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The Power of the Static Close Up

Posted by Gil Bettman on Monday, December 26th, 2011

It is a well known fact that the static close up is the money shot of a dialogue sequence.  Yet novice filmmakers, like my students in the film school at Chapman, often forget this.  They are too caught by the trend in contemporary film to shoot with a highly energized, constantly moving camera.  All they want to do is make the camera fly around like Tinkerbell.   That’s great; but moving shots are complicated and burn up a disproportionate amount of precious time and money.

Go ahead; move the camera!  But never forget that the cheapest and easiest shot – the static close up – is also the most powerful shot in cinema.   It completely levels the playing field.   A close up in a no budget wonder like Paranormal Activity can be just as compelling as a close up in a mega budget monster like Avatar.  If the script is solid and the actor is delivering a great performance the best way to captivate an audience and tell the story also happens to be the cheapest and easiest.  Simply put the camera in close on the actor’s eyes and hold it there.  This is the no-budget director’s secret weapon.

As animals we are bio-programmed to look into a person’s eyes when they are talking or emoting, because the eyes are best source of the data our brain needs to successfully compute the full meaning of everything which is happening in front of us.  The closer you put the camera to the actor, the bigger the actor’s eyes on the screen, the more data is there for the audience to consume and be affected by the story.

Serge Leone understood this.  In 1964 he had next to no money to make A Fist Full of Dollars.  His lead was an unknown Hollywood contract player named Clint Eastwood.  But Clint had charisma, and Leone realized that when Clint was exuding it, if he put the camera close enough to Clint’s eyes – closer than almost anyone had dared to put it — it would wow the audience.   The rest is history.  Leone’s understanding of the power of the simple static close up made Clint a megastar, created the spaghetti western, and the turned the Fist Full of Dollars trilogy into an international boxoffice phenomenon.   Thus did an unknown director, with next to no money, a passable script, and a lead actor with charisma become a giant in the history of cinema.

Anyone reading this blog can do the same.  And amazingly, in 2012 it is actually easier to do than it was in 1964, because it requires much less money.  Serge Leone had to pay for 35 mm stock and processing.  Now all you need is $ 3000 for a Canon 7D SLR camera, and a DP with talent and you can produce close ups that look just as good on 40 foot high screen as any in A Fist Full of Dollars or Avatar, for that matter.  Truly, the dream is closer at hand than ever before.  You just need the right script, the charismatic actor and the static close up.

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