The Two 180s of Filmmaking – Part 1: Don’t Cross the Line

The triangle represents the position of the camera.

In the world of filmmaking there are two “rules” which each share the same name. The 180 degree rule. One has to do with the position of your camera with respect to your actors/subjects. The other has to do with the relation of shutter speed and frame rate. Both “rules” are established to improve the viewing experience of your audience. I put the word “rules” in quotes, because like every other rule, they can be broken…if you know why you’re breaking it and it serves the story. However, IMHO, I see a lot of newbie filmmakers breaking these rules because they seemingly don’t know. So, I wanted to give two quick blogs posts on these rules and why you should keep them; and why (and when) you’d want to break them.

DON’T CROSS THE LINE

The first 180 degree rule I want to discuss is the 180 degree line rule. It states that if you have two subjects speaking to one another in a scene, draw an imaginary line through the middle of them. At all times, you need to keep the camera one the same side of the line. If you cross that line, you’ve “crossed the 180.” (And yes, that was the origin of the name for my podcast, “Crossing the 180: The Filmmakers Podcast that Breaks all the Rules.”) The purpose of the rule is to keep the audience properly oriented. If actor A on the screen is looking from left to right, and actor B is looking from right to left, they will be properly oriented as long as you stay on the same side of the 180 degree line. But, if for whatever reason, you move the camera around for another part of the dialog, and you cross that 180, then both actors will be looking from either right to left, or vice versa, as you cut back and forth. That will be off-putting to the viewer.

But it’s not just narrative films where this rule applies. You can apply it to event video or documentaries too. Let’s say you’re shooting a wedding, ideally you should keep the camera on the same side of the 180, using the bride and groom as the two subjects. If in a documentary you have two people talking and let’s say you’re shooting with two cameras, keep both cameras on the same side of the 180 for the same reason.

BREAKING THE RULE

Many newbies break this rule because they simply don’t know and aren’t aware. Many experienced people even break this rule from time to time because they may have had so many camera changes or are trying to get interesting angles, they forget where the 180 degree line started. Having a dedicated script supervisor (the person in charge of keeping track of how actors deliver lines, where props were for each shot, etc.) can help. But, I would bet many of you reading this don’t have that. So, you just gotta keep a mental note.

It usually makes sense to break this rule if you’re in a situation (usually an event video like a wedding) where you are forced to stand or set up your camera in such a way that it breaks the rule.  Other than that, I can’t think of any other times I’d want to break this rule on purpose, unless for some reason I’m purposefully trying to disorient the audience. If you have ideas of when it would make sense to break this rule on purpose, please share in the comments.

Here’s a short video I found on YouTube the perfectly describes this rule.

In my next post, I’ll cover the 180 degree shutter speed rule, perhaps THE most broken rule by DSLR filmmakers that I’ve ever seen.

12 thoughts on “The Two 180s of Filmmaking – Part 1: Don’t Cross the Line

  1. If I remember correctly, it was Michelangelo Antonioni, who purposefully (and successfully) crossed the 180 in his 1966 film “Blow Up”.
    But when he did so, it was for exactly the same reason you are mentioning: intentionally disorienting his audience.
    But after all – his film was all about the ambiguity of reality, illusion, perception, fabrication – and media…

  2. The 180 rule gets thrown around a lot, and yes, it’s good to understand what it is about, but if you really study films you will find that it is disregarded all the time. Aronofsky e.g. did it very neatly in Requiem for a Dream when Harry realizes that his mother is on amphetamines. Tarentino does it pretty boldly in a number of his films, e.g. in Kill Bill Part I when the Bride visits Hattori Hanzo and they wait for Hanzo’s waiter to bring the tea, after they had chit chat and before they get to the matter of forging a sword. In both cases I would argue that the purpose of crossing the line is not to disorient the audience, but to make it clear that something has changed.

    Crossing the 180 line is something that should be done deliberately and it’s a stylistic element that can draw a lot of attention. But when used skillfully it is like writing something in italic in a text. It tells the audience that something significant is happening.

    1. Hey Daniel, thanks for the great comment. I couldn’t agree more (except for the part about it gets disregarded “all” the time. But I understand you were exaggerating to make a point.🙂. In all the cases you mentioned, the director purposefully crosses that line. Whether it’s to created a sense of disorientation on purpose, or as you say to establish that something has changed, there’s a reason that gets worked out. However, many amateur filmmakers will cross the line unknowingly and in many of those cases, it does not serve the storytelling.

      1. Hi Ron, yes, rereading it I have to agree that it does exaggerate a little… What I meant to say was that many great films cross the line at least once at some point in the film, not that every cut jumps the 180 line🙂

        Nice post btw, keep them coming!

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