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Over-use of close-ups.


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#1 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 01 June 2006 - 04:29 AM

You often hear that the over-use of close-ups is a product of films being made for, being influenced, or watched mainly on TV's. But the problem starts much earlier - in editing. This is where the over-use originates. This is probably the biggest drawback with modern NLE editing, the fact that everything is cut, paced and constructed on a tiny monitor and never looked at on a big screen until the edit is locked.

Me and a DP friend have done some unscientific tests and the results are clear: 9 times out of 10 an editor will cut in a close-up if they've got one. I notice the same thing when I update my own website with stills - it's the CU work that dominates, since it's more immediately communicative.

It's gone so far with big movies like Da Vinci Code - where I know they've had millions of dollars and went to all these fab locations - yet you can't tell because all there is is close-ups.

But we can all change that. If you don't deliver close-ups, then they can't edit them in. Arm yourself, stand up, and fight for wide's and mid's!
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#2 Laurent Andrieux

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Posted 01 June 2006 - 04:40 AM

I second that and think that CUs work well for TV but are not very cinematic...

Problem is one has to convince the director wich is not easy...
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#3 Jaan Shenberger

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Posted 01 June 2006 - 05:16 AM

though i completely agree that they are too prevalent, i have served as both dp & editor on narrative projects, and can see why the CUs end up dominating the edit... it's easier to control the rhythm of the scene by ping-ponging from actor to actor, and even if you just wanna alter the rhythm once and cut into a med or CU, it's hard to then step back away from the actor's "intensity" by going back to the wide once you've already used the CU, though i guess it depends on the scene. even when i shoot a scene with the intent of using primarily the 2-shot or wide, i'll shoot CUs for safety and often end up using a lot more of the CUs than planned.

also, in my experience, actors almost always give their best performances when in CU... whether this is a conscious decision on their part or not, i dunno.

Edited by jaan, 01 June 2006 - 05:17 AM.

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#4 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 01 June 2006 - 05:49 AM

I agree it can be problematic. But cutting to a CU and then trying to backtrack without losing intensity is precisely the reason one should keep CU's to a minimum - when one really wants to make a point. If you don't use them, then the audience will not have anything to compare to.

As for the acting in wide's I can't say that I've noticed a big difference, although you might have a point. I always find those actors who are less camera savvy - the ones who don't really know what their shot is - can often times have a slight advantage in those circumstances.
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#5 Dan Salzmann

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Posted 01 June 2006 - 07:28 AM

Compromised set design and emotional over-involvement with actors on the part of the director and producer can also factor into this.
Increased podcasting and internet markets is not going to help those wides and mids either.
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#6 Michael Nash

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Posted 01 June 2006 - 09:25 AM

Increased podcasting and internet markets is not going to help those wides and mids either.


I think this is a factor. While these tiny windows may only be a small influence, the DVD release is often a bigger market than the theatrical run. Studios and directors are likely aware of this, and compromise their shots.

But I also think directors have a strong hand in the edit decision. Perhaps they too fall victim to the small offline screen, but they usually get at least a chance to comment on the editor's first cut. If a director wants to stay on a wide, he/she can stay on a wide...

As DP's I think it's important to bring this up with directors during prep -- how tight is too tight? How wide is too wide?
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#7 Laurent Andrieux

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Posted 01 June 2006 - 09:38 AM

Yes and also the fact that nowadays dailies are screened on a monitor instead of a big screen is a factor, I think...
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#8 Tom Bays

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Posted 01 June 2006 - 10:24 AM

I find long self serving moves much more disruptive.
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#9 Jonathan Spear

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Posted 01 June 2006 - 01:12 PM

I totally agree. Overusing CU's kills the dynamics of a scene and can be way too intrusive in my opinion, not unlike over use of shaky handheld shots, rack focus, or the endless tracking shots in 'Elephant'.

There's a "less is more" lesson to be learned here.
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#10 James Erd

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Posted 01 June 2006 - 01:46 PM

though i completely agree that they are too prevalent, i have served as both dp & editor on narrative projects, and can see why the CUs end up dominating the edit... it's easier to control the rhythm of the scene by ping-ponging from actor to actor, and even if you just wanna alter the rhythm once and cut into a med or CU, it's hard to then step back away from the actor's "intensity" by going back to the wide once you've already used the CU, though i guess it depends on the scene. even when i shoot a scene with the intent of using primarily the 2-shot or wide, i'll shoot CUs for safety and often end up using a lot more of the CUs than planned.

also, in my experience, actors almost always give their best performances when in CU... whether this is a conscious decision on their part or not, i dunno.



I agree with Jaan that CU's are too prevalent, but also that they are good insurance. I am in the habit of shooting CU's not just for story telling but also to C.M.A. because I know when it comes time to edit I will find problems. I hate to use anything for a crutch but CU's have saved me from having to go back and shoot additional footage on more than one occasion. For that reason alone I think it's a good idea to keep shooting them.

If every one on the cast and crew are perfect or the budget and production schedule allow for going back to re-shoot scenes, then it's fine to shoot fewer and fewer CU's. In the end however the over use of CU's will probably not be solved by cutting in the camera, but rather in the fullness of time when every one, viewers, critics, producers, directors and hopefully editors just get sick of seeing them. I hope that day is not too far off in the future.
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#11 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 12:25 AM

WEEELLLLL, let me throw my 2 cents worth in. Stories are told in CU. An actor comunicates though their eyes and if a big star is involved, people want to SEE them. John Ford's vistas were vital to his films, agreed, but the story is told in the faces of his charatures. That's the one thing that can't be faked in a movie, the truth behind the eyes.
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#12 David Sweetman

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 01:00 AM

...with modern NLE editing, the fact that everything is cut, paced and constructed on a tiny monitor...


Hmmm...compelling hypothesis. I assume this is why my school's edit room has got a digital projector hooked up to the FCP system.
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#13 Jaan Shenberger

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 01:10 AM

Hmmm...compelling hypothesis. I assume this is why my school's edit room has got a digital projector hooked up to the FCP system.


that's awesome. is this commonplace now at most film programs?

for pro/veteran editors, i would assume that the "small screen" syndrome would have a minimal effect, since i'm sure they constantly keep that in mind, but i think working with a large image would make a big difference for students.
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#14 Michael Nash

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 01:15 AM

Stories are told in CU.


Maybe you need to see more movies! :P

Of course CU's and the actor's performance are important parts of the film language. But so are many things that you CAN'T do in closeup. Some of the movies that have affected me the most emotionally are the ones that used the film form, not just the actor's face, to tell the story. Composition, editing, and the "space" you can create in a wider frame...

I'm just saying there's much more to telling a story in film than just the actor in CU.
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#15 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 01:46 AM

CU's and the actor's performance are the MOST IMPORTANT parts of the film language, w/out them you have a tavel log. I'm not saying splended wide shots aren't important but they're there to enhance an actor's performance, to add ambiance to the story. Everyone complains that special FX films many times are boring. This is because the visual has taken precidence over the the story. People go to the movies to see PEOPLE, the things they do, the way they feel, how they react. For a cinematographer, it's all about what's in the frame, for an audience, it's all about the story. That's why John Cassevettes is considered a genius and one of the greatest filmmakers to have ever lived. It wasn't because of the cinematography in his films, Hell, he'd had the camera to anyone, it's because of the emotion his films evoaked, and that came from the preformances his casts gave. Closeups bring an actor's face dead in front of an audience and force them to feel what he feels. He doesn't have to say a word. THAT"S story telling. (PS, I don't know how many films you've seen, but considering I usually watch 1 to 3 per day, I'll bet I've seen more than you have :rolleyes: )

Edited by Capt.Video, 02 June 2006 - 01:49 AM.

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#16 David Sweetman

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 01:54 AM

that's awesome. is this commonplace now at most film programs?


Haa, well our place isn't exactly a "film program." that's our only decent edit machine, it's inside the communications department, which is a small house near campus that the school bought. It's pretty sweet though, it's got the whole "clubhouse" atmosphere goin' for it. The new teacher there has really been putting together a good little program, even though the major still isn't recognized as "film & video;" officially it's Communications: electronic media.

uh anyway, bottom line: i dunno.

(but our setup makes sense this way, because that room's got stadium seating, so it doubles as a screening room. The same projector/screen is used for both.)

Edited by David Sweetman, 02 June 2006 - 01:57 AM.

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#17 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 02:35 AM

Capt., you're obviously showing a preference for character-driven, performance-driven movies. But that doesn't encompass all of cinema, nor does it imply that the best way to shoot a performance is in a close-up.

For one thing, in a close-up you lose some interpersonal interaction since you don't see the other performers in the frame. You lose the sense of PLACE which can be part of the meaning of the scene. You lose BODY LANGUAGE -- some actors do things with their hands or posture that is read better in a medium shot. Some performances are even better shot from behind! Actors don't only act with their faces.

Plus, how tight a shot has to be is RELATIVE to viewing size. A medium shot may allow an audience to read everything in an actor's face while still keeping a sense of space and spatial relationship to other actors in the frame -- on a larger screen, not on a small TV set.

There are plenty of EMOTIONAL, human moments in cinema that don't involve cutting to a close-up. The famous deep-focus homecoming scene in "Best Years of Our Lives" is a famous example, where the husband returns from the war and walks into the background kitchen and surprises his wife while the kids watch in the f.g. You also mention John Ford, who was a master of using WIDE shots for emotional impact, not just pictoral effects. The preacher watching alone in long shot, silhouette on a hilltop, as the women he loves gets married to someone else in the foreground, from "How Green Was My Valley". Or when the Earp brothers discover the body of their dead brothers at night in the rain in "My Darling Clementine" he cuts to a highish angle of three hat brims with rain pouring off of them rather than show their faces. Their body language and the rain creates a bigger emotional impact than cutting to their faces, which would be a cliche.

Sometimes powerful emotions, like someone receiving news of the death of a loved one, are better shown in a wide shot, lending some dignity to the characters rather than shoving the camera in their face.

Lastly, I'm not against close-ups, I'm against the OVERUSE of close-ups, leaving the director with no tricks in his bag when he does need the emotional impact of cutting in closer if he has already played the whole scene in tight on some innocuous business.

We remember the powerful close-ups of classic movies because they were used with restraint, so that when we did cut to some screen-filling close-up of Ingrid Bergman crying, whatever, it had a strong impact on us.
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#18 David Sweetman

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 02:59 AM

Capt., you're...


word.  Mr. Mullen said it best.

Hmm... makes you think about how to cover stuff.

Edited by David Sweetman, 02 June 2006 - 03:02 AM.

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#19 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 04:18 AM

Just remember the mid-turning-into-a-wide in Saving Private Ryan when the mother of the two killed brothers see's the car coming through her kitchen window, how she walks onto the porch and finally collapses as she understands her third son is also dead. All in one shot, all from behind. No CU could enhance that. But then again, Spielberg is an absolute genius at staging and composition.

CU's are powerful stuff. They're a bit like dialogue - some people think they're essential to filmmaking and that it's impossible to tell a story without them. I say you can just as well do without dialogue and CU's if you wanted to.

Look at 70's movies that didn't have an afterlife on TV or video. Except for in Sergio Leone's films, you rarely would see what we'd call a CU today in pre 80's films. They're much airier, less claustrophic and more pleasant to watch than, say, in-your-face-stuff like 24, CSI etc. Anyway, my preference for 70's movies stems largely from that, I think. It's just classier, better storytelling. Overuse of CU's is hacksville, in my opinion.

Anyone feeling arty should see an extreme example of the wide approach: Songs From The Second Floor by Swedish director Roy Andersson (on DVD). It's absolutely brilliant visually - production designed to the 9th degree, all shot with a 16mm lens on 35mm, drained from color. It's like paintings - and very funny at times.
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#20 Max Jacoby

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Posted 02 June 2006 - 04:49 AM

or the endless tracking shots in 'Elephant'.

The whole point of 'Elephant' are the tracking shots. Gus Van Sant is obviously more interested in creating a rhythm through movement and a sense of geography of this school. And that he achieves. It is a very different approach to overuse of close-ups, because the tracking shots fit into an overall astaethic and are therefore justified.
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