The Eye Light

With a twinkle in his eye, your actor can win the damsel and convince the audience of his good intentions. Creating that twinkle is all in the art of lighting.

Twinkle, twinkle little star. With the crisp winter air, we can see the stars brightly shining in the heavens. These tiny yet powerful dots of light have led men across continents and guided ships to faraway lands. These tiny spots of light are also what we expect to see when we look deep into the eyes of those around us. Eyes are the opening to the soul, and the tiny spots of light that we see on the silver screen give us a sense of life and vitality. In this column, we will go beyond basic three-point lighting and take you to the world of the eye light.

What Is Eye Light?

An eye light is a light that creates a small sparkle of light reflected from the eye’s surface, giving sparkle to the subject’s eyes. Without the eye light, the eyes would seem lifeless and unemotional. We would feel detached from the characters, because we couldn’t see their expressions very well. We look to the eye to see emotion and often a clue as to what the person is saying. Without the sparkle in the eye, we would lose these clues, and the character would feel distant and mysterious. Cinematographer Gordon Willis used this idea very effectively in the Godfather (1972). Willis created a very high-angle lighting design, so that Marlon Brando’s character was always shot with his eyes shaded. This brooding look prevented the audience from seeing what the Godfather was thinking and the emotions behind the words.

All the people you see in magazine photographs or on the silver screen have a spot of light reflecting from their eyes. These spots of light give the face a sparkle and add depth to the character. If you think about it, the eye is a smooth, moist surface that reflects everything that comes its way. When a beam of light hits this shiny, smooth surface, it reflects back as a perfect duplicate, much like a mirror. Pick up any magazine and a magnifying lens and look at a photograph of a model. Looking at the sparkle in the eye, you can see the exact type of light used to light the model’s face. If you see a smooth-edged square or rectangle, then the light reflected from the surface of the model’s eye is a large rectangular silk or other form of soft light. If there is a tiny sparkle of light, then the lighting director most likely used a specific eye light just to create that sparkle. These tiny spots of light are very important, and you have to keep them in mind when setting up your lighting scheme.

Won’t Three-Point Lighting Do?

We all know that basic three-point lighting is a great way to start when planning your lighting scheme. But did you ever consider the subject’s eyes? Often when you use three-point lighting, the brow shrouds the eyes, with little or no hint of a spot of light reflected back towards the camera. If your lighting setup is very dramatic, you have little to no fill and you angle your key more from the side, you will definitely have no light reflection coming from the eyes. You can still see the subject’s eyes, yet they will be dull and lifeless, because there is no tiny sparkle reflecting off their surface towards the camera. This is where the eye light comes in. By placing a very small low-powered light next to the camera, you will get a sparkle of light reflected back to the camera, and the eyes will suddenly come to life.

Placement of the Eye Light

One quick note on the placement of your eye light. Usually you place the eye light on or slightly above the camera position. However, you need to think about the scene you are shooting and the angle of the key light. While the eye light does not have to be in line with the key, it should come from the same general direction, so that it supplements the key and adds to the three-dimensional look of the lighting. If you are using low-key dramatic lighting, set the eye light a little more to the side of the camera towards the key light. This will extend the key light into the subject’s eyes and add a sparkle that the actual key cannot create. If the light hitting your subject is at a very high angle, place the eye light higher in the shot to raise the sparkle in the eye above the pupil. You control where the reflection in the eye is seen. Experiment a little to see where the most realistic and dramatic placement would be for your particular scene.

Fade Out

Eye lights can add a wonderful emotional dimension to your subjects and bring life to their eyes. Always keep on hand a couple of small lights that you can quickly set up on or near your camera. Look deep into your subject’s eyes and determine where their life sparkle should be. Place your eye light, turn it on and bring life to their eyes.

Contributing editor Robert G. Nulph, Ph.D., is an independent video/film producer/director and teaches video production courses at the college level.

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