Matching your eyelines
An eyeline is the invisible line leading from the eyes of a character on camera to a person or an object that the character is looking at off-camera. When you cut to the next shot showing the off-camera person or object, it must be placed within the frame where the brain would expect it to be. If a character is looking upward, for example, you should then cut to the object that the viewer sees, placed above the camera. If the character’s eyeline and the object’s position don’t match (if they look down at an object that you then see hanging over their heads, for exam- ple), the audience becomes disoriented and disconnects from the scene. The eye- line makes a subtle but crucial difference when cutting between two people who are speaking to each other within a scene.
In this section, we explain how to add two medium shots to the bouncing-ball example. One shows the mother furrowing her brow at her child, and the other shows the child lowering his head after being scolded. For these two shots, you can shoot the actors in this scene separately or even on different days because they don’t appear in the frame together in this particular moment. Above all else, you have to match the eyelines of the mother and her child.
Suppose that the child looks up at his mother towering over him and then you cut to a shot of her face. Rather than look down at him, as your brain expects, she instead looks directly across the shot at an object at the height of her eyes. Your brain would automatically connect the two shots to make you wonder what she’s looking at (another person in the room, for example). Because she’s the taller of the two, her eyes should aim downward at him, at a spot that’s as close to the same spot in the frame where his eyes were looking up in the previous shot.
A character who looks offscreen at another character should be looking at the spot where the other character would stand. If you reverse the shot (to show the other character), the second character’s eyes should be focused on the spot where the first character is positioned. Any well-made TV show or film has examples of shooting proper eyelines. In one with incorrect eyelines, you cannot determine where characters are oriented in a scene.
To ensure matching eyelines, position an offscreen actor behind the camera so that the on-screen actor can look at that person and deliver her lines. Encourage actors to stand immediately off-camera, even when they aren’t part of a shot, to help make eyelines match. It also helps a cast member with her performance to speak directly to her scene partner, even if the partner is standing off camera.