Positioning the camera to portray a character looking directly at the camera (typically in MCU or CU).
These are extreme camera choices and not ones that should not be used lightly. In visual storytelling, the use of a frontal is the equivalent of sitting someone down and looking them right in the face to tell them something very important. "I have terminal cancer", "I want to talk with you about alcoholism", "We can no longer afford our house and need to move." It doesn't have to be bad news, just important enough to demand every ounce of attention. "I love you, I have always loved you and each day that I get to spend with you makes my heart happy, so there is something that I have to ask you. Will you marry me?" A frontal elicits great power in visual media. A villain may be shown in frontal when they have have beaten or manipulated the protagonist, know some vital piece of information that the hero desperately needs, or is just so passionately evil that he/she will scare the crap out of the protagonist (and viewers) and a mere glare will make everyone cower.
The film "Silence of the Lambs" sets up a situation where a FBI cadet, Clarice Starling, must work quickly to save the life of a kidnapped woman from a serial killer to do so must ask another convicted killer for help. This man, Hannibal Lecter, has the answers but demands personal information from Clarice. Finally, in powerful scene, Lecter owns the shot and the audience and the frontal is the obvious choice as Clarice gives in and talks about her past to gain information to make the rescue.
Ownership, power and importance are what sells the use of a frontal. The frontal loses its power by the sudden cutting to a shot that doesn't fit reason. I really enjoyed Martin Scorsese's Hugo,especially because it covers film history but (spoilers) when Georges Melies, played by Ben Kingsley, agrees to talk about his past, the film switches uncomfortably to a frontal to allow for a graphic match/flashback. This is a speed bump in the storytelling for me, because I have to stop and calculate who he's talking to. Hugo? Am I first person Hugo now? Or am I the professor guy? It is attention grabbing but distracting at the same time. I mean the whole story is told from Hugo's point of view, but the the only moment where the camera looses its reference point. Does this effect my opinion of the film so much that I want to hate it? No! But a cut like this is a little jarring, making me want to write a whole paragraph about it instead of writing next semester's syllabi or, more importantly, watching hockey.
What needs to be asked when planning any shot, is what effect it have on story and the viewer as well as how it works with the shots prior to it and those that proceed it. The heart of this post is frontals are used too much, especially in student work. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a student use a frontal when a host of other possibilities could have worked so much better for the story. Why? Because they are easy. They don't require much commitment and allow for rapid completion of a project. "Yeah, it's mediocre, but at least it's finished." Besides, one would say that we see frontals all the time; in selfies, school portraits and just about any photographic application that doesn't involve storytelling. We see news casters all the time, reading us the news complete with expensive looking title graphics and dramatic music so frontals are okay, right?
Despicable Me does it's best to make fun of the news caster approach. Even going over the top by having the character look into every "camera" hovering around him.
Sadly, when frontals get over used I tend to think two things. This student uses an awful lot of frontals and frontals remind me of...mug shots, that's right, mug shots. Making me wonder if the characters represented in the works should be interpreted with criminal intent.
But what's worse, what I really derive from student who relies of frontals just to get their projects done, is...that they can't draw anything else. It's not a question of ease or meeting a deadline, it's that the student is actually hiding from choosing more difficult shots and is sticking with frontals because drawing anything else that could lead to a better story even after having the suggestion of a upshot 3/4 is too hard. To that I have to say, "look below"
Wow this little post of frontals turned into a rant it looks like. To sum things up, Frontals demand your attention and should be used sparingly so they mean something.
To really gain an idea of how powerful frontals are, go up to roommate or even better, that special someone (you know, the one you've been lusting after for weeks) and look them directly in the eye so you know you'll have their full attention. Be sure not to run up like a wild boar or else you'll ruin the illusion. Walk up slowly but deliberately, fix your eyes on theirs, they will stop whatever they are doing and give you complete attention and then you say..."Fuzzy mouse nipples!", "Underpants" or some other completely stupid thing and then notice that they will never take you seriously again.