A close-up shot is a type of camera angle, focus, and design that frames an actor’s face. The close-up shot is usually used to:
- Express a significant emotion
- Identify a moment of extreme importance to the story
- Capture nuances on the actor’s face that the audience might otherwise miss in longer or wider shots
- Establish character, relationship, and plot development
While many close-up shots involve faces, some close-up shots focus on important scene details that might add to the exposition of the story, including a clue, foreshadowing a later element of plot development, or helping to set the mood or tone of the film.
History of the Close-Up Shot
Filmmakers have been using close-up shots for decades. George Albert Smith, a pioneer in the field of directing, used close-up shots in his 1900 film "As Seen Through a Telescope," and so did his contemporaries in the early years of the 20th century. Historically, close-up shots were challenging to execute due to the simplistic camera equipment available at the time. As cameras and editing techniques improved, the close-up shot grew in prevalence. Many filmmakers throughout history use close-up shots to help establish a mood or develop emotional depth. Steven Spielberg, for example, is famous for using close-up shots to create tension during his films.
Why Use a Close-Up Shot?
Close-up shots are useful for all filmmakers — you’ll find them in all types of films ranging from comedy to horror. Consider these reasons for using a close-up shot in your film:
- Show subtle responses: Since these shots linger so close to the eyes and mouth, it’s easy for the audience to understand even the smallest change in a character’s expression.
- Indicate importance: Some close-up shots show valuable information that otherwise might get lost in the background of a scene.
- Develop a tone: Close-up shots can help establish a mood or tone by focusing on specific scene elements or props.
- Increase character development: Some close-up shots are used to help understand a character’s shifting mentality or changing perspective throughout the film.
- Improve story exposition: Close-up shots can provide valuable plot development about a location, character, or relationship through focus on scene details.
All movie genres use close-up shots to help develop their stories and share important character emotions.
Types of Close-Up Shots
Within the umbrella of close-up shots, filmmakers can choose from several subtypes, with each supplying a specific feeling or nuance to the scene. These five types of close-up shots are frequently used in filmmaking:
A classic close-up shot usually features an actor’s face and shoulders. Some background will probably be visible behind the character, but the focus is absolutely on the actor.
Medium Close-Up Shot
A medium close-up shot includes an actor’s upper body, usually from the waist up. Like in a close-up shot, some background will be visible, but the camera focuses on the actor and their emotions.
Extreme Close-Up Shot
An extreme close-up shot, sometimes just called an ECU, focuses on a specific part of the actor, usually on their face. This might include a shot of a character’s eyes or a character’s mouth to better see their reaction to an event or conversation.
An insert shot is a close-up shot of a prop or scene detail to demonstrate its importance. For example, an insert shot might show a character leaving their wallet behind on a restaurant table.
A choker shot is a very tight close-up shot that frames the actor’s face from above their eyebrows to below their mouth.
How to Film a Close-Up Shot
When you’re ready to add a close-up shot to your film, keep these considerations and steps in mind to plan, film, and edit the most effective close-up shot.
1. Establish a structure
Make a plan for how you’ll get to the close-up moment. Remember, the close-up shot is the emotional payoff you’ll build toward. Consider other establishing shots, dialogue, and reactions that will precede the dramatic close-up.
2. Determine the next shot
Decide exactly what you want to capture with your close-up, when you’ll cut away, and what shot you’ll cut away to. Some close-ups can be effective for an extended period of time while others are best used for just a few seconds. However, for maximum impact, it’s best to surround the close-up with other types of shots for contrast and impact. For example, after an extreme close-up of a character reacting to a sound, cut to a wide shot showing what caused the sound.
3. Set your close-up limit
Consider your film as a whole. Plan to use close-ups sparingly so that they maintain their impact. While there’s no specific number of close-ups you should stick to, a good rule of thumb is to employ facial close-ups for the highest tension moments. Knowing your full shot plan in advance will help you make the most out of your selected close-up moments.
4. Choose the right lens
Many filmmakers choose to use long lenses, usually 70 mm to 100 mm, for close-up shots. Long lenses make the depth of field more shallow, causing the background to blur and bringing increased focus to the foreground, which includes your actor’s face.
5. Keep it consistent
Make sure you maintain the same elements like light, temperature, and weather in any close-up shots. You might film close-ups and establishing or master shots at different times in the shooting day, so taking care to maintain continuity is vital for an effective close-up shot.
Great Examples of Close-Ups
Close-up shots often stick in the audience’s mind as they’re usually pivotal moments of the film. If you’re looking for fantastic examples of close-ups to see how they help shape the story and emotional development of the characters, check out these iconic close-up film moments.
The Blair Witch Project
The unforgettable scene in which Heather Donahue holds her handheld camera to her own face for an extreme close-up, showing intense emotions about their documentary project, is probably one of the most famous extreme close-ups of all time.
Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone establishes his firm and frosty demeanor in several close-up shots within the first few minutes of the film. These shots help the audience see his detached emotional management and help viewers understand him as a character.
The moment in Stanley Kubrick’s "The Shining" when Jack Nicholson, as John Torrance, breaks down the bathroom door with an ax, sticking his head through the broken wood to state, "Here’s Johnny!" is an iconic close-up moment and one that both electrified and terrified audiences.
At the end of Michael Curtiz’s "Casablanca," the camera holds a beautiful close-up shot of Ingrid Bergman, with a single tear rolling down her cheek as Humphrey Bogart says his famous line, "Here’s looking at you, kid."
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Westerns make great use of close-up shots. One of the most famous and recognizable is from Sergio Leone’s "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly," in which the camera crops onto the faces of Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach in a quick succession of highly effective extreme close-ups and insert shots resulting in a shoot-out.
Close-up shots are highly effective filmmaking tools. No matter what you’re preferred genre is, close-ups of all types can help you establish powerful emotions and develop exposition and plot effectively. Nashville Film Institute can help you learn more about this technique and many others in one of our comprehensive filmmaking programs.