How Does the 180° Rule Work, anyway?

The Purpose of Screen Direction

Screen direction serves two important purposes: it gives the audience clues about the story and it helps keep the audience from getting confused about where someone is or what they are doing. Avoiding confusion is the fundamental reason for all film continuity.

Directional Conventions

screen direction

Fig 1: In this sequence from High Noon, leaving town is clearly established as going left.

The classic example of this is in low-budget cowboy movies of the fifties. In these films it was always well established that one direction on screen was towards town and the opposite direction was away from town (Figures 1 and 2). Once we knew that we could tell if the good guys or the bad guys were heading toward town or away, any deviation from this would have been very confusing. Another convention applies to trains, planes, and automobiles. If someone is leaving the east and going to the west, the plane or vehicle should be traveling left in the frame and vice versa. This is derived from the fact that nearly all maps have north at the top, so west is left and east is right.

film rules

Fig 2:When the marshall decides he must stand and fight, we clearly see him turn the carriage around and head back the other way. When the carriage is moving to the right, we know that they are going back toward town.

Deliberately Breaking the Rules

One of the aims of editing is to not confuse the audience. If a character is walking towards the left of the screen in one shot and without explanation in the next shot he is walking toward the right, the audience will (even if only subconsciously) wonder why he changed. Their attention will be momentarily drawn away from the story as they try to sort it out. This is the basic principle of all continuity in film shooting and editing. For example, she was just wearing a red dress outside the restaurant, but once she stepped through the door she is wearing a blue dress. Is this a different day? A dream sequence? What happened? Of course, a filmmaker can use this as a storytelling device. Perhaps most famously is the breakfast sequence in Citizen Kane. In three seamlessly cut together shots we see Charles Foster Kane and his wife at the same dining table in the same room. We only know that time is progressing because they are wearing different clothes and makeup in each shot. Through this simple device the deterioration of their marriage is told with great efficiency. Most famously, in the payoff shot she is reading a newspaper put out by a rival publisher: we know the marriage is doomed. Similar devices can indicate we’ve gone into a fantasy sequence or flashback. They can be quite subtle (a small change in makeup or hair) or dramatic: the little match girl on the street is suddenly in a gorgeous ball gown.

Exceptions to the Rule

There are several important exceptions to the 180° rule and the line.

• If we see things change position in the shot, then we understand that things have changed position. If a car is moving right in the shot, and then we see it turn around so that it’s going left, then there’s no problem (Figure 2).

• When the camera position moves during the shot.

• If you cut away to something completely different, when you cut back, you can change the line.

• In the case of something that is moving, you can cut to a neutral axis shot, then go back to either side of the line.

A neutral shot is one where the movement is either directly towards or away from the camera (Figure 3). In cases where the camera moves during the shot, in essence, the line itself has moved. Some people tend to think of the line as very rigid and static, that once the line is established it can never move the whole rest of the time you are shooting the scene, but actually it is fluid and can change throughout the scene, as we will see later. There is another exception, although it must be applied with caution. Remember, the whole point of the rule is to not confuse the audience. That is its only reason for being; it is not a carved in stone dictum that exists independently. That means that if we can cross the line without confusing the audience, then we’re still OK. Example — a courtroom. Its layout is very clear and visually strong. At the front of the room is the bench, a large identifiable object with the judge sitting at it. On one side is the jury, and facing the judge are the counsel tables. It is familiar and understandable. In a situation like this you have a great deal of leeway in crossing the line without creating confusion. Another example would be rock climbers ascending a cliff. You can jump to the other side and no one is going to misunderstand what happened.Blain BrownSo what do you think? When is breaking the line appropriate?

What are some films that successfully break this convention?

Excerpted from Cinematography: Theory and Practice Second Edition by Blain Brown, © 2011 Taylor & Francis Group. All rights reserved.

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1 Comment
   Bob said on October 13, 2011 at 6:16 pm

The worst example of this is “The Right Stuff”, where the Bell X-1 is breaking the sound barrier. It is shown going from left to right and right to left, repeatedly. That was awful. The plane would have had to have turned around every 10 seconds, but it had to have been goine in the same direction to build up speed to break the sound barrier. Bad editing.

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