One of the most effective tools a filmmaker has for connecting with an audience is the close-up shot.
Think of iconic moments in movie history: Macaulay Culkin slapping aftershave on his face in Home Alone; a crazed Jack Nicholson shouting “Heeeere’s Johnny!” in The Shining; that single tear running down Ingrid Bergman’s face at the end of Casablanca. Each is a close-up, and each sticks with us because it’s packed with emotion and detail.
To create a dynamic film, a good filmmaker weaves together many types of shots, including the close-up, the medium shot, the full shot (sometimes called the long shot or wide shot), establishing shots, and over-the-shoulder shots. But because the close-up is so powerful, you should use it carefully. Let’s look at what you need to know to be ready to capture your close-up.
What is a close-up shot?
A close-up shot captures a human subject or object at close range and gives viewers an intimate look at details they might otherwise miss. This type of shot often focuses on the character’s face to create an emotional connection between the actor and the audience. Some close-ups instead feature a body part such as a hand or an eye, a prop, or part of the set. Unlike many entries on your shot list, the close-up is all about nuance. The slightest flick of an actor’s glance or a subtle shift in lighting becomes deeply meaningful when it fills the viewer’s vision.
When to use a close-up shot
Shot sizes influence the mood, pacing, and meaning of a scene, so selecting the right shots for the right moments is one of a filmmaker’s most important jobs. There are a few reasons you might choose to go in for a close-up:
- To highlight important moments or objects. Close-ups act as spotlights that signal to an audience that a thing, a person, or a reaction is pivotal to the scene or plot. They can also add context to the action, explain key information, or foreshadow later events.
- To show a character’s expressions. An actor’s face can convey nuanced information that helps tell part of the story and gives viewers insight into the character’s innermost feelings or their relationship with other characters. A close-up can showcase shifting perspectives, feelings of inner turmoil, or the subtleties of a character’s development.
- To evoke strong emotions. During a close-up, the audience is forced to reckon with whatever is happening on screen — and experience palpable emotions as a result. A very tight close-up might be disorienting, making viewers feel uncomfortable or anxious. A lingering close-up on an actor breaking down in tears might stir sympathetic feelings. A sudden close-up on a ridiculous image could break the tension and cue some laughter.
- To reconnect the viewer to the story. Part of the magic of movies is that they provide a doorway to larger-than-life places and events. But that grandeur can create distance between the audience and whatever’s happening on screen. A close-up is a good way to draw viewers back into the story. It puts them in the subject’s space and makes them feel like they’re part of the action.
Like any other cinematic tool, the close-up shot doesn't exist in a vacuum. Any close-up draws power and meaning from the shots around it, so when you consider why or where to use one, be mindful of the camera movement you will use to transition in and out of the shot.
You should also think about how to combine your close-ups with other shot sizes in the sequence, scene, and movie to create a compelling visual story. If you use too many close-ups, the audience may lose track of the big picture — literally and metaphorically. But if you use too few, you risk limiting the overall emotional impact of your film.
4 Types of close-up shots
There are four main types or categories of close-up shots any budding filmmaker should know.
- The medium close-up shot. A medium close-up shot, or MCU, frames a person from the middle of the torso to just above the head. It feels familiar because it offers roughly the same view you would have in a close conversation with another person. The medium close-up is intimate and encourages the viewer to empathize with the character at a time of heightened emotion. An MCU retains some of the background details, which makes the shot feel more neutral than other types of close-ups.
- The close-up shot. Tighter than an MCU, the close-up films an actor’s face and shoulders. Some of the background will be visible, but the shot is so focused on the actor’s eyes and expression that the viewer may barely notice any other imagery. This kind of close-up is particularly effective at showing a character’s sudden realization or some other change in emotion.
- The extreme close-up shot. The extreme close-up shot, or ECU, fills the frame with a specific detail. It might be an area of an actor’s face, like the eyes or mouth, or part of a prop, such as the spout of a steaming teapot or a crack in a wall. The most important difference between an ECU and a close-up is that an ECU doesn’t show the entire subject; parts are cut off by the frame to accentuate the importance of those that remain.
- The insert shot. Unlike other types of close-ups, the insert shot doesn’t provoke emotion. Instead, it creates emphasis. An insert shot shows a specific detail of a prop to help the audience better understand the narrative — think a glass of wine being poured or an alarm clock hitting 6 AM. You might depict the object from the character’s point of view to show the audience what the character sees.
5 Examples of famous movie scenes that use close-up shots
When used wisely, the close-up shot isn’t just effective — it’s iconic. Here are a few examples of unforgettable close-ups in movie history.
- The shower scene in Psycho (1960). Arguably one of the most memorable scenes Alfred Hitchcock ever filmed, this sequence uses close-ups to evoke terror. But the shots are just as notable for what they don’t show as what they do. We watch Marion Cane’s head and shoulders as she steps into the shower. Then she’s attacked, and we see a frenzy of close-ups at different angles and shots of her screaming. But like Cane, we never get a good look at the attacker.
- The arrival of the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). One type of close-up is so well-associated with Steven Spielberg’s movies that it’s named after him. The Spielberg Face close-up features slow movement towards or across a character’s face as they stare in amazement and wonder at something just off-screen. Nowhere is it used more liberally than at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind when a huge group of government officials watches a UFO land and extraterrestrials emerge.
- The Gollum and Sméagol argument in Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers (2002). Powerful usage of close-ups isn’t limited to live-action. In an unforgettable scene in the Lord of the Rings franchise, the CGI character of Gollum (voiced and performed by actor Andy Serkis) battles with his good half, Sméagol. Individual close-ups from multiple angles deftly illustrate the warring sides of the character’s personality. The close-up shots highlight tiny details in expression that differentiate the two sides and capture a depth of emotion that few expected to see from a computer-generated creature.
- The “Your Nose Is Beautiful” scene in A Star Is Born (2018). Set in a red-lit bar, this scene features a succession of close-ups that are shot over the shoulder of one actor to capture the other, known as an over-the-shoulder close-up. By cutting back and forth like this, director Bradley Cooper brings the audience right into the discussion, and the tight framing plays up the intimacy of the moment. Then, the camera moves into an extreme close-up on Ally’s profile as Jack traces her nose with his finger. It’s such a tight shot that the background blurs, making viewers feel as if they’re intruding on a private moment between the only two people in a room.
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