How to Frame the Perfect Close-up: a Detailed Guide for Filmmakers, with Pretty Pictures!

In this post I will give detailed consideration to the art of framing visually pleasing and balanced close-ups. I will use frames taken from my own work.

As far as I’m concerned, the most balanced and visually pleasing close-up cuts the top of the head somewhere between the eyebrows and the hairline, with the bottom frame edge below or above the shoulders. The image below illustrates what I mean:

The famous rule of thirds is always worth bearing in mind. Like all so-called “rules” in filmmaking, it is only a guideline and may be overridden by more pressing considerations. The image below is exactly the same close-up with dotted lines to show you how it fits with the rule of thirds:

In the picture above, the framing follows the rule of thirds pretty closely with respect to the horizontal lines, and somewhat more flexibly with the vertical lines, although the actor’s right eye (left side for us) is exactly at the intersection between the left vertical third and the top horizontal third. If the actor’s nose had been aligned with the left-hand vertical line, the face would have been too far to the left and it would have ruined the composition. This is a useful warning example, because following rules too strictly may result in an unappealing composition. In this case it is enough to ensure that the actor’s face is to the left of the center, because he is looking from left to right — but without cutting his shoulder off, which would also leave too much empty space on the right, making the composition unbalanced.

A common framing mistake made with close-ups

Part of what makes this composition so satisfying is the fact that the top third horizontal line is aligned with the actor’s eyes, and the bottom third horizontal line is approximately aligned with the actor’s chin. This makes the composition balanced and pleasing. To illustrate what to do and what NOT to do when framing this kind of close-up, I have taken a wider shot of the same actor from a different scene and cropped it with exactly the same frame size to illustrate a displeasing top-heavy composition, an equally ugly bottom-heavy composition, and a balanced and pleasing composition:

  

The mistake made in image A above (top-heavy composition) is the most common mistake made in close-ups. Even some famous film directors sometimes make this mistake — pay attention and I think you will spot it in a film sometime soon. Everyone is, of course, entitled to frame close-ups in whatever way they prefer, but I do not like this style and I bet most of you don’t either. There is at least one very famous film director who had a lot of such close-ups in his early films. If you are framing an extreme close-up, similar considerations apply: the space above the eyes should approximately balance the space below the chin, unless the close-up is so tight that no space can be left below the chin. Consider the example below, taken from my first film:

When to leave headroom and when to cut off at the top: a guide

In the examples above, the top frame edge was placed below the top of the head, cutting it off. This is visually pleasing with close-ups, but as the framing widens, at some point the top frame edge must be above the top of the head, leaving some headroom. The question is: when should we cut off at the top and when should we NOT cut off and leave some headroom? Here is a summary of my personal framing preferences:

 

Some thoughts on the rules of framing

There is something I must make absolutely clear in this tutorial: so-called framing “rules” are not arbitrary, but reverse-engineered from empirical observation of what looks good. You must frame your subjects in a way that pleases your eye, without placing undue emphasis on guidelines. Knowing the “rules” does help you in being more consciously aware of what you are doing, but always give priority to pleasing the eye. This is not accountancy! As I mentioned above, sometimes following rules may result in a composition that is ugly.

More often than not, the perfect composition for a given shot follows the rules closely but not strictly. With simple objects like a vertical pole, following the rule of thirds very strictly will produce a great shot. Conversely, following the rule of thirds too strictly with faces is somewhat more dangerous. I will conclude this post with my usual reminder: whip out your camcorder and practice. Hang out with your friends and practice framing them in close-ups, extreme close-ups, medium shots, etc. They might think you are weird, but they will surely also forgive you and find you adorable — that is, after all, the joy of friendship. I hope you found this useful and inspiring!

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5 thoughts on “How to Frame the Perfect Close-up: a Detailed Guide for Filmmakers, with Pretty Pictures!

  1. Love those illustrations!

  2. Outstanding work as always Ed. I can tell this is your passion.

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