The 180-degree rule is an important concept in cinematography that helps you as a filmmaker to show the action on the screen from the correct angle or point of view – to get the screen direction correct in successive shots. It’s one of the fundamental rules taught in film school, yet easy to forget in the heat of a film shoot.
What Is the 180-Degree Rule in Filmmaking?
The 180-degree rule is a filmmaking technique that creates a sense of space in the viewer’s mind. This space helps the viewer orient and understand where everything is in relation to each other and how they’re moving in that environment.
The 180 rule refers to an imaginary line – the 180-degree line – drawn between two on-screen characters: Character A and Character B, for example.
When there is only one character on-screen, then the line is imagined between the establishing shot or master shot camera placement and the character (or subject) being filmed. The director then normally chooses to position the camera for successive shots on one side or the other of this line, but not on both.
Here’s how the 180-degree line looks at its simplest in a classic dialogue scene:
As long as both the camera and the actor(s) stay on one side of this line, everything is fine. However, when either the camera or the actors move to the other side or opposite side of this line, a jump cut occurs – an abrupt change from one shot to the next, without transition – because even if the frames match and there is an angle of separation, the characters are no longer in the orientation that the audience understood to be the case.
That said, jump cuts have become more common over time, and film editing is used as part of the artistic vision (think of the Tarantino-style violence in Pulp Fiction).
If you’re going for something abstract or stylized (as many experimental filmmakers do), jumping between different perspectives can help create the disjointed feeling these artists sometimes aim for.
But for the most part, you should follow the 180-degree rule in your own work: That way, your shots will be easier for viewers to understand.
Why Use the 180-Degree Rule?
The 180-degree rule is to do with orientation and how to keep the audience engaged.
If you’re an audience member, you’ll probably notice that the characters on screen are always looking at us from the same side. This helps us understand where they’re in relation to each other and what they’re doing.
Imagine you’re watching a scene between two people and suddenly the camera switches from one side of them to the other and back again. You’d be very confused about what’s going on.
The 180-degree rule prevents this by making sure that all shots in a scene are on one side of the imaginary line so that your camera doesn’t cross the line and confuse your audience with its change of perspective!
The 180-degree rule helps the audience orient and know where the characters are in the scene. Just as your eyes scan a scene before you enter a room, the camera does the same for your audience.
What Does Crossing the Line Mean?
A filmmaker ‘crosses the line’ when he or she violates the 180-degree rule. This causes what is known as a reverse cut, a reverse angle.
When you cross the line, it looks like you’ve changed the person in your shot – but it’s not always obvious.
You can also cross the line with camera movement when you switch from one side of your character to the other, or when your character is on one side of their environment and later appears on the other side in the movie.
How to Use the 180-Degree Rule?
A director shouldn’t switch camera placement without being acutely aware of precisely where the line is.
This can be very tricky when there is a lot of movement and several characters in a scene – for example, in battle scenes with lots of mid shots.
However, there are cases where breaking this rule will enhance your scene rather than detract from it.
For example, if there are tracking shots where someone walks past another character while they’re talking to each other, it’s necessary to maintain continuity without breaking the visual flow (or otherwise making things confusing). The line can be crossed because the audience is there with the character continuously as he or she does it.
In action sequences like fight scenes or car chases, it can also be useful to break this rule to quickly switch between points of view without running out of space to show more detail about what’s happening in those fast-paced moments.
This kind of montage deliberately uses jump cuts, and often relies on buffer shots and cutting rhythm to get the scene to work in editing.
How to Follow the 180 Degree-Rule While Shooting?
Here are a couple of ways you can establish the line when shooting:
- Marker – If on a stage, use some chalk to mark the line, then keep all your shots on one side or the other of it.
- Laser Pointer – the laser will help you visualize your 180-degree line before you take the shot.
- Storyboard the scene you plan to shoot – this will help determine camera placement on set.
- Block the scene on camera before shooting it, especially if your characters will be moving. Keep in mind you can do this with stand-ins before the main talent arrives on set.
- Use re-establishing shots when movement happens across the line. Either wide shots or buffer shots will get you out of trouble in editing. It’s all about enabling the audience to understand the spatial relationships of the characters.
So When Don’t You Follow The 180-Degree Rule? (When You Want to Break It!)
As a rule, you should follow the 180-degree rule whenever possible. But when don’t you? You’d be surprised how often you don’t!
In some cases, breaking the 180-degree rule can work well, such as in horror films where you’re trying to confuse your audience.
It’s okay to break the 180-degree rule when you want to create a confusing effect. For example, if your characters get into a car accident in one scene. This can make your movie more exciting and surprising because the audience sees something they wouldn’t normally see. In this sense, breaking the line functions like a spatial-movement version of a Dutch angle.
Another way to break with the 180-degree rule is if you want to use jump cuts. Jump cuts are used when there’s a sharp cut between two scenes that are similar but differ just enough to suggest movement or a time jump.
The 180-Degree Rule in Documentary Filmmaking
In the world of documentary filmmaking, it’s more common for the 180-degree rule to be broken when trying to capture reality.
The reason for this is that in documentaries, the filmmakers have less control over their shots and often don’t have the time to select shots in such a way that they can get away with the 180-degree rule.
What you can do is to ensure that your reverse shots stay on the right side of the line – especially in interview or dialogue setups.
You can ensure that the eye-lines look good by filming over the shoulder of each participant with the camera placed just alongside (but on the correct side of) the line. In an interview setup, try using a longer lens and have the head of the interviewer just next to the camera lens.
The 180-Degree Rule When Filming Dialog
The 180-degree rule is especially important when you’re filming dialog scenes. If you’re filming a scene where one character is talking to another character and then the subject changes, you must keep the camera on the same side of the 180-degree line. Otherwise, it looks like they’re talking to different people.
The 180-Degree Rule in a Multi-Camera Setup
If you’re using multiple cameras, it can still be difficult to apply the 180-degree rule correctly. That’s because it’s easy to lose track of which camera you’re watching on the monitor or which camera you’re shooting with.
One tip is to mark the cameras and adjust the monitor so you know which camera you’re looking at when you look at the screen. Another tip is to plan in advance where each camera will be placed for each shot, and check this after each shot to make sure nothing has moved or changed.
Also, remember that the 180-degree rule applies as soon as the scene begins. Make sure everything is aligned correctly, and keep track of which side of the axis line each character is on in each scene and between shots!
The 180-Degree Rule When Filming People Having Dinner
If you’re filming a scene where people are sitting across from each other at the table, it can be very difficult to keep the camera on one side of the 180-degree line.
Especially if you’ve multiple cameras and multiple camera operators, switching sides of the 180-degree line can look like a completely different shot.
One solution is to use buffer shots. You can cut from the dinner shots to B-roll or dialog taking place somewhere else in the room before cutting back to dinner from the other side of the 180-degree line. But even if you want to do all the dinner shots in one long take, there are ways to switch sides without breaking this important rule.
Why the 180-Degree Rule Can Be Hard to Follow
The hardest thing about the 180-degree rule is that it can be easily forgotten, especially by inexperienced directors. Your film production will not thank you if you do!
When you look through the viewfinder, you only see the characters and the scene. You don’t see how your camera angle interrupts their space or interferes with their movement in it. And if you’re moving your camera along with them, as in a tracking shot, it’s easy to follow the action and not think about where they’re going before they get there.
Another tricky element is when a character starts a movement that requires multiple shots, such as walking across a room, picking something up, and walking again. In these cases, we must be careful that the camera doesn’t cross the character’s path when cutting between shots because that would cause an obvious continuity error.
These situations can be even more difficult when you’re shooting with a handheld camera because the shot is unstable and you’ve to take multiple shots without repositioning yourself on set (which isn’t always possible).