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Home / Design & Architecture / Cinematic Storytelling / Basic Aspects of Storyboarding – 7 : 180 Degree Rule

Basic Aspects of Storyboarding – 7 : 180 Degree Rule

180 Degree Rule : 

180 degree rule is one of the most essential rules -or guidelines let’s say- used in filmmaking. It is the most basic rule of camera placement that the continuity system observes, and is vital to keep audience’s perception focused on the spatial relationship between two characters or objects interacting with each other within a scene. It is often referred as not crossing / crossing the line of action as well. In his handbook ‘Film Directing – Shot by Shot’, Steven Katz explains the purpose of this rule by pointing out that it organizes camera angles to preserve consistent screen direction and space. Line of action, or also known as the axis or the axis of the action, is an imaginary line passing connecting the characters or the objects that are interacting with each other. The 180 degree rule dictates that the camera should always stay on one side of this axis within the consecutive shots of a scene – thus ‘not crossing’ the line. Failure to follow the 180 degree rule can make the scenes difficult to follow for your audience. Examine the diagram below.

crossing-the-line

Now let’s simplify it with an example, say we have a dialogue scene between a man and a woman, regarding the diagram above.  In the bird’s eye view the woman is placed on the left, and the man right. And we established our line of action, passing through the woman and the man. The 180 degree rule states that once you place your camera on one side of the line, you should keep all your shots within the 180 degree arc on the same side of the line in order to maintain proper screen direction.  So the indicated spots in the diagram (1, 2 and 3), or anywhere staying in the 180 degree arc is a safe spot for us to place the camera in these sequences. Now when you take a closer look on the diagram, and the little frames named 1, 2 and 3, you will notice that the man is always placed on the right side of the frame no matter what the composition is. It may be a profile shot, it may be an over the shoulder shot etc. the man is always frame left (means that the object is placed on the right and its direction of the movement is towards the left), while the woman is frame right. Following this rule will provide action continuity, and will prevent the audience from getting distracted or lost. As long as you placed your camera within the same half circle, you don’t need to show all your characters within your frame to tell that they are interacting with each other. As long as their screen directions are correct (which is provided by not crossing the axis), even if only the woman is shown in the frame, we will still know that she’s facing and addressing to the man.

What happens if we cross the line and break the rule? Well take a closer look to the frame of the camera indicated by X in the diagram above. As you can see now the man and the woman’s placements are changed. Now the woman is on the right, and the man is on the left. If, without establishing a new line of action, you break this rule and place the camera outside the 180 degree arc, the audience will suddenly be confused and distracted, since it would look like the characters just moved and changed their directions.

editing-reverse-cuts-180

180 degree rule is not only used in scenes where multiple characters or objects interact with each other, but it can be applied to actions as well. We may have a scene where our character is walking. Our line of action will follow his movement. Now when we can use as many different camera angles as we want as long as they do not cross the line of action. But if we cross the line and cut to a shot where the camera is placed on the other side of the axis, the direction of the action will suddenly change. The audience will suddenly feel that the character is walking the opposite way. Same applies to a car chase scene, or a sports shot etc.

There are ways to break the 180 degree rule without breaking the continuity, and that is by establishing new lines of action. We can establish new lines of action by:

– Using camera movement to show the change of the axis : For example if we have a dialogue scene and we’re shooting an over the shoulder shot, we can shift the camera from one shoulder to the other without any cuts. Now having shown that the camera moved to the other side of the axis, we’re free to cut to other camera angles, as long as they stay in the new 180 degree arc.

– Using cut aways (Refer to Chapter 5 for a reminder about cut aways)

– Using a neutral shot : A neutral shot is provided by placing the camera right on the line of action. Let’s say we’re shooting a walking scene, if we place the camera on one side of the axis, then cut to a shot where the camera is on the axis (thus the character is moving towards us), now we’re free to place the camera in any 180 degree arc we choose.

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 11.01.34 PM

(Demonstration of using a neutral shot.)

We all remember Gollum talking to himself as Gollum and Sméagol in Lord Of The Rings : Two Towers (2002, New Line Cinema) , right? Now see how Peter Jackon used the line of action, creating the illusion of two characters talking to each other with only one within the knowledge of what you just learned.

Or Willem Dafoe’s amazing mirror scene in the first Spider-Man movie by Sam Raimi (2002, Sony Pictures) :

The showdown scene of Japanese filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi’s masterpiece Seppuku (1962, Shochiku Eiga) demonstrates the changes of axis because of the characters’ movements :

One last thing. Yes, the rules are there to break. There are notable filmmakers who break this rule (along with many other ‘rules’), breaking the continuity as well (in other words, without using the 3 methods listed above). This might be in order to create a confusion intentionally, maybe to make the audience feel the disorientation the character feels, or the weirdness in that scene, to emphasize that the character is lost etc… The infamous bathroom scene of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980, Warner Bros), Trinity’s bullet-time scene in the first Matrix (1999, Warner Bros) movie by the Wachowskis, the car scene of Jean Luc Godard’s À Bout de Souffle (1960, Les Films Impéria) are some famous examples of it. But please mark my words, we are not Stanley Kubrick, Jacques Tati, Godard nor Tinto Brass, at least not for now – believe me when I say breaking this rule would be a bad idea!

(Bathroom scene from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining)

(Trinity’s bullet time scene in Matrix, notice how the Wachowskis cross the line after her kick)

Wow, that’s been a long series of articles now. Though we barely scratched the surface, you are now hopefully capable of knowing what to consider when storyboarding and producing a video. Remember once again, these articles were nowhere near a complete study, but just an overview of some of the essential guidelines. Feel free to dig more into them if you ever wanna produce a professional looking video for any purposes. There are tons of online sources, as well as handbooks out there which I mentioned a few. I might be writing about the art of storyboarding in the future every now and then, when I feel like I learned something worth sharing, or I might demonstrate the process with my own works etc. But for now, we’re wrapping up these series, hope they become handy at some point. Catch you all on the next Youngsday with a brand new topic!

Image source: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/HinUychY3sE/maxresdefault.jpg

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