4 Tips for Acting With Your Eyes in a Close-Up

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Photo Source: Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash

Do you fear the close-up? Imagine the camera is locked in on your face and the director or casting director asks you to reveal slight sadness or the beginning of fear or incredibly controlled anger or a hint of excitement or boredom. Oh, and they only want to see it in your eyes. Could you do that? Or does even the thought of a close-up shot make you freeze?

If this is you, you are not alone. Most actors know how their body and voice communicate but know very little about their own faces. And since the close-up is all about the face, this can be a problem. So let’s talk about how knowing the language your face speaks can prepare you for your close-up. More specifically, let’s talk eyelids.

To keep facial movement to a minimum and execute any one of those directions listed above would require you having access and control over the muscles around the eye, more specifically, your eyelids. Done correctly, with just the smallest amount of tension, the lifting or relaxing of your eyelids can speak volumes to the viewer. Your eyes may be the windows to your soul, but it's your eyelids that are the workhorses of nonverbal communication. Below are four common messages your eyelids send the viewer—and what they convey on film.

How to act with your eyes

  1. If your upper eyelids slightly relax and droop, it can send a message of sadness, fatigue, boredom, or like you’re about to check out.
  2. When your upper eyelids raise slightly, it sends a message of some kind of interest, low-level excitement, or something unexpected. However, if nothing else is moving on your face, the message will be neither positive nor negative.
  3. When your bottom eyelids get tense and the upper eyelids raise, just exposing the white above the pupils, it’s often a sign of the beginning of fear or controlled fear.
  4. If your lower eyelids get tense, narrowing the eyes, it sends a message that something has your attention, you’re focused, or the beginning of anger or controlled anger.

There are many other ways your eyes are involved with communication—eye movement, gaze, eye positioning, etc.—but they all include additional body language. For now, I wanted to focus on the specific messages your eyelids are responsible for sending since they’re responsible for the messages you’ll most often rely on when the camera is close and the expression needs to be small.

More tips on nonverbal acting

To gain a better understanding of the nonverbal language your eyelids speak, try it out. Go through each eyelid movement I laid out and pay close attention to how each one makes you feel. You’ll know you’re doing it correctly if the muscle activation begins to change how you feel.

If you’ve been told you can push your thoughts through your eyes or telepathically communicate what you’re feeling by staring at another person, it might be time to rethink those beliefs.

The eyelid examples I gave you are meant to expand your knowledge of the subtleties of nonverbal facial communication. Master them and they will serve you well, though it’s just the tip of the facial communication iceberg.

The truth is that we give the eyes too much credit for our emotional communication. There are certain muscles and muscle groups on the face that are connected to specific emotions. Just the slightest contraction, expansion, or tension of any one muscle belonging to any one of the seven universal emotions (anger, contempt, happy, sad, fear, surprise, disgust) changes the whole appearance of the face. It may look like it's all in the eyes, but it’s not. It’s all over your face.

Yes, the close-up can be incredibly intimidating and frustrating, but the more you know about those universal emotions and the muscle groups connected to each one, the more control you will gain over your own facial expressions. And if you have control over your facial expressions and you understand the meaning of each, it really doesn’t matter where the camera is.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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John Sudol
John Sudol has been teaching acting for 25-plus years and is known to many actors across the country and around the world as the “Go-To Emotion Specialist.” He is the founder of the Emotion Training Center (ETC) and Center for the Language of the Face (LOF).
See full bio and articles here!

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