Believe it or not, filmmaking comes with a lot of rules. And while artists may scoff at some seemingly arbitrary conventions, it’s important to know why they exist and how they can affect your audience and artistic vision. Today’s topic for discussion is the 180 degree rule.
Don’t cross the line!
The 180 degree line is an imaginary line that follows the action of a scene. (If you’ve never heard of it, it will make more sense as we go along.) For those of playing at home, you may recognize that 180 degrees is half of a circle. The rule dictates that your camera will always be on the same side of that line.
Who the F#€& came up with that?
Part of this is just physics. If you’re watching something (a sporting event, a street fight, paint drying) you tend to watch it all from the same place. If you want to change your perspective, you can walk to the other side of the stadium, but it’s going to take you a few minutes.
The ancient Greeks, who basically invented western civilization (and also theater) and are frequent this blog’s whipping boy, decided to set things in stone. Literally. They started building all of these amphitheaters.
You’ll notice that all of the seats are on one side. (It’s almost like half of a circle?!) The front of the stage makes a straight line, which taken as a whole, is called the proscenium. It is betwixt this line the actors and audience shall not cross.
Here’s another ancient theater with a much fancier proscenium.
And here’s a view of a modern theater proscenium.
In all of these cases, you can only watch the action from one side of the stage. As a spectator, whether you’re in seat B6 or FF139, you’re always watching on the same side of the line.
Now if we build a set on the stage, there would only be three walls. Much like this living room set from Malevolence: Bereavement.
When you build three walls of a set, the “fourth wall” is the proscenium. The audience must pretend that there’s a fourth wall. And that’s why an actor speaking directly to the audience (or looking straight into the camera) is “breaking the fourth wall.”
Millennia later, film followed suit, generally filming all of the action from one side of the line. In addition to following an established dramatic convention, it also makes it easier to film. The lights, camera, dolly track, sound mixer, additional second second assistant director and therapy dog all have a place to hang out without mucking up the set.
What does it all mean?!
Moving from a wide shot to close ups, filmmakers need to make sure they stay on the correct side of the line. Consider two people sitting at a table, talking.
Sally, on the left, is looking towards the right frame of the camera. When you move in, she STILL needs to be looking to camera right.
Even in a closeup without Harry in the shot, she’s still looking to the right.
Similarly, Harry should always be looking to his left.
(Screen shots from When Harry Met Sally’s infamous restaurant scene.)
A simple situation like this is pretty easy and straightforward, but it would also make for a boring cinematic universe. The good news is, actors can move. And every time the actor or camera moves, so does the line. In fact that 180 degree line is more appropriately called the “action line.” And when things are moving, that line can go all over the place.
Long Steadicam or handheld shots like this work because the audience can follow the action in real time. It’s when you cut to a new camera angle that things can get confusing.
For example, if someone exits frame to the right, which direction should they enter the frame from in the next shot? If there are six characters standing in a circle, what is the direction of the action? If a character hands a prop to another character whose back is turned, should he be reaching camera left or camera right?
Fortunately, the script supervisor and director of photography should be keeping track of all of this. If you’re an aspiring DP or scripty, well, you’ve got some research to do. (I would recommend Joseph V. Mascelli’s The Five C’s of Cinematography to start.) But the intricacies of continuity and action lines aren’t the real reason I wanted to write about this.
Although this won’t really affect the writer, the 180 degree rule has some interesting psychological effects that influence storytelling. For example, if two people… or Matchbox Cars are chasing each other, they need to be traveling in the same direction.
If we turn one of the cars around, they may be headed for a collision.
Similarly, if your character drives from left to right on his commute into work, he should drive from right to left on his way home. Odds are, no one will ever notice whether or not you do this, but it’s one of those subconscious things that can disorient an audience if done incorrectly.
Mascelli goes so far as to argue that vehicles traveling west to east like an airplane flying from New York to London should move left to right on screen. I guess that wouldn’t apply to Australian filmmakers…
Once upon a time things that traveled from left to right were considered to be progressing while things that traveled right to left were regressing or retreating. (Presumably because most western languages are read left to right.) Curiously, that doesn’t seem to hold as much weight as it used to. The Eagles, the only team in the NFL whose logo faces the left finally won a Super Bowl.
(Look at those contrarians in the last column!)
And a not too distant political campaign with a right-pointing arrow didn’t end up working out so well.
The line can also effect how you feel about a character. The furthest you can get from the 180 degree line is 90 degrees. This is the most objective or voyeuristic point of view. You’re not part of the action, you are an outside observer.
(Not sure what’s happening on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and I’m pretty happy at this distance.)
As you get closer to the line, you become more subjective to the point where characters are speaking directly to you (breaking the fourth wall), and you feel like you’re part of the story.
That’s a hefty workload for one little line.
When can you break the rule?
When ever you want! The thing to remember is that audiences have become accustomed to these conventions. Breaking the rule will lead to confusion and disorientation. If that’s the feel you’re going for, do it! Just make sure the audience can still follow the story. (Remember that post about empathy? You want to be sure you’re showing your character’s confusion, not just confusing the audience.)
But for 99% of what you shoot, the 180 degree line is going to serve as a tool, not an artistic choice. To get to the heart of your story as effectively as possible, make sure your audience is focused on the right thing, and don’t cross the line!
(Screenshot from The Big Lebowski via makeameme.org )