The 180-degree rule in filmmaking is a cinematography guideline that helps you with editing continuity. It’s an essential skill for every filmmaker to learn.
In short, without the 180-degree rule, your camera shots will not cut together in the editing room. So, by using and understanding this rule, you save yourself both time and money.
Continue reading if you want to learn how to use the 180-degree rule.
What is the 180-Degree Rule?
The 180-degree rule is a filmmaking technique that helps you keep track of your character’s eye line continuity. This rule mainly applies when two characters or a group speak to one another in a scene.
When you cut between one shot and another, the actor’s eye lines need to match. In simple terms, one actor can’t be looking right and another actor to the left when talking.
Check out the famous restaurant scene from Heat (1995) that demonstrates the 180-degree rule perfectly. 👌
If you ignore this rule, your shots won’t cut together in the editing room. Without it, your audience will notice the mistakes and distract them from watching the film. Even worse, if shots are too jarring and can’t be cut together, you will need to reshoot the scene. Obviously, reshooting costs a lot of money, so you should always aim to avoid this.
When you break this rule on set, you call this ‘crossing the line’.
How to Avoid Crossing the line
When you have two characters, or groups, facing each other, you create a 180-degree rule. There is now an imaginary line between each of these characters. The rule states that a camera should keep on one side of this imaginary line. If you move the camera to the other side, you have ‘crossed the line’ and therefore broken the rule.
This cinematography guideline sets the spatial relationships between characters. It lets you know how to move your camera and what shots will cut together. Even if you are just making a short film, online video, or filming events, you should follow the 180-degree rule in filmmaking.
There are a lot of ways filmmakers can avoid crossing the line which we’ll cover below.
Storyboarding is when you plan your shot choices before filming. If you are worried that a certain scene poses a risk of crossing the line, you can fully storyboard this scene. The frames will help you visualize how the scene will cut together. In particular, this is important if you are shooting VFX scenes or animation.
Blocking a scene is when you rehearse a scene on location with actors before filming. It’s standard practice on most film sets. Whilst blocking, you can pay attention to camera choices and follow the 180-degree rule in filmmaking. For event filming, it might be possible to have a camera rehearsal. Another easy technique is to take a photo of each shot on your phone to see if they cut together.
3. String Method
If you have a particularly complex scene, such as multiple eyelines or movement, you can literally draw your camera line. This was traditionally done with a string, but you can also draw on the ground with gaffer tape. The line can help you pick camera positions so you don’t break the 180-degree rule.
4. Script Supervisor
A script supervisor is responsible for continuity filming during production. This involves all aspects of continuity, from costume, make-up to lighting and camera shot choices. They also check that you haven’t crossed the line. In production, the DOP, director, camera operator, and script supervisor will all look for the 180-degree rule in filmmaking.
When in doubt, always consider the character’s eye lines. When two shots cut together, their eyelines should match. This is especially important with close-ups, head shots, and when a character is directly talking to another character. You can always draw quick storyboards during production with arrows pointing in the eyeline direction to check that they match up.
Breaking the 180-Degree Rule
Firstly, you can bend the 180-degree rule, but you must understand it first. Unless you plan to cross the line, it will look like a mistake on screen. When you break this rule, your shot becomes distracting and confusing.
Some filmmakers cross the line for stressful, chaotic, and confusing scenes. People will notice this axis change, so you need to be clever when you use it and plan in advance.
Many famous film directors have deliberately broken the 180-degree rule. You can find scene examples in films such as The Shining (1980), American Beauty (2000), and Requiem for a Dream (2001). The use of crossing the line is not an accident and has been storyboarded and planned. This rule is also used sparingly throughout the films, and only when there is a mood change.
One example is Spike Lee’s film 25th Hour (2003). In the scene below, Edward Norton’s character is woken up by police searching his house. This event is unexpected, and he is still half-asleep, so it takes him a while to process what’s happening. The lack of continuity in eyelines and the hectic choice of shots help the audience understand how the character feels.
In other examples, breaking the 180-degree rule in filmmaking creates a change of perspective or a tonal shift. For example, in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2001), the crossing of the line adds to the dark, surreal atmosphere. The characters are fighting with addiction and high throughout the film, they don’t see the world as others do.
Another technique is the blur between the line with movement. In Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), the two characters are having an uncomfortable conversation. Despite being father and daughter, they don’t see eye to eye. The use of dolly track and eyeline misplacements adds to this tense dialogue scene without slowing down the pace of the action genre.
To sum up, without the 180-degree rule in filmmaking, many dialogue scenes just won’t cut together. As a filmmaker, you should aim to understand this rule and how to avoid it during production. By avoiding continuity mistakes, you will make the editing process easier and even save money on pickups.
Better still, when you understand these rules, you can effectively break them and create more imaginative and challenging work.