June 4, 2014

Overuse of close-up shots in movies: not a borrowing from TV

Those who can stand to watch Millennial era movies more than I can have noticed that there are way too many close-up shots nowadays. See David Bordwell on the topic here and here, as well as a lengthy thread on the forums at cinematography.com.

Close-up shots allow us to read detail on the face, but obscure body language and posture, as well as the setting. We generally only see one person at a time, so we don't get to see the interaction between characters — only cutting from one to another. Other people are part of the setting, so we also can't see how the characters are placed with respect to one another in space, nor where they're facing (e.g., are two characters looking at each other during an exchange, or is one of them facing / looking away?).

A common complaint is that this overuse of close-ups makes a movie "look like TV," where the norm is one close-up shot alternating with another for each line of dialog, on and on and on.

I don't care for contempo TV shows either, so this sounds a little off. My hunch is that TV didn't used to rely so heavily on close-up framing and shot / reverse shot editing. That would mean the trend has affected both TV and movies, though perhaps being even more common on the small screen.

Let's investigate, shall we? I'll take it for granted that today's lame-o shows follow the close-up approach, if everyone says so. But I also checked the trailers on YouTube for the first and second seasons of Orphan Black, one of those trendoid "edgy" shows that styles itself as breaking new ground but is jumping on the bandwagon of the look du jour. It too is mostly close-ups, and minimal movement from either the camera or the actors.

What about older TV shows? Sit-coms are out because comedy, even today, is shot from farther back so we can see the characters interacting with each other, and see their reactions to each other in real time rather than interrupting one's expression to catch a glimpse of another's. That leaves action and drama, which have both undergone the shift toward close-ups. Fight scenes today are shot close up and tight around the characters. And drama unfolds in alternating close-ups of two people standing still or sitting down.

Well, I've already written an off-the-cuff post about how engaging the camera work was on Magnum, P.I., so why not continue with that example? It was one of the highest-rated shows in the '80s, its theme song landed on the Billboard charts, and it's one that anyone would nominate for definitive '80s TV shows. So this isn't cherry-picking.

It's also worth studying because it was an even mix of action and adventure with drama and mystery — and not comedy. Does the dramatic dialog unfold in shot / reverse shot while close up? Does the action lock right onto subjects, blocking out the arena that it's taking place in?

I'm certainly not going to review every episode, or even do a close reading of one scene in one episode. That could be cherry-picking. Instead I've put together an array of 20 screenshots that come from the thumbnails of full-length episodes available on YouTube. This places each shot halfway through the episode, not at a spot that I purposely chose to make old TV look better than new movies. I didn't cherry-pick which episodes I included either — the first ones that came up in the search results.

Here is a just-dropping-in look at a couple dozen episodes of Magnum, P.I. (click to enlarge):

None is shot up so close that only the face is in view. The single shots are from far enough back that we typically get a sense of place from the setting. The somewhat closer-up shots are two-shots where we see characters interacting with each other, using their hands and upper body language. Plus that two-shot of the not-so-friendly dogs. Just think of how much we'd lose if we only had a close-up framing the dogs' heads -- are they even facing toward some character, or are they just the type that barks indiscriminately? Quite a few have more than two characters interacting, and placed at different distances from the camera.

Read that earlier post on the show for a closer reading of how particular sequences tend to play out. The blocking is not just "enter room, walk straight to standing / sitting spot, and start blathering for five minutes." Actors move around the setting, often at different distances (e.g., someone pacing nervously in the foreground, while another leisurely strolls around in the background, with a wall separating them so neither is aware of the other, but with a window through it so that we can see both movements).

Lots of examples too of what Bordwell calls "the cross," where A begins on the left and B on the right, and their paths lead A to the right and B to the left. Simple switching like that makes us attend more to the action, rather than tune out spatially once we know that A has plopped down here, B has plopped down there, and they'll never move around until they need to leave the scene.

While on YouTube, I watched some scenes from an episode of Columbo, and there too there was no heavy use of close-ups. Indeed, the most famous staging of characters on that show has Columbo in a medium or long shot, almost ready to leave the setting when he remembers "just one more thing" that leads him to backtrack into a closer-up shot to ask the suspect another couple of questions. Like Magnum, P.I., that show combined mystery and drama, though not action (or comedy).

That's my take on what's going on in both TV and movies from the past 20-odd years — a shift away from mystery, anticipation, and tension, and toward obviousness and instantaneous reflexive responses.

Before, you could clearly perceive the configuration of the characters relative to one another, relative to the larger setting, and their trajectories (relative to each other and within the setting). You can't anticipate with projecting a current movement forward. No path of motion, no anticipation. But anticipated outcomes are not actual outcomes — you're held in suspsense until the climax or pay-off where you see if what you were projecting actually took place or not.

With super close-up shots, all that stuff that would've been included in the frame of reference has been sealed out, and you can't project where anything is heading. If there's no action, the result is dull. If there is action, the result is disorienting rather than engaging. Either way, close-up after close-up alienates the audience.

This ties into a separate but related shift in editing away from longer shots and toward a rapid pow-pow-pow rhythm. A single fluid shot allows you to anticipate the outcome, be held in suspense for a little bit, and then see if it happened or not. The interrupting back-and-forth rhythm prevents a physiological reaction from building in intensity, or develop into a full emotion or thought. It's like your sex partner switching positions every 1.5 seconds — dammit, just hold still for a little while so we can get it on.

But the ziggy-zaggy rhythm is a topic for another post. (See how annoying these abrupt cuts are?)


  1. The one notable thing about Orphan Black is the lead actress playing all those parts and giving a distinct performance (including body language) for each one in addition to one of those characters impersonating another. It's not a show like Breaking Bad where anybody cares who directed a particular episode.

    Michael Mann was known for his use of the shot/reverse shot in movies even back in the day. That's one of the things discussed in this video from Matt Zoller Seitz and Aaron Aradillas.

    I'm also reminded of the "Bergmann shot", of two faces, generally not looking directly at each other. I believe it was Bergman who said the essence of film is the human face.

  2. "I believe it was Bergman who said the essence of film is the human face."

    Yes, but you can use face shots discreetly or bang the audience over the head with them. 1960-1990 era movies were more discrete when using face shots to show the emotions of the characters; movies over the past 20 years do it frequently, and it dminishes the effect.

    I guess this is another example of recent movies being bombastic and "tryhard".

  3. I agree with your analysis , TV programs have more quick editing and close ups than 30 years ago.

    for me Miami Vice was the definitive '80s TV show. This show was ahead of its time, with more cuts and faster editing, and I assume they also had more close ups than the other 80s shows.

    There was more comedy in Magnum PI, they don't do shows like Magnum any more. The 80s had so many TV PI shows, Remington Steele, Simon and Simon, Mike Hammer..., Moonlighting, The Fall Guy, Riptide, MacGyver, Spenser for Hire...

  4. I'm seeing this in 2016 but I totally agree. Films nowadays stick to a very fast "shot shot shot" rhythm, not allowing you to appreciate what goes on in the shot and how it relates to the story. Like it was mentioned above, films generally from 1960-1990 had a way of knowing when to use the close up shot,where it felt most appropiate, where it made sense. Now, it just all time. Especially in action movies which I can't stand. I recently watching The Fly the other day and thought how beautiful the cinmeatography was, every shot made sense within the context of the story and I particular loved the simple, yet effective shot rhythm during the scene when they're at the diner

  5. I've been thinking, is it only me that sees these extreme close up shots in everything that's on TV/movies now? Do all TV shows and movies now use the same damn cinematographer? And if so he needs to go back to the drawing board because I'm getting a headache with all the bullshit back and forth quick scene changes. Thank God I'm not the only one who sees this. I just noticed this trend continues with watching the new X-Files season 10/11 vs the old seasons 1-9. There is a definite over use of close up shots. A shot in the hospital it so close I can see the veins in their eyes. A car chase scene...why are you zooming in on the headlight after coming from a rather dark part of the car racing down the highway. Are you trying to blind the viewer? Seriously cinematographers today need to take a look at old school cinema. You'd swear all these scenes we're shot by the same team across multiple movies/shows. Pow pow pow shots as someone above explained before seem to give the viewer a headache faster than staring into the sun. Millennials...they need to go take lessons from Brian de Palma.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."