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Cinematography 180 degree rule

What is The 180 degree rule?

You'll hear people talk about the 180 degree rule and not crossing or crossing the line when filming coverage. What is the line they're referring to?

If you can imagine an actor walking or running in a direction then you can picture the path they are following as a line. If two actors are talking to each other then draw a line to connect the two places where they are standing and extend the line in each direction to the edges of the set. Even if there are many actors in the scene you can still draw a line connecting the two opposing sides of the action.

180 degree line

All coverage should generally be shot from one side or the other of this imaginary line. The audience subconsciously forms a mental map of where the actors are located in the scene and from the first master shot will be thinking that "Mary is on the left and John is on the right".

If you go to a close-up of Mary filmed from the other side of the line it will suddenly appear that Mary has jumped to right side of the set. This kind of change is very disconcerting to an audience and, at least momentarily, takes them out of the story as they attempt to reestablish their understanding of where everyone is located. You want to avoid anything that takes your audience out of the emotion of the scene.

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In the simple case of one actor walking down the street, if the first setup shows them walking from the right to the left, then all the other coverage should show them walking from the right to the left. If you jump to the other side of the the line you break the 180 degree rule and it looks like the character has suddenly decided to return to where they came from. You can do this if you need to include a shot of the actor turning a corner for the scene to make sense.

A difficulty comes when you have a circle of actors in a room or seated around a table. The "line" will change position as the dynamics of the conversation change. Then the director needs to carefully plan where the coverage is shot so the edit can gently take the audience to a new understanding of the layout of the scene as the position of the line changes.

How To Creatively Break The 180 Degree Rule

Stanley Kubrick and other directors have become known for breaking the 180 degree rule. Sometimes seemingly to add interest to a scene but there are other creative uses for breaking the 180 degree rule. Such uses include if the director wants to create a feeling of disorientation in the audience to enhance the storytelling. Another use could be to show confusion in the mind of one of the characters. Jumping back and forth across the line while the character contenplates a difficult decision would demonstrate his mental state.

In this video from YouTube Richard Pena does an excellent job of explaining one example of how to maintain the 180 degree rule, even when the actors change positions.

 

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