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In a recent post, I wrote about how close ups were better suited for drama because when used correctly they focus your attention and bring you closer to and emphasize their subjects. But if you watch movies these days, you’ll notice a disturbing trend. There is a over reliance of close ups. Almost every scene is shot and cut primarily with close ups save for the odd establishing shot here and there. This is problematic for many reasons.

Close ups are effective because they focus your attention on something in the scene to let the audience know that this is important. They can work like exclaimation points in writing. But if everything is a close up, then nothing is really emphasized because each shot is of the same importance. All you’re left with is talking heads which is not visually interesting and doesn’t tell the story visually.

Watch any well crafted movie and you’ll see that the director tells a lot of the story in wide and medium shots. The close ups are used for emphasis, whether it’s on a character’s face to show their reaction or thoughts on it’s an insert of some important clue. The more sparingly close ups are used, the more power they have when they’re used.

So why do so many contemporary filmmakers over use close ups? I believe there are two answers that will apply to most cases. The first is that they just don’t know any better. When directing, many new, or bad, filmmakers just want to move the camera. Case in point:

Hack Scorcese

They don’t think about how to tell the story visually with pictures and they don’t know how to break a scene down into what is important and what isn’t important. As a result when there is a lot of dialogue or they don’t know how to move the camera, they use close ups to bridge the moments and fill in the gaps until they can move the camera again. They, in essence, use close ups because they don’t know what else to shoot in order to tell the story.

The second reason why I think many directors today use close ups so heavily is that many feature directors started off in television. Although television is, like film, a visual medium, most television is directed like radio.

Radio

Time is of the essence. The blue suited studio penguins insist on more information being crammed in before the next commercial. They don’t let the directors tell the story with the camera. And with television’s quick production schedules, the directors often don’t have the time or budget to properly shoot a scene. Close ups are a quick and cheap way of shooting a scene and getting across information.

But you know better. You know that your job is to shoot the inherent drama of a scene. Not the bare information of the scene. And if you’re not sure whether or not to use a close up, just remember that good directing, that is good visual storytelling, involves telling the story in pictures. So if you were to turn off the sound in your scene, does that close up help you to tell your story? Does the close up help you to make a certain point? If it does, then by all means use it. Otherwise, find a different shot that helps you to tell you story.

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