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 why it’s the preferred option when a close-up or a medium shot just won’t do. Before we get too far, let’s start with our ultimate guide to shot size for a refresher on the various options. Let’s jump in.
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Defining the MCU
Medium close-up basics
Let’s get close…but not too close...to our subject.
MEDIUM CLOSE-UP SHOT DEFINITION
What is a medium close-up shot?
A medium close-up shot (or MCU) is a shot that frames the subject from just 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 standard coverage 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 capture the actor's performance
- So the background around the subject is included
- For a "neutral" shot option within standard coverage
Some of the 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. This allows you to emphasize certain portions of your scene with a simple change in shot size.
Some filmmakers use these shots sparingly, but when they do use them, they do so with strong intention. It's a major part of David Fincher's directing style as the video below shows us.
Let’s take a look at a few scenes that use medium close-up shots effectively, and analyze why they were used.
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 reminds us that the medium close-ups shot is a major player in Christopher Nolan's shot list. Nolan builds scenes around his gradual camera movement that alters the shot size, and therefore reinforces the changes in his scenes.
Watch this scene, and then we'll see how the shots work in combination. Specifically, notice how Nolan sticks with medium shots and medium close-ups until the big reveal.
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. 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, 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 the same feeling in your viewer but with subtlety and finesse. It is micro adjustments like these that keep the construction of the scene invisible to the audience.
This is patient filmmaking. The conversation becomes even more cryptic and revelations slowly begin to trickle in. Ariadne and the viewer begin to lean in as we receive this new information.
This shot below is still an MCU, because it’s still an over-the-shoulder shot on Cobb. Then he lets the cat out of the bag…
That they are actually in a dream at this very moment.
And now, Nolan can safely transition Ariadne and her reaction into a shot size more suitable for this moment — a close-up.
The revelation is supported by the shot size and lack of OTS. It's no longer a conversation between two people, it's the realization of a single character. Hence, our first single of the scene. Now that this entire scenario has been called into question, Ariadne's realization is much more effective when Nolan cuts to this wide 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.
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 after a tense moment with another team member.
The reverse shot size is slightly bigger, which may suggest that Luther is less convinced by Ethan’s apparent olive branch...
Documentaries and the MCU
Medium close-up shots are used often in documentary filmmaking and interviews for many of the same reasons they are used in narrative film.
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. Here's an example of one of the best documentaries ever made, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, in its entirety.
Pay attention to how often the interview subjects are framed in a medium close-up shot until a vital new piece of information is revealed.
As we've seen the MCU is a versatile option in any shot list. It can bridge the gap between medium shot and close-up while retaining the benefits of both. In your next project, consider the medium close-up and how it works in visual storytelling.
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Close Up Shots
The power of the close-up
Now you understand how and when you can use a medium close-up shot to generate a number of different emotions. While the MCU has its own storytelling value, they can also set the viewer up for the most "emotional" shot size: the close-up. Let's continue our breakdown of shot sizes and how they work with a focus on our main source of body language: the human face. Are you ready for your close-up?