When we look at people, we look at their eyes. As soon as babies can focus, they look at people’s eyes. Even dogs and cats, it’s said even rats, look at people’s eyes to read their intentions. So as soon as you appear on screen, this is where the audience will be looking. Making your performance available to the audience means making sure they have access to your eyes. And this means keeping your gaze primarily in the area around the camera.
However, you are probably also aware that you should never look straight at the camera unless explicitly told to by the director. The reason for this is simple: it breaks the fourth wall. One of the illusions of the screen is that we, the audience, can watch a character from very close up without them knowing we’re there. As soon as the character looks down the lens, it feels as though they are looking directly at us and therefore the illusion is shattered.
So this gives us a ring-shaped area around the camera that respects the taboo of not looking directly at the audience but in which the eyes – the windows to the soul – remain accessible. I call this area ‘the doughnut’ and working within it is the key to powerful screen acting.
During much of your time on screen you probably won’t need to give any thought as to where you direct your eyes because your – the character’s – attention is on some external stimulus, for example, another character, a sunset, a car that’s backfired, someone in the distance, etc. Off-screen characters will be positioned by the director or camera operator so your eyes can be seen, and with things that are not actually physically there, you’ll probably be told where to look. (If not, ask.)
But there will also be moments when your attention is on internal stimuli – you’re just thinking. Most commonly, this will be when you’re in a dialogue with another character and you break eye contact to consider what’s just been said or think how to respond (remember, working on camera is about re acting as much as acting). Unless you, or the director, choose that the audience should not have access to your inner world (and this is a perfectly legitimate artistic choice), you should be looking roughly between the inner and outer circles of the doughnut because outside this area, it does not matter how profound or intense your emotion, the audience has no access to it and they are simply witnessing somebody having an experience they cannot share.
For a wonderful example of this look at the scene towards the end of episode 4 of Breaking Bad series 2 in which Skylar confronts Walt about his lying to her. It’s a pivotal moment in their relationship and in Walt’s descent into his moral quagmire. Both actors play the scene superbly, but Bryan Cranston makes the whole of his experience available to the camera by playing within the doughnut, whereas Anna Gunn drops out at times and becomes temporarily inaccessible to us. The difference is subtle but significant.
It’s impossible to be precise about how large the doughnut is. It will depend on the lighting, the depth of your eye sockets, the prominence of your brow and several other factors that you cannot control. It’s also not a straightforward question of being in or out. Rather, as you look further away from the camera, your eyes become less accessible until, eventually, we cannot see anything meaningful of them.
(Even if it were possible to be precise about where boundaries are for an individual actor, I would still want to discourage you from thinking too precisely about positioning because your inner monologue would then be the actor’s, rather than the character’s.)
Rather than working within the doughnut as a purely mechanical technique, the best way to think about it is to couple it with the desire to share your experience with the audience and look in the vicinity of the camera.
And, by the way, ‘the doughnut’ is not a term that’s in standard use within the industry. So don’t expect someone else to understand what you mean by it unless they’ve been a student of mine or have read this book.
What follows is the first of a number of exercises to explore how to use eye movement on camera. Film yourself doing each one and play it back. If you don’t have access to something that will record, you can do the exercises anyway – designate a real object as an imaginary camera and try to notice what happens to your eyes, although this is not as useful because your attention will inevitably be split as you do the exercise.
I’ve already argued that the movement of our eyes reflects our inner thoughts and emotions and I want to return to the observation that, in life, our attention is either out there – seeking information – or in here – processing and reflecting. Specifically the in here bit is often accompanied by our gazing into the middle distance. These are the moments when, sitting on a train, we find ourselves staring into the lap of the person opposite us. We are not really looking at them. Mentally we’re miles away.
Sometimes, as we’re doing this, our eyes move involuntarily. It seems this helps us reflect. For example, if you watch somebody who is thinking through possible courses of action, you will often see their eyes flit from side to side.
If you’ve come across neurolinguistic programming (NLP), you will be familiar with the idea that our eyes move in different directions according to what we’re doing. While I’m happy to believe that there is some truth in this – try it yourself – I don’t think it’s particularly helpful for an actor to treat NLP as anything more than an interesting observation about the link between the inner and outer. Certainly an actor who starts making deliberate choices about which way to look to reflect his character’s thinking has stepped firmly into the territory of indicating.
I hope it’s clear that what I’m suggesting is something entirely different: ‘sharing’ instead of ‘showing’. If your inner monologue is a calculation of where to look, then that is what the audience will see. Whereas, if your inner monologue is the character’s, relating to his hopes and aspirations, your eyes will automatically move appropriately. So let your inner impulses, derived from living truthfully in the imaginary circumstances, dictate your eye movements. All you need to do is to make sure that these naturally occurring eye movements remain within the doughnut.
Film yourself going through each of the following scenarios in your mind. Place the camera slightly to one side so you’re not looking down the lens. Start by looking ahead and commit yourself to imagining the situation as fully as possible, letting your gaze go where it wants to. After you’ve done them in order, watch it back and observe what your eyes do. You might also want to go back and try each one with your eyes deliberately looking to the side and/or up or down and see whether certain movements make things easier or harder.
You will probably find that your eyes naturally move as you imagine or remember. And you may see that depending on where your gaze goes, your inner world becomes more or less visible.
Do the exercise again and explore different eye movements. If some of them lead your eyes to travel downwards or away from the camera, try simultaneously allowing your eyes to move naturally, but within the range of the doughnut.
From From Stage to Screen: A Theatre Actor's Guide to Working on Camera, by Bill Britten, (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014)