A Guide to Eyelines
Acting, in theory, is a walk in the park. Like any abstract art, quite often the layman looks at it and goes ‘I could do that!’ One of the giant, tiny, vital, overlooked aspects of acting that will separate the professionals from the amateurs is – eyelines. Where are you looking, and is it the most effective place? Additionally, can you manipulate the camera’s lens in order to more effectively convey a genuine emotional state? By knowing where the camera is looking and what it sees, can you create an entire world, an entire universe for us to believe in? Yes you can ladies and gentlemen, the power is within your reach! And it all comes down to eyelines…
What are eyelines exactly?
An eyeline is a fixed point (or a moving one) that you are looking at during your self-tape, audition or shoot. Eyelines are approached slightly differently in theatre, but the overarching principles are the same. In this article I am more going to be focusing on the screen acting side of things, as it needs a specific approach. However you can easily take the ideas presented here and apply them to your next theatrical performance. In essence, eyelines are the spots where you focus your eyes. Most of the time on screen you will be doing a scene with another person or people. Sometimes a reader will read multiple characters, you will need to physically place them in the space with your eyes to give the audience a reference point for who is speaking when.
The real challenge comes when you get on set, and maybe you have to do some incredibly dramatic moment, say standing on the back of a boat, drifting into the sunset, knowing that you will never see your homeland again. Just like Greta Garbo in the clip below:
Now in reality. Greta is in a soundproof studio, with a fan blowing a thousand knots, staring at a black duct taped X on the wall. And look at what she does, as the camera comes in you can see the loss, the sadness and the resolve all happening inside her. Also, look at her eyes, really look at them. Not only does she hold that eyeline and allow her imagination to affect her emotion, she hardly blinks in the entire shot. We get to see her, seeing her homeland disappear and feeling the effect of it. As she feels that genuine loss, we feel it too. In reality she’s standing on a fake boat watching an X, but the combination of eyeline and image work creates an incredibly powerful moment.
Eyelines for Auditions and Self-Tapes
So now we come to the crunch. So often – I would say 90% of the time, actors pick an eyeline to work on for their audition which is not effective. Here is the rule – we need to see your eyeballs, we need to see them like we see Greta’s above. We need to see all of them, all the time. So the first part of a successful audition is putting your eyeline as close to camera as you possibly can.
BUT never look straight down the lens!
I really can’t say this enough:
NEVER look straight down the lens.
Never EVER look straight down the lens.
Because it is scary! As an audience, it destroys the comfort of the fourth wall, suddenly this character has seen us and knows that we are watching them. It breaks the illusion setup by the scene, and if the character is a scary one i.e. Hannibal Lecter or some such, the idea of him staring us down is bloody terrifying.
Back to auditioning…
So in your next audition, put your reader as close to the camera as possible – without looking down the lens (just once more with feeling). Okay I think we’ve got that! So you have your reader on one side and you’re feeling confident about that, now let’s think about bringing in your imagination and your thoughts and images. Place all of these on the opposite side of the lens from the reader.
Look at how Dacre uses the frame here to give you a real sense of environment. Have a look at the second scene here circa 2:30 in.
When he’s talking about the beach, his eyes drift across to the other side of the lens from the reader, in his imagination there is a clear picture of what he is seeing, as he sees it and places that image in the frame – we the audience see it too. This is the ideal execution for every place, thing, and person you talk about in a self tape or audition. Where are they in the space? What is their relationship to you? When you are talking about them what do you see? As your eyeballs move from one side of frame to the other, it’s thrilling for an audience to watch.
Because we get to see you the entire time, we get to see your eyes the entire time, we get to see your eyes, seeing an image and having an emotional reaction to that image. The most important thing to remember in acting is, if you feel it – we will feel it too. If you genuinely believe it, we will believe it too. If you set yourself up with some eyelines and images that can support your character’s journey and emotional life, you’re going to maximise your chances to have a genuine emotional experience in a scene that the audience will experience or empathise with when we watch it.
AKA a compelling performance.
Common Eyeline Mistakes
I’ve seen many a self-tape or audition tape, where eyelines work AGAINST an actor, instead of for them. And usually this is due to a lack of planning and rehearsal. Just like you need to rehearse your script and blocking, you need to rehearse your eyelines too! Take some time to plot every single eyeline you’re going to make use of – but simplicity is key, don’t make your job harder than it needs to be. There’s no use adding 15 fancy eyelines, if you’re not going to remember where they all need to be during your performance. It will just distract you from your acting, and that’s kinda why you’re there… Start with just 2 or 3, and you can build on from there if need be.
As humans, when we’re unsure of what to say next, thinking, or ashamed – we look down. This is normal, but when you’re on screen, it’s rather uninteresting. As soon as you look down at your feet, we lose your eyes and we lose interest in whatever it is that you’re doing. We’re wondering, what’s down at her feet that’s so bloody interesting? So what should you do instead? Fake it till you make it. When you feel the need to look down, instead of looking at the ground near your feet, look at the back wall, or look down at the camera tripod. This way you’re still being human, whilst remaining open to the camera. This will take a lot of practice, so hop to it!
Sometimes you’ll have a tricky scene where you have multiple characters or eyelines that you need to work with. I’ve had unbelievable scenes from fast-paced action films, or comedies, where I’ve had to plot three other characters, a dog, a plane falling from the sky and a 10 foot monster in the distance. It’s hard work. And it’s scenes like these which require a lot of technical prowess and confidence to really nail it. Flailing your arms around, and frantically looking all over the place – is not going to sell it. Where are the 3 other characters? Where is the dog? Where is the plane falling from, and where is the monster? Figure this all out for yourself beforehand, and incorporate it into rehearsal. You won’t be able to get away with putting all of those 5 people and things under the one general eyeline. It might seem easier to you, but your performance will suffer for it. Put in the work, and plot all those eyelines.
Once you’ve plotted an eyeline somewhere – stick to it! If you keep changing or shifting it unintentionally, the audience will get a little confused and distracted – and so will you. When you get into the audition room, or when you’re at home before you put down a self-tape, take 15 seconds to plot your eyelines. The casting director will not mind waiting an extra 15 seconds for you to just look around the room (particularly if you’ve never been there before) and plot your eyelines. This does NOT mean bring in colourful tape or sticky notes and start redecorating the audition room – DO NOT DO THAT. Do it in your head, and use whatever’s already in the room.
And this is where it gets tricky – sometimes I’ve watched tapes where an actor has gone ahead and plotted all their different eyelines, which is great – BUT I don’t buy it. I can tell they’ve plotted an eyeline, and I can tell that in reality, it’s just an X on the wall, and not in fact their long, lost brother whom they haven’t seen in 15 years. So not only do you need to technically plan your eyelines, you also need to emotionally rehearse them. How do you make that spot on the wall come alive? You can use techniques such as substitution, meditation, or simply – your imagination. It will come easier for some than others. If I’m self-taping, sometimes I’ll print a picture of a person or the thing, and stick it on the wall. Why not? No one will know but me. And if it helps your performance, then do it. Bottom line – plot your eyelines, and then don’t forget to make them come alive.
Eyelines are not the be all and end all of screen acting. There is a lot more to it than just this, but what they are is an essential element of screen acting that can dramatically change how audiences experience your work and when used correctly are guaranteed to increase the impact of your screen acting! Next time you are working on a scene or a monologue why not give this a go, and if you’d like to get in the habit of working on your acting regularly check out our online scene club…
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