The first time I heard Jim McConkey ask an actor to sit on the floor, I thought he was crazy.
Caroline Aaron didn’t bat an eye. “Sure! Whatever you need!” she said, and proceeded to shimmy out of her armchair.
At the time, Caroline was playing grandmother Shirley Maisel on Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Jim was our A-camera operator, and I was his second assistant camera. I was in charge of things like writing camera reports, running the clapperboard…
“Okay, that works!” Jim cried. “Mark her there!”
…and, of course, laying the actors’ toe marks.
“Don’t worry about it,” Caroline puffed somewhere around my knees, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Caroline wasn’t even on screen at this point. She was behind the camera now, struggling to sit cross-legged in her 60s-style shin-length dress. The lens was pointed at Colin Keane, who played her grandson Ethan Maisel. We were in the living room set of the Maisel house, filming coverage for a conversation that took place around the family television.
“Should I get next to her, Jim?” asked Kevin Pollak, who played Caroline’s Maisel-verse husband.
“Yup!” Jim checked his monitor. “Okay, scoot to the left. Now back just a centimeter…”
“Move over!” Kevin growled.
“I’m trying!” Caroline screamed back.
Colin looked up at me and giggled. I shrugged.
Just another day on Maisel.
Eyelines are the answer
Why, I wondered later, did Caroline have to sit on the floor? It was uncomfortable and geographically difficult. Not to mention just a touch unglamorous.
Eyelines were the answer, apparently.
Film school and work experience had taught me that eyelines were simply where an actor looks while acting in a scene. They were most important in a shot/reverse shot: the viewer sees a character looking at an object or a person, and then the film cuts to that object or person from the character’s perspective. If the eyeline is off, the character’s spatial relationship to the object won’t make sense to the viewer.
We put a lot of effort into eyelines on Maisel. A lot. Our camera support system was even designed to be offset, so the camera itself would hang over the dolly to the left or to the right as needed. The actors would then hug themselves against the rig while they fed dialogue to their in-frame scene partners.
Every day there were huddled conversations about eyelines. It got to the point where as soon as the word “eyeline” was mentioned the director, Amy Sherman-Palladino, would close her own eyes and start to snore—loudly. Then she would wave everyone off, crying, “Wake me up when the eyeline convention is over!”
But the process of finding the correct eyelines was always granted time and, most importantly, respect. And I just had to wonder…why?
Time is the enemy
Keep in mind, I had been trained my whole career to believe that time was the enemy of production.
An industry rule of thumb is that every minute on set is worth at least $1,000 on an average production. That means that if I can shave thirty seconds off building my camera every morning, I will have saved my production at least $500 a day. Even cutting out five seconds by programming a camera function to a quick shortcut button will save about $83.
This is how I was trained. I was told over and over, show after show, to save time. It was the best thing I could possibly do in my job.
Apparently, I was good at it, because now I was on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which was easily the most expensive and beautifully-produced show I had ever had the pleasure of working on. It had an A-list cast, a brilliant directing duo in Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Dan, and one-of-a-kind cinematography and production value.
Our camera operator Jim McConkey and his brother Larry both had more movie credits than I could count. Not to mention they had worked with directors like Brian De Palma, Luc Besson, and Martin Scorsese.
So why, I wondered, did these brilliant artists and technicians give time—that precious resource—to something as seemingly arbitrary as eyelines?
Couldn’t we just do away with the whole thing?
Eye is ‘I’
“What is an eyeline?” I asked Jim one day after work. I was beginning to doubt I even knew the correct definition of the word.
“Eye is ‘eye’ is ‘I’,” he explained. “It’s a point of view from an eye. From that point you see the world. So how you see the world is all related to your eye. The thing about eyelines is, whose point of view is it? Is it your eyeline? Is it somebody else’s? Eyeline is basically how you tell stories. It’s perspective.”
I nodded gravely, trying to understand. Then I approached Maisel’s script supervisor, Rachel Connors Phillips, hoping for a less esoteric answer.
“It’s an abstract concept,” she told me. “People get very hung up on the eyeline. In the grand scheme, an eyeline is basically about setting relationships and maintaining a through-line of movement. It’s where people are relative to one another. You want to maintain an eyeline that honors that relationship.”
Okay. That didn’t seem so hard. But is it really that important?
“What happens,” I asked, “if you have bad eyelines?”
“You start to lose the story,” Rachel answered. “You start to be distracted away from the actors by things that aren’t the performance.”
I wasn’t completely convinced.
Privately, I became obsessed with eyelines. Or rather, how to get rid of them. I began to think of myself as an eyeline detective. And my assignment, if I chose to accept it, was to eliminate them.
I turned to my most reliable partner in crime, Google, and began searching for articles about eyelines and continuity. This led me to a piece on Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.
Ozu was famous for disregarding the established rules of cinema, including the 180-degree rule. Instead of assuming “the line” was not meant to be crossed, he framed his actors head-on.
Ozu’s films had gained international praise. His movie Tokyo Story had even been named one of the best movies of all time by Sight and Sound magazine in 2012, famously beating that perennial list-topper Citizen Kane.
And, most importantly to me, Ozu did not concern himself with matching eyelines in dialogue scenes. I rejoiced. Here was definitive proof that this whole eyeline business was a waste of time!
I’d seen Tokyo Story before and remembered it fondly, so I turned it on for a victory re-watch. This time, I was determined to pay special attention to the eyelines. Halfway through the film, my heart sank. I caught myself rewinding the movie not once, but twice, to understand a scene between the main characters.
Who had the brother just delivered that scathing line to? Was it to his sister, or his wife?
Sure, the brother seemed to be looking at his wife, but what he was saying didn’t make any sense. The line must have been meant for his sister. But why had I gotten confused?
I realized that, between cuts, the camera had jumped to the other side of the room. The 180-degree rule had been broken, and the actor’s eyeline was no longer correct! Sure, the individual shot was beautiful, but Ozu’s choice had caused me to completely misinterpret the scene. The cinematic flow had been lost.
It was exactly what Rachel had warned me about.
Two’s a crowd
I knew there had to be more to this eyeline thing, so I began grilling Jim McConkey about why we shot Maisel the way we did. The first thing I had to understand was why we needed tight eyelines in the first place.
“How tight is too tight for an eyeline?” Jim asked. “Well, if somebody looks into the lens it’s quite direct. It’s like you’re looking into their soul. Sometimes that is reserved for very rare, strong moments where you’re really trying to make a difference. So you don’t always use that as much as you would think. Because it gets old fast.”
If somebody looks into the lens it’s quite direct. It’s like you’re looking into their soul.
“But then there are tight eyelines and what tight eyelines do is they’re looking past the camera, close enough so it feels like you’re almost there. You feel like you’re in a conversation with that person, especially combined with the right lens.”
So shooting with tight eyelines helps the viewer stay immersed in the scene. That made sense to me.
What didn’t make sense yet was why Maisel regularly shot with only one camera at a time. Every other show I had ever worked on shot scene coverage with two cameras, or even three. Couldn’t Maisel save time by shooting with at least two cameras?
“I’m not trying to knock two cameras,” Jim replied. “But once you use two cameras you’re not necessarily in the actor’s space. You’re observing them. This is a show about connection. You’re connecting with that actor because that camera is so close to you being the other person [in the scene] that you believe it. That’s the whole reason why it can touch you, in a way.”
“Sometimes it’s just done like cop shows do it and you just use whatever you can shoot. And you’re using straight-from-the-character to basically mow over or bulldoze down any other considerations. [Other shows] have this mantra where you have to shoot two cameras. Have to. Have to. No matter what, you have to. They feel like it’s efficiency. But it turns into some kind of formula. Even when it’s so easy to see, by putting in two cameras, you don’t achieve the best results.”
“I remember one of the first days, first season. It was people across a table. And I remember having this moment, the first time the question came up for Amy [Sherman-Palladino], ‘Well, can’t we have the second camera do something else?’ And I remember having that conversation with her. And I said, ‘Well, you can. But this is where you make the decision. Because let me show you the difference.’”
“And I took the camera and put it on a sandbag, and put it on the table right in front of Rachel [Brosnahan, who plays leading role, Midge Maisel]. And I had her look really tight to the other person across the table. And then I showed her that if I did that, I couldn’t get another camera in there.”
“And then I showed her the other way. I pulled back, I used a longer lens. And I put another camera next door, shooting out the other person’s eyeline. And I let her look at it immediately. And I said, ‘Which one do you like?’ And she said, ‘Well I like [the first] one.’ ‘Okay, you can’t get that one if you have that second camera.’ It’s just as simple as that.”
Wide lenses and iconic images
I realized then that eyeline must be connected to something much bigger. It was an integral part of image composition, innately linked to the psychology of the frame and the message the director was trying to give to the viewer.
I had to know more. What was it about using a wider lens that Jim and the other creators liked so much? Jim was kind enough to explain it to me.
“Imagine you’re on a dock and you see someone on another dock. The only way you can see them closely is by using a pair of binoculars. What it does is it makes it observational.”
“You look at something with a long lens, you’re observing them. You’re hosing them down from a distance with a telescope. And also, what’s going to be in the background of that shot? More than likely, it’s a sliver of water, maybe four buildings, maybe three buildings, way off in the distance. Boats that are going by might seem enormous.”
“Now, take a different lens and get on the same dock, same size. Now instead of a 400mm you’re on a 30mm. And you’re up close. What do you see? Well, you see the actor. Their face starts to round out. Seems like they’re not being pressed flat. They seem like they have shape to their face.”
“And what do you see in the background? You see an enormous amount of information. You see lots of buildings. Lots of water. Lots of boats. And they’re not so big, because it’s a wider lens, closer.”
“So you tend to be more into the actor, the actor’s face. Because you’re not thinking about all these extraneous huge things, you’re thinking about the actor. You’re right there with them. Since Maisel is so much about fashion, wardrobe, seeing the space, seeing the environment, being there, you would never want to shoot a show like that on long lenses. You’d lose all of that.”
“And it made it easier for Amy,” Jim added, “because she could understand how to edit better. Because if you only have one camera, you can take all the stuff away that isn’t in the scene. Other people’s glasses, candles…”
Script supervisor Rachel Connors Phillips agreed. “There are often kind-of iconic elements of the picture. Elements in the frame that are also grounding in much the same way as the people, the characters that you’re filming,” she explained.
“Like candles for instance. Say you’ve got two people at a table, and you’re going into their coverage, and you have the eyelines set, and you’ve got this candle. What will happen if you keep the candle on both sides is, when you’re looking at character A, the candle will be on frame left. When you cut to character B, the candle will be on frame right, and it just ping-pongs back and forth from frame edge to frame edge as you intercut the scene.”
Sounds distracting! By removing those elements from the frame, Maisel was able to achieve the clearest, cleanest image at all times. It also reinforced Jim’s instinct to shoot coverage with a single camera.
Jim added, “[Other shows] shoot three cameras sometimes. That means there’s a long lens, there’s a medium-long lens, and there’s a wider two shot. Well, you can never subtract anything out of the table. You can’t ever take glasses away. You can’t minimize anything, because all three cameras are seeing different things in different places. You can’t simplify. Everything’s in there all the time.”
“That’s the other thing in Maisel, why it looks different, is because everything is very sharp, very clear. All the glasses, all the hands that would come in, all the foreground elements from the other person, they go away, and you’re left with that actor and what they do. So it’s very clean. It’s different.”
Piece by piece, the mystery of why we shot Maisel the way we did was being revealed. But one question still puzzled me.
Why did the actors get on the floor?
I can’t believe the cast is agreeing to this!
Of course, they weren’t always on the floor. Most of the time the actors on Maisel were standing just behind the camera, or hugging the lens with their body, or sitting on padded apple boxes just beside the lens. Sometimes we had as many as four or five A-list actors stacked on top of each other behind the lens, grouped so close together that a sneeze might send them all tumbling down like dominoes.
Why did we do that? There are any number of tricks to get correct eyelines without forcing your performers to become off-camera acrobats. You could tape an eyeline mark to a C-stand or directly to the matte box. I’d even heard of camera assistants drawing eyeline marks directly onto the lens with a dry-erase marker.
“It’s truly performance,” Rachel told me, “and it’s something about Maisel I really respected. I thought it was kind of amazing and ‘I-can’t-believe-this-cast-is agreeing-to-do-this.’ But also for performance and the authenticity of the performance, I think it really did add.”
“That cast, they could have acted against anybody, they could have acted against me, and that’s all fine and good, but it takes away a level of ‘acting’ by allowing them to be with their scene partner.”
“It’s subtle. Especially with actors of that caliber that clearly could have done the work without their counterparts there. But I do think that it makes a subtle difference and I do respect that.”
Jim had more to add. “Even when we went to Paris, and there’s this very emotional scene between Rachel, who’s on the phone in Paris, calling Michael Zegan [playing Midge’s husband Joel]. And we were near the Louvre, and it was beautifully lit. And Michael would’ve technically been in Queens, I guess, at his parent’s house. Well, they so wanted that to be real that they flew Michael all the way to Paris so he could do his off-camera lines there.”
“I don’t know another show that would do that,” I mentioned.
“They wouldn’t!” Jim cried. “It costs too much money, it doesn’t make sense. It’s a phone call! Well, if you watch that scene, part of the reason it was the way it was, the emotional way it was, is because he was there.”
“Of course, it did cause its own problems,” Jim admitted with a laugh. “Because we were in this portico, it was echoey… His voice was echoing, sort of overlapping her voice, so it didn’t make sense. Then we figured out a way to put him a little deeper, but he was still there.”
“You know, a phone call is a tight eyeline. In a sense that they’re connected emotionally in their mind’s eye, through that wire, imagining the person they’re talking to, and vice-versa. And so, again, the only way to get inside the actor’s eye is to be with them, close, and also they have to be connected to the other actor just as well.”
It’s all about eyeline
Sometimes, it’s just as important to highlight where the actor is NOT looking.
Jim explains: “In The Kite Runner we had this scene where we were supposed to be in the Afghan mountains, and [the actors] are talking about really difficult subjects. And the two of them are driving in this beautiful landscape and we decided to do the French overs from the back seat.”
(In cinematography, French overs are a type of over-the-shoulder shot where two characters are bodily facing the same direction. The camera then shoots them from behind, capturing only one actor’s face at a time.)
“The characters don’t necessarily want to look into each other’s eyes. They can’t. One is driving. The other is looking out, but not wanting to necessarily be in that car. So, you can do traditional coverage, but what you’ve done is you’ve basically just linked them together. They can’t get away from each other. And it is what it is.”
“So we decided to shoot everything from the back seat. Then not only do you have an over where you can only see one person’s face, it’s also indirect. And you have all the landscape of the beautiful area that they’re in, telling a story. It simplifies everything. So sometimes that’s the eyeline.”
Jim has a list of questions he likes to ask when he is deciding how to frame eyelines.
“Are [the characters] supposed to be connecting to the other character? Are they not? Are they trying to get away? Are they trying to get connected? Is one trying to get connected and the other’s trying to get away? I mean, it’s all about eyeline!”
He’s got “the look”
Always being on one side of the process can make it hard for TV creators to experience their shows as a viewer. It can be tricky to see the other side of the proverbial fence. Sometimes a change in perspective can be the greatest eye-opener.
“What’s he even looking at?” I cried out one night after work, while watching TV. My boyfriend looked at me, confused, then looked at the screen. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“There.” I pointed. “That actor just stood up and then sat back down. But the woman he’s talking to is still looking at his standing mark!”
“Oh,” my boyfriend said thoughtfully. “It must have been a choice.”
“It’s a mistake,” I insisted. I was frustrated. The cinematic flow had been broken. I was no longer focused on the story, or the performances.
Then I sat back. My own reaction stunned me. I was no longer an eyeline skeptic.
I was a believer.