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Talking Heads

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Calvin and Hobbes goes meta.

"It's eighty-seven minutes of a raving talking head—mine."
Spalding Gray on the film Swimming to Cambodia

Footage (specifically, close shots) of people just... talking, with little or no other action. Theoretically easy to write and definitely cheap to film, Talking Heads can be boring (though usually considered okay in books).

The term was originally coined in the 70s to describe advertisements shot in this style. Talking Heads has since been used as a criticism for media that relied heavily on dialog.

As American Television and Hollywood became more "cerebral" in the early to mid 90s, the media became noticeably more Talking Heady: Complicated police procedural and legal dramas popular at the time relied on interviews and testimonies, while comedy aped the Seinfeld and Pulp Fiction style of rambling, slice-of-life dialog.

Bill Watterson complained that Newspaper Comics are moving in this direction, probably due to a combination of Cerebus Syndrome and Lazy Artists, though he blames restrictions placed on them by newspapers.

Also notable is UK comedy show Peep Show, the entire premise is based around talking heads (because each shot is from the perspective of another person in the scene).

Of course, the actual Talking Heads by Alan Bennett conforms to this trope, essentially monologues (with one phantom policeman). The band Talking Heads (fronted by David Byrne), however, does not (although they claim the analogy fits: "All content, no action"). Even their famous concert film, Stop Making Sense, is completely free of Talking Heads, a rarity in a genre typically saturated with them. The band is named after the phenomenon, though, with a certain amount of thought put into it (see page for details).

This trope fits lots of amateur or even semi-professional YouTube videos. Many of these are filmed using a smartphone camera on the equivalent of a selfie stick. Others are filmed using the webcam on their native laptop or desktop, necessitating their staying in one position. Other than occasionally having a musical intro with graphics, these videos never have cutscenes, scene changes, interstitials, animations, or camera pans, as the Youtuber is generally not educated in filmmaking or cinematography.

In animation, this trope was quite prevalently used as a form of Limited Animation before the creation of digital art programs became prevalent. Since traditional cell animation required sketching, inking, and then cutting cells out by hand, the process to add subtle movements to characters 'idling' was far more taxing and resource-intensive than it is today. As such, in an attempt to prevent Unintentional Uncanny Valley from setting in during an extended talking sequence and to save on time and resources, it was common practice to have a 'zoomed' shot of a character's head while they were talking. Since the advent of digital animation and the ease it puts on resources and attention to detail, this trope has become increasingly rarer for newer animated shows.

Compare Two Gamers on a Couch. Compare and contrast the Talk Show. For animation, especially action-focused ones, compare Inaction Sequence and Battle of the Still Frames. If this trope is pulled off particularly well, it can be an example of Mundane Made Awesome. See also Infodump, a prime causer of this trope.

Not to be confused with literal talking heads. For that, see Losing Your Head. If you're looking for the band that did "Once in a Lifetime", here's how you get there.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Spice and Wolf: As a series that follows the adventures of a traveling merchant, much of the tension and conflict largely concerns itself with transactions and agreements. As such, the plot's far more concerned with the finer aspects of economics than action. This extends to Holo's interactions, where the potential antics of an attractive wolf girl and the Fanservice that that implies are downplayed in favor of the witty back and forth chemistry between the leads.
  • The Garden of Sinners: The epilogue is pretty much Mikiya and Shiki discussing the secrets of the universe for 24 minutes with pretty headshots littering the scenes to attract the viewer's attention.

    Comic Books 
  • The Iron Man story arc "Extremis" has strikingly impressive digitally shaded artwork, fairly groundbreaking for the time it was made; but in light of that, it is odd just how much of that detailed shading is used for... shots of people's heads as they talk to each other. This could still be visually interesting if the expressions were more varied, but the characters' faces remain pretty neutral through most of it.
  • Wally Wood's 22 Panels That Always Work is a guide on how an artist can spice up a potentially visually boring scene of two characters talking. Some of the examples are of the Talking Heads variety, others aren't.
  • Similarly, the classic How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way by Stan Lee and John Buscema demonstrates this with two pages depicting the same potentially boring scene of a couple of guys talking in a room. The second, better version uses cool camera angles and more dramatic posing than the first.

    Comic Strips 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Spalding Gray is the Trope Codifier of film, taking his off-off-Broadway one man shows to film, including Swimming To Cambodia, Monster In a Box, Gray's Anatomy, and the HBO special Terrors of Pleasure. In Box, he refers to himself as a "raving talking head". His films basically consist of him setting behind a table and telling stories, occasionally sipping on a glass of water.
  • Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed: There are plenty of shots in the documentary of interviews with people like Steve Ross, Dana Jester, and Sally Schenck.
  • Lily Tomlin quickly followed Spalding Gray with a film adaptation of her one-woman show The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe. In that, she performs as several different characters, talking about life and society.
  • The interview scenes in The Silence of the Lambs consist mostly of headshots of Clarice and Lector. However, this serves to add to the drama of the scenes as there is no focus other than the two characters and their emotions. Later on, this technique is used again when Clarice and her friend are discussing the case and Lector's comments.
  • The Exorcist III predates Silence, and there are almost no actions scenes. It's a Talking Heads horror film.
  • My Dinner with Andre. The entirety of the film are Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory conversing over dinner for 110 minutes. There's literally no action save the opening with Wally walking down the New York City streets and the end when Wally gets into a cab to go home.
  • True Stories, directed by the frontman of... Talking Heads. The consists of a string of episodes in which the Narrator talks to various people in the quirky fictional town of Virgil, Texas.


    Live-Action TV 
  • The "Head to Head" sketches on Alas Smith and Jones, with Mel and Grif looking at each other in profile, against a plain black background.
  • When Channel 5 started as the UK's fifth terrestrial channel, the idea of terrestrial TV had already been rendered obselescent by the advent of satellite and cable. A fifth free-to-view TV station was no longer as exciting as it might have been if there were only five available channels. Five therefore set about attracting viewers by sensationalism, promising a lot of explicit content. Viewers read this as "free porn". many viewers were not amused when (the occasional Awful British Sex Comedy aside) the "porn" turned out to be home-made and imported documentaries about the porn business and its stars. There might be a ten or fifteen second establishing scene demonstrating that porn was in fact happening and showing who and what was involved - and then the visual content would switch to "talking heads" who would talk, at length, about the sociological, economic, moral, health, gender-political, feminist, or other, aspect of the business. Viewers got disillusioned quickly.
  • Formula 1: Drive to Survive: Drivers, team principals, owners, engineers and Will Buxton are all interviewed sitting against a black backdrop with the camera zoomed in to frame their head and shoulders.
  • Our Miss Brooks: The radio programs adapted to television are often "talky" episodes. However, visual gags are often thrown into the script (indeed, many are carried over from the radio where they are described, but not shown). The show, humorous on the radio, definitely does not suffer in the adaptation to television.
  • Peep Show does an original take on the cliche thanks to being filmed with a POV camera.
  • High Score: The show, being a documentary series, has sit-downs and interviews with people involved in the game industry talking about their inspirations and their history with gaming and the overall business.
  • The Toys That Made Us: Each episode has sit-downs and interviews with various people who were involved in the production of toy lines and IPs.

    Video Games 
  • Several main characters (and most Enclave soldiers in Powered Armor) in Fallout and Fallout 2 have animated Talking Heads with lip-synced voice acting for their dialogue window. This is even how the developers referred to them. Other characters simply show their world model and communicate via written text. A few, such as John Cassidy from Fallout 2, had Talking Heads animated but no voice-acting recorded (mostly due to looming deadlines), and were thus left out. Most can be restored via game mods, but are still silent.
  • Most of Mega Man 10's story cutscenes have caught some flack due to being made of still images, scrolling text and little else. It doesn't help that some players think that the game's presentation required minimal effort to make.
  • The Trails Series, even by RPG standards is largely based on the many, many conversations between its sprawling cast of characters. Large portions of the plot, characterization, and Worldbuilding (particularly in the first installments of arcs) are established as the cast stands around and talks, often for quite a while. Occasionally poked fun at when characters note that they've been standing around for so long they've gotten bored, or are falling asleep on their feet.

    Web Original 
  • Manic Pixie Dream Wife: Chance makes a video about his marital troubles and addresses his viewers on the internet, talking and looking directly to the camera.
  • World War II: The primary style of this documentary is the host sitting at a desk narrating about the events of the week with occasional cuts to Stock Footage, units on maps presented as Bombers on the Screen, and photographs.
  • In his Every Frame a Painting essay on Edgar Wright, Tony Zhou expresses heavy criticism of how American comedy films have become too reliant on this trope to deliver jokes, and then shows how Wright uses all the creative tricks to keep things fresh.

    Western Animation 
  • Common in Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, due to limitations of the series' Squiggle Vision program.
  • A lot of the traditionally animated episodes of The Simpsons tend to linger on close-up shots of the character's faces when they start talking. Sometimes, they would do this back to back.
  • Rugrats frequently did this in its traditionally animated episodes.
  • Total Drama utilizes this through the Confessional, where the characters sit in front of a camera fixed to one spot. There are also many instances of characters talking being shot from the waist or chest up.
  • The works of Seth Macfarlane almost always use these shots in heavy doses. Family Guy seems to become more and more reliant on them as seasons go by. Although, American Dad!, on the other hand, often uses far more dynamic angles and shots.