What is screen direction in film? Why is it important? And how can it be used creatively? We’ll be answering all of these questions and providing you with everything you need to know about screen direction. We’ll get started with a comprehensive definition, then drill down deeper into the various techniques and applications associated with screen direction for film.

Camera left and right

First, a screen direction definition

Not to be confused with camera movement or blocking, screen direction is a key component of both the continuity of motion and visual storytelling.

If you encounter any unfamiliar terms, our ultimate guide to filmmaking terminology is a great resource for looking them up.

SCREEN DIRECTION DEFINITION

What is screen direction?

Screen direction, also known as camera direction, is the direction that characters and objects move in the scene in relation to the frame. In describing screen direction, you might say that a character is moving camera left vs camera right. Screen left and camera left mean the same thing in the context of screen direction. Maintaining a cohesive sense of direction is important to the clarity of a scene and for preserving the continuity of motion.

What is screen direction in film?

  • Movement of characters or objects within the frame
  • NOT camera movement
  • Followed by using the 180 degree rule

Camera left vs camera right

Why screen direction is important

Unless every character and object on screen remains motionless, screen direction will always be present. It isn’t a matter of having camera direction, it’s a matter of ensuring consistent continuity of motion. 

There are simple, technical ways to use this technique and there are more creative uses as well. Let’s start with the technical. 

The following video lesson covers the basics of screen direction.

Camera left and right  •  Simple screen direction tutorial

At its most utilitarian, camera direction is used to provide and maintain visual clarity. Poorly utilized direction can lead to confusion in the viewer. If two characters are speaking to each other from across a table, but each actor is filmed looking toward screen left, then the edited scene will not appear to show two people conversing naturally.

Proper camera direction also provides continuity of motion. If a character is walking from camera left to right in one shot, then from right to left in the very next shot within a scene in the same location, the result is jarring and confusing to the viewer. 

Camera left and right should remain consistent within a scene, unless the intent is to confuse or disorient. You can avoid any and all confusion arising from camera direction by following the 180 degree rule.

Screen direction 180 degree rule

Screen direction & the 180 degree rule

The 180 degree rule is a guide for maintaining screen direction throughout a scene. The rule supposes that an imaginary line is drawn through the middle of a scene, and the camera only shoots from one side of this line, never crossing over to the other side.

This ensures that the subject on the right side of the frame cannot inexplicably jump to the left and vice versa. Refer to our breakdown of the 180 degree rule for more information.

Our very own 180 degree rule breakdown  •  Subscribe on YouTube

The 180 degree rule can be vital to the shooting of any scene, but it is especially important in the filming of conversations and action sequences. For example, fights and shootouts can easily become confusing messes if camera direction is not paid the proper attention it deserves. And dialogue scenes can wind up feeling unnatural without sticking to the 180 degree line.

The 180 degree line is not an unbreakable rule. And it should not be viewed as limiting in any way. The 180 degree rule can be broken; the important thing to keep in mind is that the breaking of this rule should be done purposefully and carefully. There are consequences to poor camera direction but these consequences can be assuaged with proper forethought and creative planning.

Camera direction

Creative uses of screen direction

Screen direction does not need to be purely utilitarian in its usage. There are a number of creative applications for camera direction, such as using screen left and screen right to indicate the decision making process.

Camera direction  •  Left or Right

Camera direction can carry a number of psychological or subconscious effects as well. For example, the movement of a character from screen left to screen right tends to feel more natural and comfortable for audiences. So, the precise reasoning behind this is up for debate, though some suggest that this standard left-to-right movement correlates to the way we read from left to right. Countries that read from right to left notwithstanding.

By bucking this left-to-right trend, it is possible to unsettle a viewer with this simple, subconscious signal. The following video offers a study into the psychological implications of screen direction.

Left to right movement in film appears more natural to a viewer, so flipping the camera direction can yield unexpected results.

Left to right movement in film studied

Breaking the 180 degree line and disregarding the norms of screen direction can lead to a sense of disorder and chaos. But what if disorder and chaos is exactly what you are after?

If creating a sense of chaos is your goal, then breaking the traditional rules of camera direction can be a great way to achieve that goal.

Disorient with complex camera direction  •  How to Film Chaos

There are guidelines to follow for cohesive direction, but there is also plenty of flexibility for experimentation. Therefore, keep camera direction in mind when planning out your next project, and integrate a consistent screen direction straight into your storyboards. 

You can get started with StudioBinder’s storyboard creator for free. Get creative in your depiction of screen direction and have fun bending the rules.

UP NEXT

Continuity editing in film

Now that you have a full understanding of screen direction, it is the perfect time to learn about other techniques that editors use to maintain continuity. The techniques range from shot choice, the 30-degree rule, eyeline matching and many more. If your goal is to fully immerse the audience into the world of your film, these continuity techniques are necessary.

Up Next: Continuity editing →
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  • Sam Kench is an internationally-awarded screenwriter, independent filmmaker, and film critic. Lover of foreign films; hater of American remakes.

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