Sunday, November 13, 2011

Leading Eye

There's nothing as difficult as a close-up. 
In his book Acting in Film, Michael Caine describes a technique for the use of the eyes on camera and, specifically, on close-ups.

I'll try to re-explain it in my own words since in the book I didn't find it very clear. I only fully understood what Michael Caine meant when I watched a documentary about a series of classes he held to a group of extremely priviledged acting students.

Michael Caine suggests that, when on a close-up and addressing your lines at an off-camera actor, the leading eye should be the one closer to the off-camera actor. In other words, if the off-camera actor stands to the right of the camera, the on-camera actor's leading eye will be the left one; if the off-camera actor stands to the left of the camera, the on-camera actor's leading eye will be the right one.
Now, why such a fuss?
First, choosing a leading eye prevents you from shifting involuntarily from one eye to another. Such movement wouldn't be noticed in real life, but a close-up will emphasize it to a point where the micromovement of the eye will then become evident and distracting.
Secondly, choosing as a leading eye the one closer to the off-camera actor will put your face in a very advantageous position with respect to the camera: as much as possible of your face will be shown.

Now, a word on the off-camera actor.
In my experience, especially when taking on-film acting classes, the off-camera actors never give as much energy as they gave during their own close-up. They often read the lines even though they're off-book; they only half react - when they react at all - to the on-camera actor's performance, often never keeping eye-contact.
Personally, I find this very selfish and disturbing.
A movie is a collective project. As it is true that an actor should give the best of himself and just as it is true that he should do so for the sake of his own performance, he should first and foremost do so for the sake of the whole movie. This means that actors are not hired to score; they're hired to cooperate with their fellow actors in the movie for it to become a product of high artistic quality.

Lastly, if you're the off-camera actor, stand (or sit) as close as possible to the camera. I don't want to have to give the camera my profile to speak to you and, thus, have my close-up ruined.



  1. I couldn't agree more. Acting, be it on stage or on camera is all about relationships. If you are in a scene with someone else and they're doing cover shots of close ups and pick ups and such...YES the off camera actor should be giving just as much as when they're off camera. I get so annoyed with actors that are so selfish that they just phone it in while off camera. You're still in this scene buddy! I give you the same amount of respect and energy that I would expect in return. Do yourself and your fellow actors a favor and don't drop out just because the camera isn't on you.

    And p.s. Michael Caine's book is amazing. There were so many moments in it where I put it down and thought.."idiot! I know this, but it takes him to tell me about it to remind me." And he does it in such a graceful way. I found his book infinitely more useful than Uta Hagen's condescending drivel. I highly recommend reading his book and seeing the Documentary. He is truly a class act.

  2. Patrick,
    I'm glad we're on the same page. I guess you must have experienced something similar too.
    On this line, I remember something Jack Nicholson said to director Rob Reiner in A Few Good Guys. Reiner told him "Jack, you don't need to strain yourself. The close up's on Tom (Cruise). You just need to say the line so he can react with good timing". Jack Nicholson not only pointed out his duty as an actor, even when he's not in the frame. Then he reminded everybody of how much fun he has doing what he does.
    Phoning it in is not only selfish, but so boring too!

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. Dear Jay,
    Just a note to let you know that I added your blog to my blogroll ;)
    So hopefully you'll get more traffic. Looking forward to your post on dreams. :-)

  4. Thank you Claudia.
    You're a dear friend.
    I'll publish my post on dreams this evening.
    Have a great weekend!

  5. Just got a chance to read your blog. I love it!

  6. Victoria,
    I love your blog just as much!
    Thanks for connecting with me.

  7. Hi Jay,
    It is so true! We just wrapped on a film last month. There was a dining room scene and it was shot one side of the table for the close ups. Two of us stayed for the others to play off of. But when it came to our side, everyone left leaving us to act with the wall. It can be done, but it's not nearly as fun!

    Love your blog!


  8. Thank you, Tracey!
    Orson Welles banned off-camera actors for his own close-ups; he'd do it just by himself. His pacing was perfect, just like the beats and all.
    Acting with the wall: can be done. It's not nearly as fun, you're so right. And it tells a lot about the other actor.

    Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting, Tracey!