Screen direction is perhaps one of the most confusing yet easily remedied problems in directing a video production.
We are often tempted to place our cameras so that we get the cool background behind our talent as they move through the landscape. However, sometimes when we move the camera, we inadvertently change the direction the talent is looking. In this column, we will take a look at the 180-degree rule, continuity, cutting on action, camera and talent movement and basic blocking. Never again will you have to resort to the age-old trick of reversing the image because the talent is looking in the wrong direction.
The 180-degree Rule
Some call it the “Motion Vector Line,” some call it the “Sagittal Plane Rule,” and still others call it the “line of action.” But most in the film world know it as the 180 Rule. What is it? The rule that will always serve you well to make sure your talent is always looking or moving in the right direction on the screen. It works like this: If you have two people talking or an object moving in a specific direction, draw an imaginary line through them in the direction they are looking (see Figure 1). By making sure your camera never leaves the 180 degrees of space on the one side of the line, you can be sure your subject will always be looking or moving in the same screen direction. If you are taping a conversation between two people, make sure the camera never crosses the imaginary line that runs through them. If you stay on the same side, your talent will always be looking towards each other. If, however, you cross the 180 line, they will both be looking in the same direction (see Figure 2).
When shooting a parade, a race, a chase or any other movement that has a specific direction, always make sure your cameras stay on the same side of the action. If you decide to shoot the basketball game from the home side of the court, all of your cameras have to be on that side so that you don’t have the players making baskets in their opponent’s goals. The only way around this is to make sure you put a graphic on the screen that says “reverse angle.” If you are taping a car chase, decide if you want to shoot the chase from the passenger or driver’s side of the cars and do not deviate from that plan, no matter how cool the background looks at various locations. The instant you decide to switch sides, the cars will no longer be chasing each other; they will be crashing into each other or running away from each other! Not a good outcome to the chase! If you are taping an actor chasing another, decide if you want to tape from the left or right side and again, stick to it. Just imagine how hard it would have been for the cowboys to catch the cows if you shot the cowboys from their left side and the cows on the right. They would eventually meet in China!
The 180 can be very confusing sometimes because, when we tape actors and other talent, they are often in motion. Just keep in mind that the camera has to stay on the same side when focusing on two people, and you will be OK. To move the 180 line, you have to physically move the camera during the shot so that the audience recognizes the change in position. You can also shoot a direction-neutral shot where the talent looks directly into the camera or, in the case of a car chase, the car comes right at the camera (see Figure 3).
One of the reasons the 180 Rule is so important is that it gives you a sense of continuity. Your audience must always feel like they are watching a moment in time that unfolds in a continuous direction. Thus the idea of continuity: maintaining a sense that time, distance and objects continue through time in a logical way. If the car was moving from the left to right side of the screen and was rushing away from a following police car, you wouldn’t suddenly show it moving from the right to left unless it was planning on ramming the police car! You must be consistent to maintain this idea of a continuous time.
Cutting on Action
Cutting on action is one of the best ways to maintain the feeling of movement through time and maintaining screen direction and continuity. When editing, it is always best to cut as the talent does something – not as they are getting ready to do something or have already finished the action. If they are sitting, make the cut as they are on their way down, not while they are still standing. Cutting on the action will also hide the cut because the movement of your talent will distract the viewer from the hard cut. Cutting on action also lets you do a very interesting thing called a parallel cut. This is a cut between two similar actions yet involves two different subjects in two different places. For instance, say your subject is a boyfriend going to meet his girlfriend. He walks through a door; she gets into an elevator. You shoot him from the left and her from the right to give the feeling that they are moving towards each other. Cutting as he opens his door and her elevator door closes gives you two similar actions and speeds the action along. The 180 Rule, screen direction and cutting on action work together to bring these two together!
Camera and Talent Movement and Blocking
Blocking is the term used to describe how the director moves his cameras and actors during a scene. Sometimes it is a very sophisticated dance, especially if you are using dollies or Steadicams. When you block your actors and cameras, you must always keep in mind the 180 Rule and screen direction. Build a sense of the acting space in your audience’s mind and maintain that space. If a door is to the actors’ right when the scene begins, it should always be to their right unless they turn around. This may seem like a simple thing to do, but if you move the camera to the opposite side of their 180 line, the door will suddenly be on their left. Use an establishing shot at the beginning of a scene to help place the location of the actors in the audience’s mind, and then maintain that orientation by always maintaining screen direction. If an actor moves, make sure you see the movement in at least a medium shot, so that you can see the background change and see that there is a change in orientation. This can be a bit confusing. For example, say you have an actor coming down a flight of stairs. You shoot him from the top of the stairs from his right side as he begins to descend, but you then shoot from the left side as he got to the bottom, because you liked the background that was on his right side. He would suddenly change direction in the editing suite. Make sure when you block your camera and actors that the camera operator knows what side of the actors the camera should stay on, unless the action changes direction and the actor at some point comes right at the camera or moves directly away. However, you can always move the camera around the subject over the course of the same shot, giving your audience an opportunity to readjust to the new space that you have just created.
To maintain screen direction, talent movement and camera blocking; moving at an angle toward or away from the camera is much better than moving from side to side in front of the camera. Television is a two-dimensional medium, and it is always your job as a director to help create the feeling of a three-dimensional space by moving onto and out of the screen.
Your stories will flow much better and make significantly more sense to your audience when you control and maintain screen direction.
Robert G. Nulph, Ph.D., is an independent video/film producer/director and teaches video production courses at the college level.
Side Bar: Go west, young man!
This mantra was often repeated in the days of the expansion west towards California. When you set up your shots and the action is supposed to go in a very specific direction, such as the movement west, make sure you keep in mind the screen direction of your subjects. If you want them to move towards the west, you have to tape them so that they are moving from the right to left side of the screen. All the maps in the world have the west on the left side. Think of the screen as a map. If the subject says they have to go west, they move to the left; east, they move to the right side of the screen. If they are watching a sunset, they should be looking off to screen left; sunrise, screen right.