actor. This presents a different approach to the close-up as it has come to be defined in narrative filmmaking. Whereas the traditional cinematic close-up came to be constructed with a depth of field effect in order to mimic depth cues of our vision, in 3D stereo cinematography this is unnecessary because the technology captures the scene in three dimensions. Homs says, “A typical close-up will be shot with a long lens and an object, perhaps a person’s shoulder, will be blurred in the foreground to give an illusion of depth. … object places the person in the space and the amount of blur tells you how close you are to it. In 3D (stereo) this is unnecessary and uncomfortable and defeats the purpose of putting the viewer in the space … this is not the way we see in real life” (Giardina & Pennington 2013, p. 197).

[5] In Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995), the close-up on Woody’s face was only used if he was not moving, if he was an inanimate toy and never were any extreme close-ups used.

[6] In 2011, the fully CGI animated film The Adventures of Tintin (Spielberg, 2011) utilised a very close-up shot of Tintin’s face. This implies that there is a move towards trying to reintroduce the use of the close-up within feature films. Despite trying to emulate realism, the film’s production design is similarly stylised to its comic origins, thus enabling the close-up to be created with less scrutiny. During the 2016 Society for Animation Conference in Singapore, the film Warcraft (2016) was released showing close-ups of character Medivh, which might also suggest a possible shift towards greater use of the close-up.

© Karen Kriss

Edited by Amy Ratelle