You don’t need to be a seasoned pro to know a key rule of onscreen acting: Don’t look at the camera! The practice stems from the importance of actors’ eyelines in creating a smooth shooting experience and an effective final product.
Eyes are one of the most powerful physical tools that an actor has, particularly given the intimacy of television and film acting; an emotional connection with the viewer can be forged or severed instantaneously. In tandem with how a character is looking, where they’re looking clues viewers into their thoughts and motivations. Ideally, audiences should be able to discern certain information about a scene even with audio muted.
From an editing perspective, even the most sophisticated production can’t totally remedy sloppy or inconsistent eyelines. When done well, it’s a crucial component of filmmaking that’s invisible to viewers. When it’s not, viewers will sense that something is off, and they’ll be pulled out of the story.
“Dune” Photo Credit: Chiabella James
Eyelines can be accounted for as early in the production process as storyboarding or building a shot list, and they are even more critical in postproduction. Everyone on the film’s team is in part responsible for actors’ eyelines, because failure to get them right can compromise the quality of the final footage. It’s a basic component of blocking when mapping out the spatial logic of a scene.
Directors often position their actors in a way that helps the audience understand the physical space. For example, if there is a disparity in height between characters, the difference can be adjusted through blocking, props, and camera placement so that actors’ eyelines match up when they look at one another. Of course, the extent of such planning may vary based on the creator’s style—but there are some basic guidelines to follow. Most importantly, eyelines should be precise and consistent. This enables the editor to incorporate “eyeline matching” to maintain continuity and coherence.
Most often, this is accomplished through a shot/reverse shot: The viewer sees a character looking at and reacting to an object, then the director cuts to a reverse shot, showing that object from the character’s perspective. If the eyeline is off, the character’s spatial relation to the object won’t make sense.
We also commonly see this in over-the-shoulder shots between two or more characters in dialogue. Even though you can’t see both characters’ eyelines simultaneously, you place them in relation to each other because of alternating eyeline matching.
“The Endgame” NBC
As an actor, you should be aware of your eyelines both when filming and as part of your preparation. The more complex the shoot, the more difficult this can be. For an action sequence that features multiple objects moving through the frame, an actor should plot out their eyelines in advance.
Additionally, eyelines should not only be technically planned, but also emotionally rehearsed. Failure to do so can result in a performance that reads as stilted. When you’re running lines at home, set down marks in the room (bright tape or Post-it notes work well) that correspond with where your eyelines fall within a scene. If a moment calls for tricky emoting, try using a photograph or object that evokes that feeling in you.
Record yourself, if possible, so you can review and revise. You likely won’t be able to replicate precise shooting conditions, but the goal is to establish consistency so that you’re not mentally cueing your eye movements during actual takes. Eyelines should be folded into the truth of your performance as naturally as line memorization.
Even when you get to set, depending on the shot and the layout, you may not always have the luxury of looking at the object or person that your character is supposed to be looking at. Sometimes, you may have to act opposite nothing—or an object that stands in for a CGI character. When that’s the case, Oscar-winning animator Patrick Osborne says that the actor’s “eyeline needs to be consistent. The animator has to justify where the actor is looking after the fact…. That’s where we have to put the [CGI] character.” In such cases, a crew member can tape an X to mark the intended focal point off-set or to the side of the camera lens.
“Fear the Walking Dead” Lauren "Lo" Smith/AMC
Everyone on set should pay attention during blocking and rehearsals to ensure that nothing distracts from or obstructs the actor’s eyeline once cameras start rolling.
In “Making Movies,” legendary filmmaker Sidney Lumet wrote: “Just before we roll, any well-trained [assistant director] will always say, ‘Clear the eyeline, please.’ If William Holden is making love to Faye Dunaway, he doesn’t want to see some teamster sipping coffee behind her.”
Christian Bale’s infamous outburst on the set of “Terminator Salvation” was set off by a crew member adjusting a lighting rig behind the camera in Bale’s eyeline when the actor was supposed to be addressing another character. If you’re a crewmember and the set is so cramped that obstructing an eyeline is unavoidable, try to work it out with the actor beforehand, and avoid making inadvertent eye contact while rolling.
As with most rules, eyelines aren’t totally dogmatic and ironclad. After all, an actor looking at the camera can be a serendipitous accident, or arresting on purpose. But a firm understanding of eyelines remains an essential tool for actors and creators.