Creative Uses of the Close Up Shot in Filmmaking
Are you ready for your close up shot?
We’ve talked in our wide shot and medium shot posts about the importance of capturing emotion in a film. After all, we go to the movies not just to be entertained, but to feel something. That feeling can be happiness, joy, anger, sadness, laughter, etc.
No shot has a more direct impact on the audience than this one. We’re going to do a deep dive on the close-up shot, look at some of the examples, and also spend some time dissecting an extension of the shot.
So without further ado, let’s get started.
A shot taken of a subject or object at close range that shows greater detail. The shot is tightly framed and is most often used to frame a character’s face in such a way that it fills the screen and dominates the scene.
Now that we’ve got a definition, let’s take a look at when you would use one.
This shot is useful for showcasing the emotions and reactions of characters or showing details on objects.
The close shot provides the viewer a detailed and intimate look at a character and is the best tool a director has for conveying a character’s emotional state of mind; it draws us into the subject’s space and helps us understand their feelings.
You can also use a close shot to reveal details or information about objects or settings, so there is some flexibility to the shot, but by and large, it’s a character-focused shot that helps directors amplify the emotion of a scene.
But don’t take my word for it, let’s dive into some examples.
Close-up Shot Examples
Perhaps more than any other shot, memorable close shots have a way of imprinting themselves on your brain. That’s certainly the case with our first example, a bold and big close up shot from Stanely Kubrick’s The Shining:
In possibly the most famous scene from the film, Jack Torrance stalks his wife Wendy throughout the hotel, forcing her to take refuge in the bathroom. This close shot, which frames Jack’s face in the broken door, is utterly terrifying and perfectly encapsulates Jack’s mental deterioration. We see the madness in Jack’s eyes as he delivers the famous “Here’s Johnny” line and completely understands the fear Wendy must be experiencing.
Our next close shot hails from another psychological horror masterpiece, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VP5jEAP3K4
Arguably the most memorable scene in cinematic history, the shower scene would not be the same if not for the jarring close shots of Marion Crane as she is savagely attacked in the shower. The absolute terror lining her face as she tries to fend off her attacker is one that could only be captured in a close-up. The scene is especially intimate and effective because we’re up close with Marion as she lets out her infamous screams.
The shot is extremely effective in violent sequences, but it can also be used to amplify tension. Perhaps the best example of this comes from Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeKqD2g9-ic
This scene of Clarice interrogating Hannibal Lecter starts on medium shots of each character, but Demme slowly pushes in on their faces as the scene goes on until we get three straight minutes filmed entirely in close up shots.
We learn everything we need to know about Clarice and Hannibal’s states of mind in these close shots. We see that Lecter is in control; his face relays confidence and power while Clarice’s portrays fear and vulnerability. This is a tense powerhouse of a scene, and Demme’s choice to shoot the head-to-head in close-up was perfect.
There may be one way to define a close-up shot on paper, but there’s no one way to use it. These shots don’t just have to be used in horror movies or thrillers; they can also be effective in comedies.
Our next example showcases this.
How do you introduce yet another quirky, crazy character in a film full of them? One option is to do what the Coen Brothers did with Jesus in the Big Lebowski.
Before we ever see Jesus’s face, the Coens use a series of close-ups—on his shoes, socks, and rings— to make it clear that we’re about to meet someone unique. Moments later, we see him lick the bowling ball in close up.
In 30 seconds, they create fascinating mythology around this character. Who is this guy?
We get our answer as he approaches the bowling lane when the Coens use yet another close up to reveal his name via the patch on his shirt.
Aspiring filmmakers should take note because this scene is a masterclass in how to introduce a character and it’s done almost entirely via the CU.
Now that we’ve thoroughly explored the close shot, let’s take a look at its variations, starting with the ECU.
Extreme Close-Up Shot Definition
The extreme close up (“ECU” on a shot list) is an even tighter shot on a subject. The shot frequently has the subject take up the majority or even all of the frame when used to frame a person. It often features only their facial features.
We’ve got our extreme close up the shot definition, so let’s discuss when to use this shot.
When To Use an ECU
The extreme close up shot is generally used to allow the viewer to enter the character’s personal space, revealing traits and emotions that might otherwise go unnoticed. The frame is so tight that using an extreme close up shot gives the viewer no choice but to experience the character’s feelings alongside them.
Like the ECU, the definition says, it is the most intimate of shots, and it allows the viewer to get up close and personal with a character to see the raw emotion they’re experiencing.
The extreme close-up shot is one of the less commonly used shots in the film, but when utilized correctly, it can be extremely powerful.
Perhaps the most well-known example of this is from Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
The entire final sequence of this film is worth a watch, but this climactic moment is particularly impressive. Leone uses the extreme close-up to give us a very intimate view of our characters’ eyes, and in those eyes, we see three different stories. The differences in the characters’ facial expressions and slight shifts in how they look at each other ramp up the tension and make the final payoff all the more powerful.
There are a million ways to shoot that moment, and 99/100 directors would shoot it differently, but Leone knew the power of the shot is used to great effect.
Much like Leone, Darren Aronofsky is another director who loves to use the extreme close up shot.
Aronofsky is known for trying to push the limits and loves creating a sense of unease for his viewers. His style is hyper-specific, and there’s perhaps no greater visual trademark to it than his use of the ECU.
Rather than just give you one example, let’s take a look at a compilation of his ECU shots from perhaps his most memorable work, Requiem for a Dream.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mg2Gf9u6naI&t=11s
Even for a movie about drug addicts, Requiem is a particularly brutal experience. No matter your thoughts on the movie as a whole, the film’s drug montages are a cinematic feat. They are designed to show the ugly side of addiction and don’t shy away from focusing on the dark underbelly of that lifestyle. Aronofsky uses extreme close-ups liberally in these montages because they build on the mood and atmosphere and drive home the ugliness.
In tandem with the film’s score and sound design, these ECUs make the viewer feel a real sense of anxiety and discomfort; Aronofsky forces us to get up close and personal with the ugly side of drug use.
For our last example, we’re going to take a look at a distinctly different sort of movie in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash.
Chazelle uses his entire bag of tracks in this mesmerizing finale, and the ECUs on Andrew Neiman’s sweat-drenched cymbals, ear, and the shirt that add to the intensity of the moment. Andrew is working so hard that sweat has poured from him and onto everything around him and we can only see that level of detail in the ECU shot. Towards the end of the clip, we get another series of ECUs, the most jarring of which shows that Andrew has worked so hard that he’s bled onto his drum kit.
Summing Up the Shot
Remember, movies are all about feeling something. Your job as the director is to create a story that makes your audience feel deeply.
They can be laughing, scared, happy, or devastated; you just need to make them feel, and the close-up shot is one of your best friends in that process. As you plot your course, remember the close-up shot definition, revisit some of the examples we went over and seek out new ones, and don’t be afraid to mix it up and go to town with some extreme wide shots too.
Now it’s time to get to work, if you can get Marion Crane’s screams out of your head, that is.