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Why the 180-Degree Rule Is Important

December 21, 2013 IADT General, Cinema Production 0 Comments

Why the 180-Degree Rule Is ImportantWhen we watch a scene that is a two-shot, of two characters conversing or engaging in action like a sword-fight, we notice that their screen direction remains constant. Why? Because the director has obeyed what is called the 180-degree rule. If you have two subjects facing each other in the frame, imagine that there is a 360-degree circle around them. Then in your mind, cut that circle in half, creating in your mind a "line" in the center of the circle that runs between your two subjects. That is the 180-degree line that should not be crossed by the camera.

Left Faces Right and Right Faces Left

Let's examine the conversation in a two-shot. Let's say two characters are dressed in different colored outfits.  The character on screen left is wearing green and is facing left-to-right. The character on screen right is wearing red and is facing right-to-left. The camera angle in this two-shot creates an imaginary 180-degree line going from one character to the other, a line that is not to be crossed. As long as we maintain that same screen direction, even if we cut to closeups or over-the-shoulder shots, the audience will always know who is looking at who. The camera stays on the same side of the line (and actors) for all of the intended shots, be it mid or close up.

If we violate the 180-degree rule and move the camera into the other half of the circle for one of the two closeups or over-the-shoulder shots, both characters will be facing the same direction, and the audience will think they're no longer talking to each other. If you move it for both closeups, it seems like the characters have switched spots and are now facing the other direction. This creates confusion and can pull the audience out of your story.

Sometimes the Rule Is Meant to Be Broken

When the characters themselves assume new screen directions, the characters have created a new 180-degree line, and this is okay. Let's examine the sword fight in a two-shot. Let's say the first swordsman is wearing green on the left side of the screen and the second swordsman is wearing red on the right side of the screen.  If the green swordsman shuffles to screen right position, forcing red swordsman to assume screen left position, the audience has been reoriented as to the positions of the two swordsmen, and a new line is created. Now, when we cut to closeups, we must obey the new 180-degree line that has been created by the new positions of the swordsmen.

A circular tracking camera moving around the two characters is another way to successfully break the 180-degree rule. When the camera moves around the back of one character's head, the audience becomes accustomed to the new orientation and new line because they've seen this new orientation occur all in one shot. If you cut from this wide circular tracking shot to closeups during the move, it's important that the closeup match the line of the camera's position at the time of the cut, so that the audience remains correctly oriented.

Obeying this simple rule will make your story flow smoothly and create a comfort zone for your audience to become completely immersed.

Photo credit: Flickr.

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