When to Break the 180 Degree Rule

180-degree rule – filmmaking 101, we are here to break it.

Even if you are an amateur filmmaker or someone who just started out and is unfamiliar with it, we will break it down for you. 

The 180-degree rule exists to preserve screen direction. It’s an invisible line drawn down the centre of a scene between two actors; a semi-circle extends half of a circle’s radius (or 180 degrees) around them. The rule preserves eye-line in a dialogue sequence, and, crucially, maintains screen direction (so that one character is always moving left and the other, right)

By following the 180-degree rule you establish orientation and screen direction. 

India Film Project received a lot of short films over the years where amateur filmmakers blindly follow the 180-degree rule without knowing a trick to it.

 Be it Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick, or David Fincher some of the biggest professional filmmakers, directors or cinematographers have overcome this rule creatively, making it immersive rather than jarring. 

Breaking the 180-degree rule is to disorient the viewers.

For example, in this scene from the movie 25th hour Ed Norton’s character is surprised with DEA inspection. This situation is chaotic, and Spike Lee visualizes it by breaking the 180-degree rule. Ed Norton is looking camera left, ideally by imagining a line between him and the agent, DEA agent should be looking camera right, but he is also looking camera left.

source : 25th Hour (2002)

Playing with the line

If you cross the line or you’re on the other side of the line which is prohibited according to the rule via a camera move, the viewer may feel tension and be aware that you’re doing it. This kind of transition can impact the story. 

 This is Fight Club’s inciting moments of the film. The narrator calls Tyler from a phone booth—a nearly 180-degree arc shot crosses his eye-line, and then crosses back. By talking to Tyler, the narrator is, of course, talking to himself. An arc is an elaborate, aesthetically pleasing shot that always stands out (although it has been overused, and for no reason other than that it looks pretty). By crossing his eye-line without the other character present Fincher presents in one shot a metaphor for the relationship with his “imaginary friend” Tyler Durden.

Source : Fight Club(1999)

Perspective

Many times, you as a filmmaker have to break the 180 degree axis simply to help your viewers understand change in the character’s perspective during a scene. 

For example, in the movie Requiem for a Dream, which is way darker than Fight Club. Harry (Jared Leto) visits his mother Sara, to tell her about his new booming business of dealing drugs and his girlfriend  who is an addict. In his head feeling proud, his mother sitting left, beaming and praising him, disrupted by the sound of grinding teeth. Suddenly realization comes over him that his mother is also an addict, now the character is feeling guilty i.e sudden transition of character’s perspective, the camera travels in a swooping arc around Harry until we land with Sara seated at his right.

Source : Requiem for a Dream(2000)  

Bending the Rule

There are many times where ‘breaking’ the rule is not always needed, just bending it might do the job!

For example, most of the scene shot in a car. If there are two characters in the driver and passenger seat, breaking the 180 rule is not going to cause any disorientation or confusion because we have the car itself giving us the visual layout of everything 

This happens in the movie Fight Club where the conversation becomes heated, the point of view hovering just behind the two characters in the front seat where Tyler literally drives across the double-yellow line, only to have the camera jump the line with him, to the front seat.

It’s a chaotic scene, but if in the course of the action the audience feels extra lost and confused about who is who, even for a moment, that’s a win for this particular story.

Source : Fight Club(1999)

However, not all cinematographers or directors have used it for disorientation or uneasiness but also for not creating any confusion regarding the intensity of the scene or also for the dramatic purpose

In the movie, The Dark Knight, Director Christopher Nolan uses this in an astonishing scene where Batman & Joker are facing each other alone. The scene builds up to show how these two characters are fundamentally & inexorably tied to each other yet there is a clear divide between them. Every time the rule is broken, we see the camera moving in a slow and unnerving manner, revealing the opposite character from behind a character whose back is facing the lens. It signifies looking into the mirror.

But the line is crossed so often, that we begin to wonder if they are really mirror images. This sense of uneasiness about who the Joker really is and why he intends on playing with the Batman escalates setting up the rivalry.

The jumps in the axis also highlights the nonphysical battle for power between the two. The scene begins with Batman being in a superior position of the two. He is the interrogator with the Joker being the subject. But the Joker has a trick up his sleeve. He flips the conversation around in such a manner that it is the Caped Crusader who is in the vulnerable position. The confrontation turns violent and we are confused as to who the criminal is and who the supposed hero is, in this situation by the end where the 180 rule is established again.

Source : The Dark Knight  (2008)

Professional Filmmakers are trying different approach to shoot their short films for making their scene more creative. By bending or breaking the 180-Degree rule we can visualize some of the scenes of our short films better or create more visual impact and can also enable you to get a great reaction shot that we may not get otherwise.