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Table scene eye line

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I'm curious about the best approach to filming a table scene in which 4-6 people are sitting around a rectangular dinner table.  Is there a method to making the eye lines work?  In order to capture frontals of everyone you'd have to cross the 180 line at some point but how can you keep it from making the audience disoriented?

Thanks in advance for any advice



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That kind of scene is always tricky, there's a couple of ways to approach it, I would say two of the most common options are stylized or subtle.

The stylized approach would be to forget about eyelines and impose a strong aesthetic over the scene, ie shoot the whole thing as a moving circle dolly (tarentino style) or shoot each actor with static centered frames (wes anderson style) Neither of these is technically perfectly correct for eyelines but they both tend to work for the most part.

For the subtle, or more naturalistic approach it gets more complicated. Basically I would choose a master angle, perhaps over the shoulder of the main character that most of the interactions will be directed towards. Then I would shoot the principle coverage following that eyeline so that all the cuts with his/her closeup would work.

 Then I would add coverage to characters that have their own interactions that do not work on the primary eyeline (ie the characters turn away).

Where you end up on how much coverage you shoot will then depend on the complexity of the scene and the amount of time and cameras you have. I have easily seen a 6 person dialogue scene take most of a day with three cameras shooting every possible eyeline.

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Since you may not know how the scene will be edited, if you have time, it's best to shoot (at least the close ups) from both eye lines.

When I've worked with two cameras, I've sometimes shot the close up of a single character with two cameras.  One looking right to left, and the second, left to right.

If you don't have time to shoot every actor with two eye lines, it can be useful to pick out a couple of the main actors and shoot only them from two eye lines in order to give the editor an opportunity to change eye lines when necessary.

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Hi Ben,

There are two main goals that I like to keep in mind regarding eyelines for ensemble table scenes.

1. Establish the spatial geography of the characters. Where is everyone sitting? Where are the key character interactions happening? The audience needs to be able to keep track of these things. This is usually covered by shooting a master shot. You may need more than one master angle to cover the whole scene if the actors get up and move around the room.

For example, here is a dinner table scene from the film 'Pride & Prejudice' (2005):

Master Shot: 48319090292_b190d5e107_c.jpg

In this particular case, the master can only be used for the first half of the scene because after everyone sits, Judy Dench's character at the head of the table is obstructed by the table setting. This actually works well to disguise the fact that the scene's main conflict will be between her and Keira Knightley's character.

Though it is faster and simpler to shoot the coverage from roughly the same camera position on long lenses, so that each character consistently looks camera left or camera right throughout the scene, it’s often more interesting to move the camera and actors around in the scene so that the eyelines shift as the scene unfolds. Once the geography has been clearly established, then you have some freedom to cover parts of the scene by changing the direction of eyelines from the master, so long as you respect the eyelines of the matching coverage angles.

Two-Shot, changing direction of the eyeline from the master: 48319090447_823de88c8e_c.jpg

In the master, Keira is frame left of Matthew MacFadyen's character, and here she is on camera right, but because of the established geography the cut works fine.

Matching Singles, respecting the new eyeline: 48318971206_965baebe29_c.jpg


2. Establish eyelines between individual characters for specific story beats. Remember, there is a 180 degree line between each pair of characters who interact in a scene.

Now here's the really clever bit from the scene.

Same shot - rack focus to Judy Dench as she speaks to Keira, establishing another new eyeline: 48318970746_aa195cf082_c.jpg

Keira's eyeline shifts to the new character on the cut: 48319090002_1965c2d288_c.jpg

Slightly different angle, with a cheated eyeline closer to the lens to match the previous angle: 48318970501_ebe8582610_c.jpg

The rest of the scene basically plays out in these three shots, with a few cutaways to round out the scene.

MacFadyen checks Judy's reaction. 48318970326_f02eec25a7_c.jpg

Foreground character chokes on his soup. 48319089567_127de708f0_c.jpg

Keira spoons her soup. 48318970071_b202bc7e77_c.jpg

Regarding shooting angles on every character, this is not always necessary - even with seven characters around a table as above, the scene may only require a master, a two shot, three singles, and a few cutaways to tell the story. Because time is always limited on set, it is more economical to decide beforehand which coverage you can drop and just concentrate on what’s needed to emphasize the story beats in the scene.

One additional thought - it’s often better to spend time on specific coverage at the turning point of a scene (assuming the scene is well-written and has such a beat). It may be an insert of an object that a character suddenly notices, or a dramatic eyeline shift, or a sudden change in shot size or angle that emphasizes the moment. These are usually the first shots to get dropped when you’re rushing to complete a scene, which is unfortunate as I believe these shots can really help to make the scene memorable.

I hope this has been helpful.

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