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Step one. The Eyes.
It’s all about the eyes.
Notice something. The eyes are almost always above the center line. You can break this “rule” if you want, but you’d better have good reason. For most times, the eye stays above the center.
You could follow the rule of thirds and keep the eye on the upper third line, or just go with your gut. I don’t follow the rule of thirds, and plenty of filmmakers don’t either. Here’s a tip: Focus on the eyes, not the line. You’ll know.
Step two. The mouth.
Keep it inside the frame.
You don’t want to cut out the mouth. Most times the character is saying something, but here’s the thing: The mouth is an important visual cue to what the actor is feeling. Cutting it off feels unnatural.
Again, you can break this on purpose. But don’t cut off the mouth if you don’t understand why you’re doing it.
Step Three. The chin.
There are two schools of thought here. You could keep the entire chin inside, or you could chop off the chin a bit.
This isn’t really an either-or situation. It’s a matter of taste. How close do you want to go? You might not want to cut off the entire chin, just nip it a little and the face seems balanced in the frame.
I typically like to keep the entire chin in the shot, go with what feels right to you. One trick you can use is to take multiple portraits of people, and don’t think about it. Later, study them, maybe your subconscious mind will tell you what you really like.
Step Four: The forehead.
This is also a matter of taste. Some directors like to keep the entire head. Others like to chop off the forehead. I like to chop off the forehead.
Both work, just make sure you don’t chop off any other portion, unless you have good reason to. Actors move sometimes, so don’t stay too rigid. Sometimes it’s important to ask them to stay completely still during a close up. But if you over do it they might just punch you in the face.
Step Five: The focal length
Wide angle lenses tend to distort the face. Telephoto lenses keep it realistic and pleasant looking. You could use both, but not at the same time, that will look tacky.
Step Six: Focus point
Focus on the nearest eye, if the actor is turned slightly, or focus on both eyes, if they’re looking straight on.
And a bonus tip:
Use close ups when your actor has great expressive eyes. Even if they are not great actors, if they have interesting eyes, the close ups will be good.
What the hell, use close ups if your actors are, to put it kindly, interpreting the scene in a way that makes you want to tear your hair off.
Use close ups, because that’s what Sergio Leone did.
Guide to framing a close up shot
Following written by Alessandro Pietri. Edited by Sareesh Sudhakaran.
When I think of close ups in film, the first frames that pop into my head are from the climax of Sergio Leone’s western classic, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966). Leone masterfully cut between mid, close-ups, and extreme close ups over three dozen times to crescendo the tension between the three main characters.
Auteur director Paul Thomas Anderson showcased the power of the close up in his 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood, when Daniel Day-Lewis’ character, Daniel Plainview, confesses to a local priest, played by Paul Dano, that he has abandoned his child. In this riveting scene, Paul Thomas Anderson combines the close up with a oner to further intensify an already emotionally charged scene.
Finally, who can forget the excruciatingly moving close up, a single frame held for an astonishing 83 seconds, of a slave contemplating his extreme misfortune in Steve McQueen’s, 12 Years a Slave (2014)? Again holding the close up for a prolonged length enhances the degree of the slave’s despair and prohibits the audience from looking away and dismissing his suffering.
These unforgettable moments in the pantheon of cinema history demonstrate the undeniable power of these shots can have in effective cinematic storytelling. They are an essential piece of any cinematographer’s toolkit.
Understanding the close up
When framing a narrative, the Director and Cinematographer will employ some variation of three standard shots: a wide shot, a medium shot and a close up.
The wide shot is often used to establish the setting, which is a combination of location and environment, of a scene. It helps provide context for the action to come. A medium shot brings the audience closer to the action itself, and more importantly, the characters.
Finally, close ups are used to steer the audience’s focus toward a specific emotion or reaction from the characters, or, in the case of an Insert shot, to emphasize the symbolic importance of an object, such as a letter, a weapon, or some other artifact meaningful to the scene. Think of the spinning top in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010). Inserts, offer viewers crucial pieces of information essential to the understanding of the overall story.
Director David Fincher has said in interviews that every time a filmmaker goes in for a close-up, the audience knows the filmmaker is saying, “Look at this, this is important.” For this reason, he cautions against the overuse of close ups. Relying too heavily on them undercuts their value to the truly key moments or essential details of the story. Fincher, as a result, limits the use of extreme close-ups in his films, making their impact that much more significant and relevant to the story. And the audience tends to reward him for it.
These are the different types of close-ups that will influence a cinematographer’s visual storytelling style.
Types of close ups
A medium close up, or MCU, is the widest type of close up and usually includes the subject from their upper torso or shoulders to the top of their head leaving a small amount of headroom relative to the top edge of the frame.
In terms of composition, the rule of thirds is commonly applied when framing MCU’s. When using the rule of thirds, the actor’s eyes are placed on the bottom edge of the top third of the frame. This common practice can also be applied to all other types of close ups.
Prior to each shoot, it is important to evaluate camera placement carefully as it is easy to place the subject too far to one side of the frame or leave unnecessary head room in the frame. This will lead to an unbalanced frame that can be disorienting to the audience.
Although a close up, or CU, may vary in size or distance from the camera, the frame typically focuses on a subjects face to enhance any given emotion or reaction of the character. In this case, it is important that a subject’s face fill the frame in order to avoid unnecessary distractions. As a rule of thumb, the most important elements to include are the mouth, nose, and eyes, so the bottom boundary typically stops at the chin, while the top edge of the frame stops at the forehead or hairline.
A close up may also be used to reveal or emphasize a power dynamic among two or more characters in a scene. For example, Oscar-winning actor Michael Caine once explained to a group of students that when an actor wants to demonstrate his strength or power to another character he will not blink when speaking to them, whereas when an actor wishes to reveal he is weak or powerless he may repeatedly blink while addressing others to demonstrate his unease.
In such a scene, a close up or series of close ups of the actors’ faces would effectively emphasize this power dynamic between two characters.
Extreme close ups, or ECUs, are meant elevate the status of a specific feature of a character or a particular detail of an object in a scene to the highest possible degree.
When David Fincher goes close, he typically prefers using ECUs, and uses them sparingly, because for him, close ups are all about revealing an essential piece of information to advance the story.
When used on a character, an extreme close-up most frequently focuses on the eyes of an actor, or an item on his person like a watch, or a ring, or some other revealing detail or symbol of the character. It can also draw attention to a character’s action or reaction by focusing on their lips, nose, or ear.
Lean in or lean out
A cinematographer may push or zoom in to a close up to show the growing intensification of emotion in a character, or they may track out or zoom out, to reveal a threat or the source evoking the reaction from the character. This technique is referred to as a lean in or a lean out and can be used for medium and wide shots as well.
As I mentioned earlier, an insert is a shot that focuses on a specific detail of a scene. Inserts are often shot in close up as they are meant to bring the attention of the audience to a specific aspect of a scene. Examples include a street sign, a newspaper headline, a gun or weapon, or a hand reaching for a particular object.
In large productions or television series, inserts are frequently assigned to the second unit crew.
The importance of lenses in close ups
One of the most impactful decisions a cinematographer makes when framing close-ups is lens choice. Choosing between a long lens and a short (wide) lens will make a substantial difference in the way a close up is framed and how the shot will communicate information to an audience.
Long lens close up
Similarly to portrait photography, focal lengths between 85mm and 135mm are notable favorites for close-ups of people because they are considered as the most flattering focal lengths for a person’s facial features.
Focus on the eyes of the subject when placing the camera close to actors with a long lens. The rest of an actor’s face will likely blur a little when focusing on the eyes but that’s acceptable because the blur will draw even more attention to the most important part of the frame, which is the eyes and the emotion they convey.
Today, however, some cinematographers are moving away from using long lenses to shoot their close ups in order to get closer to their subjects. The most notable is perhaps three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. In a 2015 interview with Deadline reporter, Matt Grobar, Lubezki explained that, “When you are shooting with long lenses, even if you’re shooting a close up, you feel the air, the distance between the camera and the subject.”
Short lens close up
When a story calls for a more immersive visual style, cinematographers will often use a wide or short lens and get in even closer with their actors. This visual style allows DPs to include more of the environment around or behind the character providing context while maintaining the emotion of the scene.
Lubezki says of the making of The Revenant, “I think the wide lenses allow you to make the movie very immersive and that was one of our main ideas: to engage the audience in a very immersive way. The movie wanted to be visceral, so it allows us to get close to the actors but still see the environment surrounding them. They are always connected to the environment.”
This point reminds me, however, of the main risk in using a short lens for close ups and extreme close ups. One of the main issues with this technique lies in the distortion a wide lens may create on the actor’s face when up close. The face will appear elongated or stretched and the nose will appear larger than usual.
To conclude, there is no doubt that close-ups are one of the director’s most powerful tools for effective and dynamic storytelling. But, too much of a good thing can quickly ruin it.
Although there are always exceptions, I tend to agree with cinematographers that argue that close ups should be more rare than common. A close up is so powerful that overusing it may overwhelm an audience, make a film feel overly claustrophobic, or worse, diminish its power to move an audience.
I purposely dedicated a notable amount of this post to the use of the short lenses in framing close ups as I feel it is the most significant shift of the decade in terms of how cinematographers approach framing close ups. This technique is best exemplified in the more nuanced recent works of Lubezki, particularly his collaborations with Terrence Malick and Alejandro González Iñaritu.
How do you use close-ups to upgrade the emotional power of your work?
Author’s byline: Alessandro Pietri is a cinematographer based in Los Angeles. To see more of his work, visit his website at www.alessandropietri.com.