Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The 180 Rule and When to Break It

The 180 degree rule is the most basic rule in filmmaking. There is a really good short primer on it here (thanks wikipedia!). I will attempt to explain it briefly for those who are unfamiliar with the rule, but mostly I want to talk about the fact that live action filmmakers break it occasionally, while in animated films (at least in my experience at Disney) it is considered a big taboo. On most of the animated films I've worked on it would never even be considered as a remote possibility, and I think that is too bad, because sometimes breaking the 180 rule can result in a better visual impact and can also enable you to get a great reaction shot that you couldn't get otherwise.

Okay, first a simple explanation: if you have two characters talking, draw an imaginary line between them. Now the rule states that you need to keep the camera on one side of that line and never cross over to the other side.

You can put the camera anywhere you want as long as you don't cross the line to the other side of the two characters. This way, no matter what shots you have, you can cut them together in any order and the green character will always stay on the right side of the frame and the blue character will always stay on the left.

If you break this rule and shoot one shot from the other side of the line, the characters will be flopped: the blue guy is now on the right and the green guy is on the left.

This can confuse the audience because, for example, if the characters look similar, they may start to get the two people mixed up. Or they may think that the characters switched places between cuts, or they may think it's a time jump to a different location at a later time or something. It can cause unnecessary confusion in the audience's mind, and we always want to avoid that.

The problem becomes even more apparent when you're doing a scene where people are in action. For example, when a character is running, you want to consider the path they're traveling along as the line that you don't want to cross. Obviously, if you shoot from the other side the line, the character will look like he's going the opposite direction.

If you start to cut these two different shots together you will create a lot of confusion: did the character turn around and start running back the other way? Or is it two characters running towards each other and they're going to collide?

That's why you'll notice that - especially in animated movies - a destination is always kept to one side of the screen or the other and the character is always traveling that way. A good example is in Disney's "Bolt" - Bolt is traveling from New York to Los Angeles and he is always traveling towards screen left. All of us Americans grew up looking at maps of the US with NY on the right hand side and LA on the left so this inherently makes sense to us and it helps keep us clear that he's always traveling towards his goal and not suddenly turning around and heading back towards the East Coast.

So anyway there you go. Probably obvious stuff for everybody...

...but I bring it up because sometimes there are good reasons to break the 180 rule. For a complete discussion of continuity and how to maintain it or break it effectively, I recommend "The Five C's of Cinematography" or "Film Directing: Shot By Shot".

Here's an online clip from the second "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie which has two good examples of breaking the 180 rule. Mild spoilers ahead, I guess...

The first one is when this giant wheel breaks free from it's mounting and goes rolling down a hill. Now as far as the path of action on something like this, it would have to be assumed to be the path that the wheel is traveling. So if you take a shot from one side and then cut it against a shot from the other side, it would look like the wheel was rolling from left to right and then from right to left - two different directions. Right?

At 3:22, you'll notice that there is first a shot from one side of the wheel of the wheel breaking free and starting to roll from the left to the right

And then, two shots later there's a shot from the other side, of the wheel starting to roll from screen right to screen left

So clearly these shots break our 180 degree rule. The wheel appears to be going one direction, and then the other. But I like the use of both angles here and I think it works just fine. It clearly shows that the wheel has broken loose on both sides and is now rolling free. Also having two different shots of it starting to roll allows the filmmaker to extend that moment of breaking free for greater emphasis. Also cutting from one angle to another that are opposites like that creates contrast and makes for an exciting and dynamic cut.

There's no possibility for confusion here, because we know there is only one giant wheel in the story at this point, and it couldn't possibly be two different wheels breaking free and rolling towards each other. So I think the "breaking" of the 180 rule here is totally fine. There's really not much risk of the viewer being confused by these cuts.

The other breaking of the 180 rule here happens in the same clip around 4:15. I think that the filmmakers made another smart choice to break the rule here.

Here are the shots, in order:

And here is a diagram showing where the camera is for each shot.

So the "line of Action" is the red line between E (for Elizabeth Swann) and P and R (Pintel and Rigetti, the pirates, and yes, I'm a nerd for knowing their names). Now when the wheel enters, most people that I've worked with would play it safe and say that you should just stay where the camera is in set up (1), that is, just have our foreground characters stop and watch as the wheel rolls through the scene, and then have them go back to their fight with each other all in one continuous shot in setup (1).

But I don't think that's nearly as interesting or entertaining as cutting around to see their faces and register their shock as they take in this unusual sight. So I think the cut around to the other side is warranted and justifiable and adds to the scene. Also the addition of cuts breaks the action into a longer, more extended beat which lasts longer and "milks" the funny moment better than if it just rolled through the one shot.

One smart thing that makes the jump around to the other side work pretty well is that when the camera goes around we only see closeups of the character's faces. That's good because if we saw all three of them in one shot it would throw us off because they would be switching sides of the screen with each other.

But here's where I would have done it a little differently: I would have eliminated shot (5) and rearranged shots (3) and (4).

Here's why: in the first shot, which is (1) and (2), you're back behind them as the wheel, chased by Jack, starts to roll into the background of the scene. Then you jump to shot (4) of Jack running (instead of 3).

This might be better progression because you're cutting closer to the action of the wheel and Jack, and it might feel like a more natural cut to go to Jack running than going to Elizabeth's face. Jack is running the right way, so you haven't really "crossed the line" yet, but by virtue of the camera jumping closer to the action, then if you cut right to (3) and (6) it feels like the camera has first jumped closer to Jack, and then swung around to look at Elizabeth and then the pirates, instead of going back and forth across the line, which is what it feels like in the finished film. So here's what it would look like:

My version has the disadvantage of cutting from Elizabeth to the pirates and back to Elizabeth, which some might say feels weird to see Elizabeth twice in shots so close together, but I don't think that would bother me in actual practice. If it were possible I would probably combine both of Elizabeth's close-ups into one shot (the latter one) for simplicity and to keep it from getting too "cutty". Obviously Gore Verbinski is an awesome director and I'm not saying my version is "better" at all, it's just my own personal preference, based on what I've done before and what I think works better from my own experience and taste. If nothing else hopefully you'll get something out of seeing the two contrasting versions and deciding for yourself what works and what doesn't or you. Run your eyes across the film version and then my version and see what feels better to you. There are many other possibilities for schot order and I'm sure many of them would work great too.

Okay, is everyone confused now? Probably! Sorry. I tried to be clear but....yeech. It's a hard topic to write about and not the most interesting one, I admit! If you're confused leave a comment and I'll try to clarify for you.

There's nothing wrong with my Disney colleague's tendency to keep the screen direction consistent and not to want to experiment with it too much. It's totally understandable - unlike a live-action set, we can't make a physical line on the floor and keep our camera on one physical side of it. Our "lines of action" exist in our minds only, and we don't have physical actors to point the camera at either! Our "actors" exist in the theoretical world and so a lot of care must be taken to make them consistent from scene to scene and artist to artist. All of our shots pass through many departments and the easiest way to organize screen direction simply and consistently to minimize confusion. I just sometimes wish we could take a look at this rule and ask ourselves if we might gain something by setting it aside from time to time. I always want our animated movies to have as sophisticated a visual language as our live-action counterparts.

Okay, so what's the point of all this?

I guess I would say that this nicely fits within my (constantly repeated) philosophy that you should get to know the rules (whether it's filmmaking or drawing). Then as you gain experience and knowledge, you can choose to break the rules, using your experience as a guide to tell you when it's worth it to break the rules - what are you gaining, and what are you losing by breaking this rule or that rule? Too many times people don't have the patience to learn the rules (or principles or guidelines, if you prefer those terms) and they end up breaking all of them all the time, either out of ignorance that the rules exist or a desire to be rebellious for the sheer sake of being rebellious. Our limitations exist for a reason, they are our framework and guide, and if you don't know the rules, then I would say how can you know if you are breaking them?


Alan said...

TV Coverage of soccer never breaks the 180 rule either... probably for reasons you state (and possibly to limit the chances of bad refereeing to be noticed!)

Jazzy said...

You turned off google ads?

David Cousens said...

Thanks for the analysys, it helps to know there are reasons to break these rules sometimes.

Also, well done on explaining an awkward subject so well :)

Thanks, as always,

andreas schuster said...

yeah, thanks from me as well!
ill print it out and read it on the train back home!

szy said...

Great post! Very well explained and nice to see you recommended too fabulous books on the subject.

I'm sorry to say that while the first example makes complete sense the second one doesn't work for me. It confuses me jumping from 7 (Elizabeth looking left) to 8 (looking right).

The problem is that they jumped the line on 6 (Pintel and Rigetti looking at each other) in respect to the giant wheel but not to the characters since both keep they position on the screen. So they maintain the characters line on 7 (Elizabeth is facing the pirates) but break the line with the wheel on 8.

I guess it's not that terrible because of the fast editing, but that fraction of a second I'm puzzled.

joris said...

I've always found this one of the most interesting rules (to break) in film making. It's one of the things that makes film so different from other art forms, so I like to play with it too.

I liked your analysis and re-cut, good food for thought. But in the end I decided I like the original better. I shall explain why..

Jack is thrown on the ground before we cut to E,P and R. Then the pirates on the wheel pass by (1,2), and we see E's puzzled face, she looks slightly to screen right (so not following the direction of the wheel)(3), and it's revealed to us that Jack is actually still in the race too (4).
I like it that they break up the action for two reasons: First of all, it makes it more clear that Jack joined again after being thrown off. Secondly, I like it how it sort of gives a summery of this bizarre situation. There's not only pirates on a wheel... nope.. there's one running behind it too! For me, it makes the action funnier...

Also, on the problem what szy says. It kept me puzzled first too. But then I figured, the fact that they pass the line from shot 7 to 8 is sort of as if they're back in business again. The whole wheel thing kept everyone confused and allowed a little area to pause and play, but now it's between E and R&P again, so we jump back all the way to where we started... by crossing the line, there's more emphasize on the fact that they not care about the wheel anymore and the fight between them is on again...

But that's just my 2 cents! I liked the analysis given here, and really enjoy this subject!

Adam Barteluk said...

Thanks for yet another interesting point of view. I was interested to see your breakdown of the scene with Elizabeth and the two pirates. I agree that it would be nice to see this employed in animation and was wondering if there is an animated film you could break down like this and show how you might break the 180 rule. I think it might help to see it's practical uses in animation.

Daan Velsink, said...

Great read!

I agree with Joris. The way the scene is cut it's milking the comedy of two guys on a wheel and then a third running behind it even more. Plus I don't find the editing puzzling at all because of the use of close-ups at the time the line is crossed.

I have more trouble with the short intercut scene (4 shots) of the wheel starting at 7:33. Especially with the last shot (7:36) it feels as if the wheel is rolling away from the action on the beach. Yet a few shots later it blasts onto said locale full throttle. I think I would've probaply flipped that last shot in post.

Thanks. I'm staying tuned for more.

Psychotime said...

Cool! I learned something today!

Neill said...

And I don't see the 180 rule as being crossed in that example. You never get a shot of Elizabeth and the the two pirates reversed. All those characters maintain their relationships. Even on the close ups. The reaction shots maintain the 180 rule.

Graham Ross said...

Great example of using the tool of the 180 degree line. Speilberg breaks the line all the time too, but he does it using an object as an anchor for the scene.

For example, he'll have an object like a desk or a lamp in the shot. The audience will unconsciously use that as a point of reference for all shots within the given scene, so you can break the line all you want.

Hope that makes sense ;)

Elliot Cowan said...

Nice examination.
Where I'm from we call it Crossing The Line, which is very dramatic.

Ryan Cole said...

Personally I wouldn't have cut shot 5: I find it the funniest part of the sequence, to see Jack running after the wheel in a wide shot, it makes his actions look puny and even adorable.

Regardless though, I get your meaning: it be more reasonable to treat the rule of 180 as more of a...guideline.


schuga said...

I wouldn't call the wheel bit a breaking of the rule: As soon as the wheel appears in shot and all the heads turn there, a new line of action is established. Now we can cut along that line, which is perfectly fine. As a storyboarder, when I find the need to cut around, I try to introduce something the character can look at to establish a new line.
A line of action isn't static through a sequence. It changes with the interactions of the characters.
It's only at the end of the 'wheel interruption' when E turns back to the boys (7) to (8) that the cut jumps. It looks like she's just looked behind her.. But then it's a nice introduction of the sea monsters who are approaching from there. a few shots later.

Does that make sense?

mark kennedy said...

Ha, when I tried to respond to all the comments, it said my comment was too long (over 4,000 characters!)

So, in two responses!

Alan- Good point! That's very true. They don't break the 180 rule in any sport, because then you'd be confused about which way your team is supposed to be going.

Jazzy - Ugh, I didn't like them. They felt wrong. This blog is exactly what I want it to be and I don;t want to have to compromise about what it I turned them off.

David - thanks!!! It WAS really hard to talk about and I think I just confused some people (I always do). It's a struggle to make what I'm saying clear a lot of the time but I will keep trying.

andreas - great! Let me know what you think.

szy - okay, so by "first example" I take it you mean the wheel breaking free right? And then you're saying the whole second part doesn't work for you? I agree exactly - you've nailed the heart of the problem - you're cutting from Elizabeth looking left to her looking right (both in the movie and in my example). Your other comments are right too and that's why we never do it at Disney...just too much room for confusion. There are other ways they could have gotten around to see the reaction shots, but I tried to figure out how to talk about those ways and I think it would be really confusing...ah, maybe I will try sometime. Thanks for the great analysis (hope I interpreted you right)!

joris - thank for the comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I get what you're saying. Good points. You CAN establish a new line (especially when you introduce a new character into a scene) but I don;t think it works when it's the wheel just rolling through a scene and exiting. I think a camera move or different staging would help that transition from her looking right back to her looking left. Also a "match cut" would have helped - if she occupied the same place in the first shot as the second one.
Great thoughts thanks for sharing!

Adam - I can't think of one off the top of my head...truth be told, I was re-watching POC 2 for work reasons and noticed this bit. If I think of an animated one to talk about I will! Thanks for the comment.

Daan - yeah, you'll notice as well that in the scene where the wheel passes Elizabeth and the pirates it's headed to the right. Then in the spot you're talking about it's rolling through the jungle towards the left and then rolls into the water going towards the right. Huh? It's confusing. Screen direction can definitely make you lose your mind while you're boarding. But the bigger mess you make the worse of a time the layout guys have trying to lay it out, so it's important. Keeping it simple and consistent is always the best approach!

mark kennedy said...

...and part two:

Psychotime - cool! Glad you're not confused!!! Thanks for letting me know it was helpful!

Neill - Thanks for the comment. Personally, I disagree. When you cut from Elizabeth looking left to her looking right, clearly there's a jump across the line. I think there are ways to do it, but to me this is a jump that could be smoother.

Graham - yes, totally makes sense, I kept thinking about that...the more you create a sense of space with landmarks within the space, the easier it is for the audience to stay oriented as to where they are in space. I was trying to add that to the post...maybe I will next time. Thanks for the comment!

Elliot - yeah we call it that too! Sounds scary, right? Thanks for the comment.

Ryan - yeah, it's all about choices...I get your point. Smaller and further away is always funnier, right? Thanks for the comment!

Shuga - I get what you're sying, yes..when a new character or element is introduced into a scene you have a new line established, that's very true. That's where this one gets tricky and maybe isn't the best example. Personally I think the wheel rolling through the scene isn't in the shot long enough to warrant a new line. It just leaves too quickly. It's a personal thing, and like I said it jumps out at me because we would never do it at Disney so I'm sensitive to it. If we DID do it at Disney we would do it in a different way, so as not to have Elizabeth looking one way, and then the other, you're right, that's the real jump here. Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

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Amanda Gil said...

This post just inspired and encouraged me a lot. I don't know what for yet, but someday what I understood today will come back to me, I know it.

I just love the way you explain things and either i feel like learning or not, if i start reading i just can't stop. I hope this blog to last forever :D

Will Finn said...

Bruce Block, in his excellent book and seminars on composing pictures for the screen, points out that the 180 rule is often broken to create a shift in emphasis from the main point of the scene, to something critically important.

I think there is a moment like this in MULAN, where the avalanche is happening and a short , critical dialog beat with Mu Shu switches to the reverse angle with no problem at all. It helps the exposition be discreet from the action.

Of course, it is important to edit the switchover carefully, often centering the action during the end and start frames of the transitional shots.

skarab said...

I think in general it's safe to cross the line in the middle of a scene if it's for closeup reaction shots. It has to be done carefully but it's always possible, often necessary. Thanks for a very informative post.

E. Will said...

Great post! We called this "crossing the axis" in my storyboard class. I believe the rule applies to comics as well, but when is it appropriate to break it there? I haven't quite figured that out yet...

mark kennedy said...

Hey Anon - Glad you liked the post so much and that you're so passionate about the subject (I am too)! More to come on this topic.....

Amanda - I am really, really glad that the post helped out and, frankly, that it even made sense to people. I will do my best to keep at the blogging thing. Thanks so much for the kind comment!

Will - yes, good points, there are so many ways to do anything, and those are good pointers. I am going to try and write a bit more about this topic. I will try and look for that bit in Mulan if I can, thanks for the heads-up.

Gerry - that seems like the best reason in general to cross the line. It's funny, though, I find that crossing the line is easier when you're out wide because it allows the viewer to remain more oriented when they can see more of the environment. But there are so many ways to do it...thanks for the comment!

E. Will - yes, it applies to comics too and for the same types of instances...again, it's all about just trying it sometimes when it's for a good reason, and I think ultimately the rule is that as long as it doesn't confuse the audience, then it's okay...thanks for the comment!

JoBi said...

I was thinking on the rule yesterday night, watching "Heat". There is a secene in which Pacino is speaking and embracing the mother of a young hooker. Camera stills when the characters spin in front of it, but always keeping the rule.

Tim said...

Hey Mark,

As I often teach my students, the biggest reason for the 180 rule is not to confuse your audience, unless you mean to. Keep them oriented (or disorient them purposefully).

If you watch "Law & Order" or "CSI", they regularly criss-cross back and forth over the 180 in the interrogation room scenes - without going to a neutral shot first. Yet, we are not disoriented. They will often choose specific beats and cut on the action to help us. But it works.

In the PotC scene you cited, one reason it still works is that, as soon as the wheel enters the shot, a new 180 is drawn simply because a new character entered the scene. And the editor chose a key point to cross the 180 as Elizabeth is turning her head. They cut on the action so the audience follows the orientation seamlessly.

Hope this help de-confuse a confusing topic about maintaining clarity.

(Also, some other films that maintain screen direction throughout the story are: "Lawrence of Arabia", "Mulan" (Mulan always travels to the right, the Huns always travel to the Left until they meet at the Tung-Shao Pass). "Lord of the Rings" (Frodo & the Fellowship always travel right as long as they are heading to Mount Doom. They only go left if they are side tracked.)

Virgil said...

nooooooooooo, don't switch 3 and 4!........ it flows better to have E's reaction in 2 and then cut to her face in 3. and I think it's a nicer balance and contrast overall.

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star said...

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Sam Nielson said...

Awesome post and great comments, too! When I was doing cinematics for games (the story moments between game play), I was always terrified to cross the line of action because the story moments were so short. We even hired a second unit director as a consultant and he had some great suggestions that included crossing the line or establishing a new line, and I couldn't bring myself to implement them because I was so worried about confusing people (even though his ideas were clearly superior to what we ended up with!). It was my first and last opportunity to direct anything film related, and I still regret being so uptight. This explanation helps ease my unfounded anxiety.

In other news, the last couple comments give me an idea on how you can generate revenue. Have you considered a job as a spam bot, posting assorted foreign shady sites on random blogs?
Seriously though, if you translated this blog into a book, even a cheaply made one, I would pay $100 for it. Get three or four people like me and you could afford a low-grade laptop!

Neil said...

Nice post. Just so you're aware, a study I reviewed here actually tested the 180º rule and didn't find any cognitive deficit from violating it (there's also a good critique of the study in the comments).

They only tested the left-right orientation kind, not the direction of motion kind you elaborate on here though. Just thought I'd throw that out there in case you're interested!

Heather Dixon said...

Excellent breakdown! One of the best explanations I think I have seen. Thanks!

TheZealot said...

As many have said, orientation is key. And though Neil mentioned research in this area, I think the real key here is... okay, I'm making this word up, but here it is: holographic navigation. The audience is watching a 4d space (3d + time) that is taking place inside their heads, guided by the filmmakers' establishment of rules. Though it is more abstract, I would say that the better you establish a scene, it's dimensions, and so on, the more freedom you have to move the camera around. Your POTC shot order does well at establishing the location of the characters and the situation of the wheel, then shows them both unexpectedly in the same shot, then Jack on the wheel alone (might be considered the 'neutral shot' - where it's okay to break the 180 after) then shows the characters from the near-POV from the wheel. It kind of works in your head, in the navigational sense.
(Baz Luhrman, BTW, is crazy with 180º edits, esp. in Moulin Rouge! But it matches his crazy, contrasting style.)

Jane said...

As a young artist who enjoys art immensely, I have to say thank you. This is probably one of the best art blogs I have found, if not the best. I have learned a lot and I come back to read all the time. I appreciate your postings and your dedication to this blog.

tagskie said...

hi.. just dropping by here... have a nice day!

intergalactic said...

Hi Mark,

Thank you for such a great breakdown on jumping the line. I've developed an understanding of screen direction a little late in my carer but since I'm not a traditional story artist it wasn't something that I was thought doing 3d layout. But I do have a question for you, would you say that screen direction should be considered something completely different than screen space? Say a character is established on the right of the screen and continues right to left. However if we cut from say a wide est. shot to a medium cu where the character is favoring the left of screen. Basically having been established on the right of the screen would you say a character is often best suited to continue being on the right in each shot or even neutral instead of ever being on the left? Sorry if that is a confusing mess.

Bottom line is this, is there such a thing as "screen space" or is it all just screen direction??

Thanks again for all your hard work on this blog, it's really wonderful of you to share.


Fred Cline said...

OK Mark, now you've really crossed the line!

Dietrich Magnus said...

Nice post.
Lets see gladiator.
When they fight in the coloseum, they always break the 180 rule. Why? Because they want to irritate the audience in those scene for several reasons. To make it more interesting, to seperate it from dialog-scenes, to give those fight scenes a deeper meaning with camera-work

warren said...

Hiya Mark,

Howabout a post about flipping the axis but using eye tracking to smooth it out?

Animated example: Family Dog (Brad Bird dir.) When the dog is thrown out of the house by the thieves, he skids down the walkway, turns and runs back up to the door, which is slammed in his face.

Jesse M said...

Shot my first short film this weekend... I was very conscious of the 180 degree rule for most of it, and then, for one scene, I forgot and shot all my reactions and close-ups across the line from my master shot!

The scene is a conversation between two characters, one facing toward the camera, one facing away from it, each looking sideways at the other. It's also going to have some cuts to a flashback while one of the characters speaks.

It was a simple scene to shoot, but it will be complex to edit. The complexity might give me a little more flexibility to make the shots work across the line... but it also means I'm going to have to be very careful not to make it a massive confusing mess.

Thanks for the informative post on the subject. Reading about it makes me more confident that I can make it work!

intergalactic said...

Flop it!