Medium close-up shots are a go-to for many directors, but understanding how to use them in the most effective way possible takes some finesse.
We’re going to discuss the medium close-up shot and go over how it’s used and why it’s used when a close-up or a medium shot just won’t do. Then we’ll talk about tone, different use in media, and the background. Let’s jump in.
Defining the MCU
1. Medium close-up basics
Medium close-up shots are just as effective as their more commonly known siblings and often used more by directors as well.
Let’s get close… but not too close.
MEDIUM CLOSE-UP SHOT DEFINITION
What is a medium close-up shot?
A medium close-up shot (or MCU) is when a filmmaker places their camera so that an actor is framed from right above their head down to about midway on their torso. The idea of a medium close-up shot is that you can still easily register the actor's emotions and facial expressions while also retaining some of the background.
A medium close-up is often used when a scene needs to be covered with a standard method that doesn’t shock the viewer. Often these shots are used when a scene calls for a neutral narrative approach.
Why do directors use medium close-up shots?
- To cover scenes with a standard approach.
- To show the viewer facial expressions and emotions.
- To retain some of the scene’s background in your shots.
Some of the best scenes and best directors use MCUs for coverage in their scenes, and they do this to conserve cinematic energy.
That’s because when you frame the majority of your scenes in medium close-ups, you keep the effectiveness of a close-up shot untapped.
Then, when you do decide to move in for a close-up, you will get a more potent reaction from the viewer, allowing you to emphasize certain portions of your scene with a change in shot size.
Some filmmakers use these shots sparingly, but when they do use them, they do so with strong intention. See a little more on how Fincher does it below.
Let’s take a look at a few scenes that use medium close-up shots effectively, and analyze why they were used.
2. MCU examples in film
Let’s show you some examples of medium close-ups and see if we understand the motivation behind them.
This scene from Inception shows you the overall style of Christopher Nolan, who builds scenes around his gradual camera movement that alters the shot size, and therefore reinforces the change in his scenes.
Watch this scene, and then we'll see how the shots were laid out during the filming of the scene.
The scene begins in a wide shot, with Ariadne and Cobb sitting at a table surrounded by people. But as Cobb explains the idea of dreams, Nolan pushes in on both characters, and as new pieces of information are revealed we get closer and closer:
The shot above is a medium shot, and we get to see the background imagery of what seems to be a lovely brunch in Paris.
And Nolan matches this gradual change in shot size on both sides.
Cobb continues the lesson, and because the dialogue is well written and the acting is well done, we are busy paying attention.
When Ariadne begins to question Cobb’s lesson, that’s when the scene goes from being educational to a much more intense place.
Then Nolan moves to a medium close-up coverage on each of the actors.
The scene and dialogue have become much more interesting now, but we still have questions and still don’t have that exclamation point attached.
And that’s a good thing, because we’d become suspicious at this point if Nolan had gone all the way to a close-up.
An MCU evokes feeling in your viewer with finesse.
This is patient filmmaking.
The conversation becomes even more cryptic and revelations slowly begin to trickle in, both for Ariadne and the viewer.
This shot below is still an MCU, because it’s still an OTS on Cobb.
Then he lets the cat out of the bag…
That they are actually in a dream world at this moment.
And now, Nolan can safely transition Ariadne and her reaction into a shot size more suitable for this moment.
The revelation is supported by the shot size and lack of OTS, and the moment is much more effective - especially when Nolan cuts to this shot.
Changing to this wide shot from a medium shot or even an MCU is not as effective as changing from the close-up.
It’s like a slingshot, gradually pulled in and then snapped out. The viewer is pulled in, and then thrust back out into the new dream world.
That sudden contrast in shot size makes the scene more effective.
But the entire scene is less effective without the MCUs in the middle portion of the scene, because if they are absent, it gives the trick away.
Think of MCUs as a buffer zone.
The cartilage between your knees, the shock absorbers on your car’s suspension, the DMZ.
Imagine how much destruction would occur if these things were absent in each of their respective bodies. The body of this scene needs the MCU to work the way it does, and your scenes may as well.
You can also use an MCU to signal trust between two characters, while still retaining a level of skepticism in their relationship. Watch a quick scene from Mission Impossible that does this well:
This moment in Mission: Impossible shows Ethan and Luther connecting with one another after a moment of conflict with another team member.
The reverse shot size is slightly bigger, which may suggest that Luther is less convinced by Ethan’s olive branch...
Test out your medium close-ups. Get closer to your vision by building your shot list and storyboards in StudioBinder.
3. Documentaries and the MCU
Medium close-up shots are used often in documentaries and interviews for many of the same reasons they are used in narrative cinema.
They are often spliced back and forth with close-up shots from a different angle to give you some variety and allow a smoother edit, but there is something trustworthy about an MCU.
The shot size shows facial expressions and emotion, but when it is most useful is when you are relaying important information that shouldn’t register on too high of an emotional level.
When you really need to show a great moment of emotional impact, you will then move into your close up shots.
When this scene cuts to the MCU on the gaming referee, you know you’re being told information that is educational, but not terribly emotional.
CAMERA SHOT SIZES
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Master every shot size, and learn unique ways to combine them with angles and movements to take your storytelling to the next level.
CLOSE UP SHOTS
The Aerial Shot: Camera Angles
Now you understand how and when you can use a medium close-up shot to generate a number of different emotions.
Learn even more by checking out our post on The Aerial Shot: Camera Movements Angles, and find out how aerial shots can be used effectively in your next project.