I often tell my students that learning film is like learning a foreign language. The choices you make with the camera can speak volumes.
A well placed close up can tell me more about what’s going on in the scene than pages of explanations or dialogue. And the beauty of it is that it affects the audience without them even knowing. That makes it even more powerful.
Let me explain myself: Film has the power to cut through the judgmental centers of the brain and get to the part that feels.
Scientist believe the brain is made up of three different parts. The inner layer is called the Reptilian Brain. This part basically just reacts to stimulus. That’s right at the center.
Then comes the Mammalian Brain, where emotions live. This is also called the Limbic System.
And finally the Neocortex. That’s the part responsible for analytical thinking.
In film you can bypass the neocortex and get to where emotion lives.
If I tell you you’re hungry, your brain takes that information and analyzes it. It understands it. It becomes a piece of data. That’s useful for a filmmaker but not optimal.
If instead I show you a juicy cheeseburger, dripping with melted cheddar, steaming fries and a frothy drink…well, that’s a different animal all together. Now I’m making you feel, whether you want to or not.
So how does that work when using a close up?
When two actors are doing a scene there’s an imaginary line that cuts through the center of both performers. This is called the Axis if Action.
This line has many purposes, one of them is to maintain one of the most important rules of continuity. But we’ll talk about that on a different post.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: The closer I get to that line, the more dramatic the shot.
A wide two shot, at 90 degrees from the axis of action, may only show my actors in profile. Their faces will be viewed from a distance.
This is a good shot to set up the scene, to establish location, and to show physical action.
As I move the camera closer to this line and closer to the subject, the shot becomes more and more dramatic.
This is the shot you use for the climax of the scene. For one, you can see more of the human face, and the human face is the most interesting thing you can shoot.
So when I cut to the close up, I’m telling the audience that the important part of the scene is taking place. I’m telling them, without telling them. I’m saying: “Pay attention!”
The closer I get, like in an extreme close up, the more dramatic it becomes.
And the beauty of all of this is that the audience understands. They’ve been to the movies; they know how it works. They may not be able to explain it but their brain understands. They’ve learned film language without even knowing it.
A close up that comes at the right moment can make or break the scene. If you combine that with killer lighting and a solid performance by the actors, you’re well on your way to a fantastic scene.
When you speak to the audience with film language it’s like using your secret weapon. Hit them hard, hit them fast, and hit them often.