The Power of Close-Ups
The invention of television changed cinematic language. Relying on wide master shots didn’t make sense for television –– after all, older televisions had small screens, so wide shots were hard to see. Conversely, filling the whole frame with a face kept viewers engaged. It wasn’t long before close-ups became the dominant building block of television scenes. Unfortunately, that practice spilled into theatrical films.
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see whole scenes comprised entirely of close-ups. This causes lackluster results of varying degrees. Sometimes you'll get a scene of 90% medium close-ups that looks like dated CSI (I like Christopher Nolan, but it's safe to say that INSOMNIA isn't his best work):
Or worse, something so spatially jarring that it’s disorienting to the viewer (the lack of establishing shots in this scene must have been intentional, but it’s still difficult to watch):
But this wasn't always the case. A long time ago, close-ups were used sparingly –– and when they were, it was a big deal. It really meant something. It was powerful.
Check out this scene from WEST SIDE STORY. You’ll notice that there are only two real close-ups (at 2:05 and 2:32). When they happen, they achieve maximum emotional effect. Part of this is due to the framing, lighting, acting, and timing within the song. But another big factor is the absence of other close-ups before and after:
I wish more contemporary filmmakers would hold back on close-ups. Saving them for the right moment makes them more powerful. Use your most potent techniques sparingly and they’ll achieve maximum effect.