As we’ve talked about in our film theory post, what shots you choose to use as a director have a huge impact on your film. Every director and DP has the same long list of shots in their arsenal. One of the most important shots in their arsenal The close-up.

How you use the close up, and when you use it, has a massive effect on the emotional impact of the moment. 

In this post we’re going to go over the many ways you can use the close-up to its full potential. We’ll also go through some stunning close-up examples and dive deep into the filmmakers who’ve used this tool the best. 

We’ll also show you how the close-up fits into your storyboard and shotlist can help you easily plan out your use of this all-important visual tool. 

So… are you ready for your close-up?

Watch: How to Use Close-up Shots

Close up basics

The close-up is a shot often taken at relatively close range on a longer lens. The benefit of the close up is that it gives us a detailed and intimate look we might normally miss. The close up in film and television allowed for a revolutionary new approach to acting and performing, since even the slightest glance and facial movement could convey meaning. 

Before the close up existed, all performance was done on a stage and required larger movements to send any sort of message. 

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Close up definition (CU)

A photograph or movie shot taken of a subject or object at close range showing greater detail, becoming a more detailed study.  

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Examples of close-up shot types:

  • Medium close up (MCU)
  • Close up (CU)
  • Extreme close up (ECU)
  • Lean-in
  • Lean-out
  • Lean

Sure many people remember the close up shot from this scene in Sunset Boulevard:

But it’s so much more than the immortal line from Norma Desmond.

The close up shot, or closeup, is a shot that frames the subject tightly, so they take up most of the screen. It's not always so we can see the detail on the performance. Sometimes it's just to create a sense of the space.

Like this:

Close Up Shot - The Art of the Camera Angle - Die Hard

Getting "closeup" and personal with John McClane

Yes this is close. But what about when we get really close up?

Extreme close up 

The extreme close up is denoted as an "ECU" on the script page or in a shot list.

An extreme close up is an even tighter shot on a subject. These shots frequently have the subject take up the majority or even all of the frame.

You know who loves an extreme close up?

Quentin Tarantino.

Another cinematic master who loves the extreme close up?

David Fincher.

Why use a close up shot?

So we've defined close-up, but chances are you already knew a little bit about the shot and how it looked. 

The real question is why use it, and even more importantly when?

A lot of cinema has been about displaying grandeur and scope. Taking audiences place they could never go. But the close-up was that intimate tool to help relate the story back to the audience. 

In a way, the close-up shot is a mirror the filmmaker holds up to the audience. We see ourselves reflected back in the characters. We see the world and the events of their story through their eyes. 

Close Up Shot - The Art of the Camera Angle - Planet of the Apes

Even when the character is a monkey, the close-up invites us to connect to the world through their eyes 

The close up camera angle helps a viewer connect on a deeper level with the subject. Yes cinema can take us places we've never gone, and show us things on a scale we could have never imagined... but it can also do something even more magical. 

It can allow us to experience the world as someone else. 

All because of the close up. 

Want to know something absolutely bonkers?

The 1928 movie, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, is told entirely in close ups! The filmmakers wanted the audience to closely identify with every character in the film- they wanted this powerful story to be felt- to be identified with. 

The close up shots in this film bring the viewer into the experience

Examples of close up shots

Before you start coming up with the best ways to use the close-up in your next project, let's take a look at some excellent examples of close up shots. 

We'll start with the most obvious use of a close up shot, which is to frame up a face.  

Close-ups give an actor room to make their performance stand out with subtlty

These types of close up shots help us identify what’s going on in a scene and relate more to the characters. 

Close ups can make us share in the fear:

Close Up Shot - The Art of the Camera Angle - The Blair Witch Project

One of the most famous closeups of all time.

Or they can help us understand a character’s frustration with the moment.

Close Up Shot - The Art of the Camera Angle - Insecure Season 2

Incredible close up camera shot.

We can us the close up to clearly identify when someone has lost their mind:

Close Up Shot - The Art of the Camera Angle - The Shining

Here's... a close up shot! 

Or they’re tapped into a bigger understanding of the universe and its inner-workings.

Close Up Shot - The Art of the Camera Angle - 2001 A Space Odyssey

Close up face!!... a close shot! 

The facial close up can be used as a character reveal. Like when we first saw the extent of Eleven’s powers in Stranger Things.

Close Up Shot - The Art of the Camera Angle - Stranger Things

Close up face!!... a close shot! 

Check out this video of the close up shots in Whiplash.

A cornicopia of close ups 

This film uses close up shots to create an intimacy between characters. This intimacy turns into passion, danger, and then pressure as the movie drives to it's climax.

Directors have been using close ups on faces since some of the first movies ever made. But there’s only one director whose lasting impact on film can be defined with the close up. His name has become a kind of close-up!

Can you guess who?

The Spielberg face close up

The Spielberg face is usually a slow dolly, or pan, in on a character’s face as they stare in wonderment at something off screen. You've seen it. A lot.

Spielberg faces in all their spleandor 

Spielberg is great at getting the audience to bend to his will when it comes to emotional content. He moves the camera fluidly, and his movies are full of awe inspiring moments. 

But the way he holds on a close-up is probably more important to inspiring that awe, then the spectacles themselves. 

Close Up Shot - The Art of the Camera Angle - Collage

The indelible close up camera shot and close up face.

RELATED: How Spielberg Subverts the Kushelov Effect

Want to go deeper on the Spielberg face? Of course you do. Who doesn't want to learn more about the living master. 

The Spielberg face is always a close up or extreme close up.

He uses it at pivotal moments in action or drama to come close on actors and get the audience's’ heart beating.

The Spielberg shot made close ups of faces some of the most famous shots in cinema. But are there close ups that aren’t faces. 

The “insert” close up shot

The insert shot refers to a close up that can function as exposition in your story. It moves the plot forward or highlights an important detail the audience needs to know so they better understand the moment in the film. They answer important questions visually. 

For example, how many bullets are left in this gun during Mad Max: Road Warrior?
Close Up Shot - The Art of the Camera Angle

Or how do we know the extent of Rey's Jedi powers in The Last Jedi?

Close Up Shot - The Art of the Camera Angle - The Force Awakens

Or where did a serial killer get his name?

Close Up Shot - The Art of the Camera Angle - Zodiac

The insert shot can be used in conjunction with a close up of a characters face to accentuate a reaction. Answer the question in an insert, then show the characters emotional reaction to the new data. 

Look how Sergio Leone uses the close up juxtaposed with the insert shot to create a tense mood at the end of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Getting extreme with close ups in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The quick cuts and close ups keep the audience feeling the peril of the situation. The pressure each man feels to reach for his gun intensifies.

The close up in your shot list

Now we've started to combine close-up shots in a meaningful way.

Do you want to go from an insert of an extreme close-up of a character's hand on his gun to a close up on another characters eyes darting back and forth nervously?

Like this:

How to Create a Shot List with StudioBinder - Shot List Creator Template - Final Shot List

Or... How about you go from the nervous darting eyes to the hand on the gun? 

Or do you want to get in even closer and show the hammer cock back? 

These are the decisions a filmmaker makes when they're assembling their storyboard and shot lists. Every combination of shots creates a different feeling in the audience. 

The order of the shots tells the story - it creates meaning

If you don't know already, you can learn how to make a storyboard in 9 easy steps, and if you do it in StudioBinder, you're actually creating a shot list at the same time!

Up next

The close up is a versatile shot utilized by the most talented filmmakers to punctuate the thematic elements of their movies, to reveal character, and to drive plot forward.

Whether you’re up for the Academy Award or just starting out, it’s important to carefully consider close up usage throughout your work.

The more shots you master and then add to your shot list, the better.

Next up we'll be covering the medium shot. It's one of the meat and potatoes shots you absolutely have to master, but it comes with a surprising amount of versatility. Check out the post to get all our medium shot tips, so you can make the best use of it!

In the meantime, if you've got any favorite close up shots comment below!

My personal favorite comes from the end of The 400 Blows.

Close Up Shot - The Art of the Camera Angle - 400 Blows

This closeup face proves Antoine is always going to be imprisoned.

Au Revoir!

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