How to…shoot a closeup

Studio Film School director Dan shares his advice for getting the perfect closeup.

If there’s one golden rule I would apply to all filmmaking, it would be think in terms of shots. What are you filming? Why are you filming it? If you can’t clearly answer these questions quickly then it sounds like your shot won’t be prepared properly.

Alfred Hitchcock said it better than me:

“The size of an object in the frame should equal its importance in the story at that moment.”

Which means, if something is important, make sure there’s at least one shot in your film where we have a great close up of it.

A classic closeup from Alfred Hitchcock

A classic closeup from Alfred Hitchcock

A closeup (often shortened to CU) is when we see a face fill the frame. Not all closeups are of humans, so the subject won’t always have a face. But take the basic guide that a shot that frames the whole of a person/thing is a wide shot, and a closeup frames only the bit that’s most interesting at the time. Also, bear in mind a closeup of a whale will be completely different  to a closeup of a human. Filmmaking is full of such vagueness!

If someone’s about to be poisoned: have a shot where the poison label looks huge. Or, if someone’s feeling sad: let’s see a great closeup of their face so we see their emotional expressions.

We haven’t always had closeups in film, check out a George Méliès film, and you’ll notice that most shots sit in what we would call wide, and often it’s a bit like watching a play, and we can’t see the detail of people’s faces.

So, how do we create a good closeup?

1) Choose a good subject. What are we filming and why are we filming it? Is your character reacting to something that’s just happened? Is it a close up of an item that will later become a clue to a crime investigation? Is it an united shoelace that will cause problems later? Whatever it is, be clear on what the audience need  to take away.

2) Frame your shot well. Draw it first. What’s the focus of the shot? Will we be able to see things in the background? How much of the subject do you want to see?

3) Check the composition. Often it’s natural to plonk your subject right in the middle of the shot, but perhaps it will look stronger to one side? We’ll come to the rule of thirds another time, but this is a useful thing to think about here. Is there anything distracting in the background?

4) Think about focus. Often, a closeup works well with only part of the shot in focus, and everything else is out of focus or blurry. We call this a shallow depth of field.

Notice the background is completely out of focus here.

Notice the background is completely out of focus here.

Depending on what you’re shooting with this is done differently. Most smart phones now have really intelligent cameras that will tweak settings for you just by ensuring you’re really close to the subject and far away from the background. With a fancier set up, you’ll be looking at changing camera lenses, typically we would use a normal lens or a telephoto lens for closeups.

5) Check your subject’s eyes. Look for a glint of light in their eyes. If there is no reflected light in the subject’s eye the image can look a bit lifeless. So try positioning a lamp or reflector to catch their eye with some light.

6) Keep it natural and subtle. A closeup is a great way to emphasise the subtlest of emotions and the nuances of a skilled actor. Less is definitely more. You may find that a more underplayed acting style will work very well.

So, what are you waiting for? Follow the tips above to apply finesse to your closeups. We’d love to see some films you’ve made, why not stick a link to something you’ve made in the comments below?

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