In a nutshell
- The 180-degree rule is a guideline that states the camera should stay behind an imaginary line drawn between characters.
- The rule helps viewers follow the action with a clear understanding of screen direction and character positioning.
- Cinematographers use various shot types and carefully composed angles to describe the action while adhering to the 180-degree rule.
Even if no one has explicitly told us, we all subconsciously know several rules of videography. The 180-degree rule is one of them.
The 180-degree rule considers the fundamental relationship of the audience at a stage play and applies it to the geography of a film set. There, the camera has replaced the audience as the general point of view, and the foreground, middle-ground and background of a scene supplant the downstage, upstage, stage right and stage left features of the traditional theater (proscenium).
Let’s break this down.
The 180-degree rule, or the director’s line, is a guideline that states the camera should stay behind an imaginary line drawn between characters.
The 180-degree rule helps to define the relationships between elements of the cinematic frame. It allows viewers to follow the action with a clear understanding of screen direction. It helps visually establish actors positioning, where they’re looking and to whom they’re speaking to.
Think of it like an imaginary boundary that extends through the set. It divides the audience’s world on one side and the performer’s world on the other. Also, the camera must never reveal a point of view of staged action that would breach the fourth wall. Think of a TV show that’s filmed before a live audience. The audience never sees themselves during the recording. The camera always remains behind the performers’ line.
During principal photography, we shoot for the edit, always mindful of the 180-degree rule. To preserve the appropriate screen direction, we record on only one side of the action.
How filmmakers apply the 180-degree
Films and television shows are typically shot out of sequence. There are many reasons that it’s better to shoot scenes out of order: weather, actor availability, location access, etc. Editors later assemble these projects in the editing process. To ensure consistency, cinematographers use the 180-degree rule. Establishing the spacial relationship of the performance aids in the flow of the edit. They do this by using a variety of carefully composed shot types to describe the action.
Let’s take a look at a few examples:
“The Honeymooners” (1955 – 1956)
When filming a scene for the 50’s TV show “The Honeymooners,” Ralph comes home, enters the apartment, greets his wife Alice and opens the dialogue. In this example, the scenescape is laid out for the cameras (aka the audience) in a wide establishing shot. Ralph enters and stands on the left side of the frame while Alice positions herself camera right. In a live performance, this is the only relationship the audience ever sees. However, TV scenes contain multiple camera angles. One camera establishes the room, while the others cover each actor during their performance. In this example, the left camera coverage follows Alice, while the right camera coverage follows Ralph. These are called raking angles. Later, these angles are cut together with the establishing shot to create a linear edit. As the editor cuts from line to line, the established relationship stays intact for the viewer.
“The Big Short” (2008)
In the scene where Jared Vennett and his team meet with Mark Baum and his financial partners to discuss the housing bubble of 2007 and the default mortgage swap concept, the film’s director, Adam McKay, follows the 180-degree rule.
Jared is captured by the camera left and stays there throughout the presentation. Mark and his team are recorded with the right camera, no matter who is talking in the scene. This helps the audience track the conversation.
Throughout the scene, the director’s line defines the boundary between the actor’s world and the viewer’s. The situation can become more complicated if the actors shift positions within the scene. If an actor crosses the frame, it can allow for a new orientation of the 180-degree line. When this happens, the actor crosses the lens, giving us a new view of the world and a different background.
The scene opens with Jared looking out the office window. The camera frames him left while he looks right. He is near the right side of the room. Before the dialogue proceeds, Jared crosses the lens to stage right–against a new background. Mark enters the frame from the right. He looks at Jared, who crosses the camera to get to the left frame. This redraws the 180-degree line and helps reframe the shot sensically to the audience.
Throughout a complex scene, with terms and analogies being thrown at the audience, the camera respects the director’s 180-degree line by never crossing to the other end of the table. The camera keeps Jared firmly framed left while Mark occupies the frame right, anchoring the geography of the scene.
These principles can be applied to any exchange between two or more characters. First, determine who the key speakers are and establish their position relative to the camera. Then, ensure you never unintentionally cross the invisible boundary between the actors and the audience.
In contemporary media
Over the past decades, our visual language has become more sophisticated. In contemporary screenplays, filmmakers use many camera angles and close-up coverage. More than ever, proper geography must be maintained using the 180-degree rule to ensure the audience keeps their sense of sight lines for dialogue or the flow of the action.
So how do filmmakers ensure they follow the 180-degree rule? Many follow storyboards. The use of storyboards can help with shot design in scenes involving different shot sizes and compositions.
Can you fix 180-degree rule offenses?
Despite our best efforts, accidents do happen. In the heat of filming, a piece of coverage can be incorrectly recorded by “jumping the line.” If reshoots are impossible, you have two options: Leave it be or try to fix it in post-production. Sometimes the offending clip goes unnoticed, but this is a risky option. Offending clips can stand out like sore thumbs. If this is the case, you can try flipping the clip if there’s no visible text. However, the lighting may reveal clues that the image is flipped. Gaffers often also follow the 180-degree rule when establishing lighting.
Is it okay to break the rule?
Is there ever a situation where crossing the line is appropriate? Only you can make that determination. Ultimately, the 180-degree rule is merely a guideline.
In “The Shining” (1980), the film’s director, Stanley Kubrick, willingly breaks the 180-degree rule. In the scene in question, the film’s protagonist, Jack, converses with the Overlook Hotel’s caretaker, Grady. The viewers question whether Jack is talking to an actual character or a ghost or if the conversation is all in his mind. Kubrick juxtaposes Jack with the chilling Grady — on both sides of the conversation — he implies that Grady is a physical manifestation of Jack’s psyche.
Drawing the line
The 180 degree-rule is something we all understand subconsciously. While your audience may not know the rule, they can surely tell when something is wrong. They may not know exactly what, but they will pick up when the 180 degree-rule isn’t followed. Recognizing what it is and being aware of it will keep you from making a simple mistake that would puzzle and unsettle your audience. Add it to your visual vocabulary, and be mindful of when it’s used or not used in movies and TV.
Contributing editors to this article include: Michael Walsh and Kyle Cassidy