In the movie industry, the eyes are the principal focal point of the viewers. More than any other aspect of acting, they define the internal workings of the character. They also ascertain the target of purposes and feelings. In addition, they help determine the mental state of the character. With such tremendous importance, one would think teachers would spend more time discussing eye behavior. This lack of attention is because much of their training centers on theatre rather than for the camera. The camera loves the eyes while the theatre loves the words.
One is behavior, the other verbal.
With the character’s inner thoughts and feelings, the eyes describe the areas of concern. They place them into individual compartments or zones that link to the audience. This is because in ordinary life people move or avert their eyes that imply the topic or issue under investigation. When one studies and examines the performances of award-winning and highly acclaimed actors one will find these eye behaviors widespread.
Observation and realization of these compartments is key to effective eye acting.
For example, when we search for a word or try to solve a puzzle, our eyes go to an area where there are little disturbances and away from the person to whom we are talking. In the film, this is usually to the camera side or best-lit side and below eye level. With a complex problem, it tends to be lower to dodge every distraction. The eyes gradually drift about unfocused in an undefined area. As a solution is realized, eye movements might become faster and more defined. This look-away area allows concentration on the problem.
The next category is the recall and is usually more a look-to than a look-away. This recall could be emotions, or events remembered. It might also be real happenings, ideas, or even envisioned expectations. The eye movements here, likewise, have several defining characteristics. Here the eyes are more focused and drawn to unseen images. It’s almost as if these images play out on a small TV screen suspended before the character just above eye level. These forms are normally to the audience or camera side. Such eye performance allows the audience to visualize these unseen images generated by dialogue or dramatic circumstances.
In a two-character scene, you will also be staring at the person to whom you are talking or listening. The eyes will expose the level of commitment, whether you’re actually listening or just hearing them. The eyes will also explain key thoughts like memory, ideas, realizations, and expectations. They also reflect knowledge and questions. A dialogue scene can become highly dynamic because of the visual exchanges.
The eyes display an affectionate connection, i.e., curiosity, empathy, desire, lust, fear, hatred, jealousy, etc. When there is a non-verbal give and take, the characters define better their wants, feelings, and attitudes. Relationships can also be discovered or revealed through eye behavior.
Where does one look when conversing? For the most part, you will look at their eyes. To keep your eyes from moving back a forth between the two eyes, concentrate on one eye. Normally this is the camera-side eye. The lips and mouth area should also receive some attention and less remote are the clothes they wear. There may be some discomfort looking into someone’s eyes and this can be overcome by directing your gaze at a particular detail; say an eyelash or a flaw in the iris. By doing so, you overcome the embarrassment of being the observer while being observed. It also moves you into designs and habits whereby your eye behavior supports your character and does not disappoint you as an actor.
In a dialogue scene, the eyes will also drift to a comfort zone, an area up camera slightly below eye level. This area is used to analyze or reflect on an issue in the conversation. It is also be used to prepare a phase or rebuttal or gather one’s thoughts. The comfort zone is smaller and higher than the problem area and the time spent there is brief. Eyes are unfocused and movements limited.
There is another area I call retreat. This eye behavior conveys a failure to confront some thoughts, images, or feelings. Feelings such as anxiety, embarrassment, confusion, or guilt. An avoidance-look-away shows the vulnerability of the character and is most climactic when directed to the dark side, the side away from the audience or camera. This look-away bypasses the traditional focal zones, especially those of other characters, and is thus extreme in direction and spatially limitless. The eyes dart about, avoid connecting and the angular alignment of the eyes and nose is more acute.
Eye behavior tells us something about the character’s plans, attitudes, ambitions, and obstacles. This is the most underrated aspect of acting.