Directing Tight Actor Eye-lines

– Posted in: Directing Films and Videos Film School & Training

Directing actor eye-lines is a key element in creating the suspension of disbelief. And, we all know if we lose the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief, our production has bombed.

In this post I’ll show you how to make your:
  • edits smoother
  • actors more connected
  • viewers more fully engaged
All by directing tight eye-lines. The basic principle is simple.It’s simple.

“People are more connected when they are looking at each other”

In real life we immediately know if someone is looking at us, even from across the room – right? Have you ever seen someone looking at you and wave, you wave back only to realize they were waving at someone behind you?

It’s a little embarrassing, but it’s happened to us all. This phenomena is “eye-line connection” at work. Everyone appeared along the same eye-line. When you waved back you likely did not take into account the third dimension of depth.

You failed to realize that someone was behind you. Your eye-lines crossed and you mistook it as a connection. This shows the power of eye-line connection and the risk of getting it wrong. This is what happens by placing someone along the eye-line connection with an edit. We create this connection. Right or wrong the connection exists and influences the story.

If it’s wrong, it can ruin a moment. But, when you get it right, I mean really tight, the connection flows. This is story-power and it increases audience engagement. It’s not that hard, here’s the trick. First decide which coverage shots within your scene are you most likely to cut between.

Next mark the position of each person’s eyes and eye direction. Imagined the two shots superimposed. Ideally these lines connect and their angles match. Here’s a screen shot of Scott. He’s part of a camera blocking tutorial I’m putting together. Let’s imagine the viewer hasn’t seen this location before and this is the first shot of our new scene. Scott has lifted his head to look at someone entering. Notice – The geography of the other characters or even the office is still in limbo. So, Scott’s eye-line is the only indication of where what he’s looking at should be.

Here’s Scott’s eye-line superimposed. If I had 3D capabilities I would have drawn it as if it’s also coming at us instead of straight across. The point of the arrow would have ended up a little further to the right. That said, a straight line works fine because we watch movies on a 2D screen. During the shoot Scott will likely be looking at a light stand, which is why developing a technique for connecting objects with eye-lines is so helpful. The grid below is just that technique. If you know where the line starts and where it stops you’ll know where to place the other actor and thus their eye-line. You want them to intersect. Scott will appear to be looking at anything in box #1. The frame above represents a 16×9 aspect ratio as a HD television monitor. Every person, piece of furniture, automobile and street light will occupy one or more of these squares. When someone looks they will be looking from, through and into these squares. If the shot below is edited into a sequence with the above shot of Scott, the eye-line leads directly to the man. This connection flows. The audience believes. Looking below you can see that Scott occupies the right side and is looking into the left. The left side is occupied by the man. Their eye-lines connect especially when the man in the suit turns. By editing these two shots together we have created the illusion that Joe was looking at the man in real time. We’re also implying that this is what Scott sees in real time.

Here’s the sequence. The cut puts the attention on the man in the suit. Notice the woman’s eye-line moves along Scott’s and starts further back. This sequence puts the attention on the man in the suit. Maybe this is the first moment in a “Who is he?” scene. Or maybe it’s an “Oh no, I think he’s mad” scene. Either way the shot emphasis is on the man in the suit. The scene is mostly about what he wants. Designing shots with tight eye-lines is an important part of filmmaking – The Craft. Free Film School Tip Create a series of sequential-shot, freeze frames from some of your favorite movies. Place or imagine a grid like this over the two shots and learn how these directors handled eye-lines. Please me a comment and let me know if you found this post helpful.


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