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How to Avoid Eyelines

I’m re-reading Making Movies by Sidney Lumet for, like, the fifth time. It’s a great book, and I highly recommend it for any aspiring filmmaker. Some of the terminology is dated (and a lot of the technical stuff is dated), but there’s no better way to learn than at the foot of the master who directed Network, Serpico, 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, the original Murder on the Orient Express, The Wiz

God, this is a terrible movie.
Okay, maybe not The Wiz.

I came across this passage:

“When the actor is being photographed looking at someone off-camera, he can obviously see past him to the whole darkened studio. We call this the actor’s “eyeline.” It can involve both sides of the camera. Just before we roll, any well-trained AD will always say, “Clear the eyeline, please.” If William Holden is making love to Faye Dunaway, he doesn’t want to see some teamster sipping coffee behind her. He doesn’t want to see anybody other than Faye watching him, even if he has great concentration. Since most crews don’t understand this, “Clear the eyeline” becomes a never-ending refrain.”

Modern Times

Even the most of my readers weren’t even alive when William Holden died, this still holds true in the era of digital cinema cameras and LED lights. For example…

You may remember, the DP stepping into his eyeline is why Christian Bale lost his shit about three Terminators ago. The TAPA at the time had strong opinions:

What is this bizarre rule about actor’s eyelines? Why do they have the attention span of squirrels? Everyone else has to put up with distractions at work.

They’re actors. Can’t they just act like there’s not a DP adjusting lights in front of them? They’re already ignoring the camera and sound guy and all of that stuff. How big of a deal is it?

So, should you take advice from one of the greatest directors of all time, or an anonymous production assistant who may or may not be me, still?

You should absolutely do your best to stay out of actors’ eyelines, just like they should stay out of your way when you’re carrying heavy gear through a doorway.1 Yes, they’ll almost always have to ignore some crew and equipment, but don’t add unnecessary distraction.

On the other hand, OG TAPA brings up a valid point:

That kind of explosive anger is unnecessary in any circumstance that doesn’t involve people dying. I mean, he’s not actually leading mankind in a war against machines. Calm down, dude.

No one should be screaming on set, least of all the dude who’s making more money this week than you are all year. So, while it’s not your fault if the lead is an emotional basketcase, you can at least try to avoid being the target of his ire.

How to Not Get Yelled at by Christian Bale or William Holden

First, be aware of the entire setup. At a very basic level, you never want to accidentally wind up on camera. You also don’t want to walk into a c-stand or lamp.

Those things tend to be static, while the actor will likely be moving during the shot. Pay attention during blocking, or watch the stand-ins during lighting if the rehearsals are closed. If you know where they’re looking, you know where the hell not to stand.

Sometimes, though, you won’t be able to render yourself totally invisible.

Somehow, this isn’t even the worst Fantastic Four movie.

On a low-budget production, you might be asked to Hollywood a flag or something. Even on a big show, you might be asked to tuck into a corner to cue an action off-camera.

Whatever the case, if you can’t avoid being seen due to the requirements of the scene, don’t look back at the actor. It doesn’t matter if he’s Marlon Brando, it’s extremely difficult for any human being to not to shift focus when someone makes eye contact.

Instead, look down. Or look at the camera. Look at the ceiling. Look at literally anything else but the actor.

In some situations, even that’s not possible. For whatever reason, you have to watch something behind the actor, or even worse, take your cue from the actor themselves.

At that point, you’re going to have to overcome the crippling social anxiety I assume you have, and actually talk to the actor like a human being. “Hey, sorry, I don’t want to be distracting, but the AD needs me to stand right there and do [whatever]. I know it’s right in your eyeline. Is there anything I can do to be less obtrusive?”

Hopefully they’ll respond like a decent person and either prepare themselves for the distraction, or ask you to do something simple that’ll help them do their job.

Because when it comes down to it, that’s what everyone on set, from PA to producer, from the background actors to the stars, is trying to do: get their job done. And hopefully not get yelled at in the process.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Which not everyone does, unfortunately.
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