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Eyes on the Silver Screen: How Our Eyes Help Tell the Story

Posted on February 22nd, 2017

Creating connections through eye techniques on film is an essential skill of any stand-out actor. In human interaction, eyes are used to communicate, help focus attention, and provide clear expression to an audience or character. With award season upon us, we’re taking a look at the impact eyes have in stage and screen.

Getting in to Character

Each actor has a different strategy when it comes to delivering a top performance. Some insist on delivering dialogue while making direct eye contact with the opposing actor that is closest to the camera, while others believe that too much eye contact can ruin a scene. What actors do with their eyes characterizes their roles and brings their characters to life. When we watch how actors engage with other characters in a scene through their eye contact techniques, it speaks volumes about the character they are portraying – sometimes it tells us even more than their costume, accent, movements, and dialogue does. Just as in real life, the way we look at people provides insight about them, but our eyes can also reveal others hints about ourselves.

Famously, actor Michael Caine vocalized in his book Acting in Film that blinking makes a character appear weak. The veteran performer is known for carrying out long takes without blinking. He advocates that every time an actor blinks, they are cutting off communication with the audience.

Specific Techniques

Other special eye movement techniques are commonly found in film today. Breaking the fourth wall involves the character speaking to audience directly through the camera, such as in The Office or Modern Family. 

Crying on cue is a masterful acting technique, often requiring the actor to relive upsetting memories to bring forth the emotion in a natural way. The shifty eye technique, where actors quickly flit their eyes back and forth, is used to convey lying or the appearance of untrustworthiness.

Pretending to be asleep is actually harder than it looks. Rhythmic breathing and learning how to gently close your eyes as opposed to squeezing them tight makes your fake sleeping look genuine. During a death scene, actors know it’s easier to play dead with your eyes closed, but in the instances that dead-looking eyes are required, actors focus on an inanimate object to create a steady gaze and give the impression of staring into nothingness.

These are just some of the way actors use their eyes in their craft.

Paper Faces on Parade

In art today, masks are as present as they were during the inception of theatre in ancient Greece, and draw attention to the eyes by either hiding or accentuating them. Historically, the exaggerated expressions on dramatic masks helped define the characters the actors were playing, allowed actors to play more than one role (or gender), and helped audience members in distant seats understand the storyline. In contemporary art, movie masks have created recognizable identities. Undoubtedly vivid memories of iconic films are brought to mind when you see the Batman, Silence of Lambs, or Michael Myers masks.


Source: Wikimedia Commons, flickr, and flickr.

Mask makers consider body movement and gestures of the performance when creating a mask. Distorted human qualities create jarring personas and memorable characters, whether they are heroic or demonic. For example, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the audience doesn’t truly connect with Finn until he takes off his helmet and they see his face for the first time, specifically the desperation and fear in his eyes.

Experts say that the eyes can give us more than 55% of thoughts and emotions, indicating a huge range of  feelings—narrowed eyes could show suffering and pain, wide open eyes could mean intimidation, an unfocused look could mean a person is lost in thought, or excessive blinking could reveal a lie is being told. Actors use physiognomy, the method by which we use the facial features to reveal a person’s character, to help tell their story.

Eye Props of our Favourite Characters

Taking away the ability for viewers to see an actor’s eyes arguably makes the actor’s job more difficult. Film has given us a few gems who have not allowed vision impairment to stop them from saving the day.

In the X-Men comics and movies, Scott Summers, AKA Cyclops, emits powerful beams of energy from his eyes. He can’t control the beams without the aid of special eyewear that he must wear at all times. In the Star Trek fictional universe, a visor is a device used by the blind to artificially provide them with a sense of sight. Geordi La Forge, chief engineer of the USS Enterprise, was blind from birth.

The Mastery of Make-up

Make-up and costumes are an integral aspect of cinema as they help establish the film’s overall look which, in turn, contributes to the mood and tone the filmmakers seek to establish. Special effects in make-up and prosthetics can determine the success of a movie.

In A Clockwork Orange, moral corruption of dystopian youth was portrayed using ‘guy liner’ and thick make-up on the lashes of just one eye, breaking up the symmetry of Malcolm McDowell's face to unnerving effect.

In X-Men, mutants fought to control the planet. Notably, a blue-skinned Mystique played by Rebecca Romijn required 110 separate prosthetics to cover 60% of her body. She also donned bright yellow contacts for the role.

Another favourite is the 1985 cult classic, The Goonies. Former football star John Matuszak was transformed beyond recognition to play Sloth, the kind but disfigured son of evil Ma Fratelli. To achieve the effect of Sloth's eyes being wide set and angled, one eye was a special effect operated by remote control, to which Matuszak had to blink in time.

So, next time you are sitting down with some popcorn to watch the newest flick, watch how the actors in the movie use their eyes to convey emotion and express their character’s story.