If you’re a filmmaker of any kind, you need to know the rules of cinema. Understanding these rules give you control over your imagery, and allows you to connect with your viewer on a professional level, but they can be difficult to wrap your head around, and even harder to master.

Don’t worry. We’ve put together the definitive guide to the earliest rule students learn in film school…

180 degree rule.

1

Follow The 180 Degree Rule

Orient the Viewer

1.1  WHAT IS THE 180 DEGREE RULE

Why is the 180 degree rule important?

One of the first things taught in film school is the 180 degree line.

It’s a helpful jumping off point because it introduces you to a practical rule of cinema, and invites you to think visually.

Let’s jump right in, and get you caught up on one of the most important rules to know for any type of video production. It will help make your next video look as professional as possible.

180 DEGREE RULE Definition

What is the 180 degree rule in film?

The 180 degree rule is a filmmaking guideline for spatial relations between two characters on screen. The 180 rule sets an imaginary axis, or eye line, between two characters or between a character and an object. By keeping the camera on one side of this imaginary axis, the characters maintain the same left/right relationship to each other, keeping the space of the scene orderly and easy to follow.

When the camera jumps over the invisible axis, this is known as crossing the line or breaking the line, and it can produce a disorienting and distracting effect on a viewer.

What does the 180 degree rule do?

  • Follow the rule to establish orientation.
  • Break the rule to disorient the viewer.
  • Bend the rule to achieve both. 

1.2  180 DEGREE RULE IN VIDEO PRODUCTION

How to follow the 180 degree rule

The rule states that once you’ve established your line, you must then decide which side of the line you will place each subsequent camera setup.

In short, you need to keep your camera on the same side of “The Line.”

Otherwise, you’ve crossed the line.

Here is a set of screenshots from Heat, directed by Michael Mann.

The 180 degree line runs across the table through Pacino to De Niro…

Watch the video, but pay attention to their eyes:

Following 180 Degree Rule in Heat

Pacino looks camera right.

De Niro looks camera left.

Do this so that the viewer can keep a sense of orientation during the scene.

Some films and filmmakers have elected to keep the camera on the same side of the line for every scene in their feature films.

This level of consistency is fantastic, and those films surely benefit from such ruthless attention to detail, but it is not necessary for every story.

There are even moments where you can benefit from breaking or bending the 180 degree rule, and while these moments are up to interpretation, the feeling a line breaks generates should inform your decision. If it doesn’t, you may be wasting cinematic energy.

2

Break The 180 Degree Rule

Disorient the Viewer

2.1  BREAKING THE 180 DEGREE RULE

Breaking the line (aka "crossing the line")

When you break the 180 degree line, you break the 180 degree rule and signal to the viewer that something is wrong.

You’d better be doing this intentionally.

It’s subtle when compared to similar cinematic techniques, but that nuance can be rather welcome in scenes that are intended to set up a jarring moment later in your script.

Here is a set of screenshots from 25th hour, directed by Spike Lee.

The line runs across the room through Norton to the Detective played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.

Look at their eyes:

Breaking the 180 Degree Line in 25th Hour

Ed Norton is looking camera left

Isiah Whitlock Jr. is also looking camera left.

Our protagonist is surprised by a drugs bust. This is an unexpected moment, and it doesn’t make sense in the character’s mind. He thinks, “Why would the DEA be at my house?”

This situation is chaotic, and Spike Lee illustrates it by effectively breaking the 180 degree rule.

It’s worth mentioning that the composition of these shots are different as well. The shot size on the Whitlock Jr. is somewhere between a close up and a medium close up, whereas the shot on Ed Norton is a medium shot at a low angle.

2.2  Crossing the Line with Purpose

Films that break the 180 degree rule intentionally

You’re probably trying to think of a few times in popular films and television where the director broke the 180 degree rule on purpose.

Crossing the line in Hulk

Here is a small list a few popular films that do it well:

  • The Shining
  • Requiem for a Dream
  • Do the Right Thing
  • American Beauty
  • 25th Hour
  • Hulk

3

Bend The 180 Degree Rule

Realign The Viewer

3.1  BENDING THE LINE EFFECTIVELY

Bend the 180 degree rule

Now you know how to follow the 180 degree rule.

You also know how to break the 180 degree rule.

It’s time to learn how to bend it.

NEUTRAL SHOT

This is a shot directly on top of the line.

When you do this, your line resets because there is no longer a side of the line. A good example of this is a shot that is directly behind an actor’s head — or straight on their face.

Neutral shot for line-bend in Ocean’s Eleven

The shot on Reuben is a neutral shot, and instead of using a POV for the reverse, Soderbergh elects to place his camera on the right side of the line.  

CAMERA MOVEMENT

This is where we physically see the camera move across the line during an uninterrupted shot within a scene.

The viewer is aware of when we cross the line, and their orientation within the scene is maintained — carried over from the previous 180 degree line.

Camera movement for line-bend in Heat

Using a line bend like this is a great way to signal to a viewer that something has slowly changed, and it is one of the more visible line bends because it takes place in real time.

CUTAWAYS

This is when you cut away from your actors to a shot that has no established orientation, thus resetting the 180 degree line.

Cutaways are useful for many reasons, so you may end up planning for one during your scene without even realizing you could follow it up with a line change.

What is this? Hockey?

Cutaway for line-bend in Her

The 180 degree rule is like any other rule in the world...

It’s there to protect you!

But on a closed course, with trained professionals, breaking this rule can give you unique and amazing results.

3.2  EYE LINE MATCH

Manage scenes with multiple eye lines

If you find yourself filming a scene with a group of characters, it helps to think of your set as though it were a stage play, with the camera placed in the audience.

The same line that separates the viewer from the performers is the same line you will use to maintain a constant screen direction.

Multiple eye lines in Heat

You can go past this line, and attempt to establish individual lines between each character, but each time you do this you will amplify the degree of difficulty for maintaining a consistent orientation throughout the scene.

If you keep your camera setups “in the seats,” you’ll be able to maintain a single line. Consider how your blocking can help here as well.

3.3  MOVING OBJECTS & VEHICLES

Manage vehicles and moving objects

The 180 degree rule is important for dialogue scenes, but it’s absolutely vital for scenes with a character or object travelling through frame.

If your car is driving from right to left…

When you cut, both the car and the characters should be moving in a consistent screen direction — otherwise it’ll look like we’re headed back to where we came from.

Screen direction in Dumb & Dumber

You’ll notice in the clip above how the screen direction is maintained from Nebraska to Aspen, and this helps the audience establish orientation over great distances.

UP NEXT

The Fourth Wall: How to Break the Wall for Impact

Congratulations! Now you understand the 180 degree rule. You can follow it like a pro. You know how, and why, to break it by crossing the line. You also have some tools to help you bend the 180 degree rule. 

StudioBinder’s shot list features helps you plan your eye line breaks and bends. You can use production notes to keep your rule breaks organized.

180 Degree Rule - Crossing the Line Film - Shot List - Shot List Feature - StudioBinder Management Software

Breaking the line on purpose? Make it clear with a "setup" banner in StudioBinder

The 180 degree rule is just the beginning.

Check out our article on The Fourth Wall: How to Break the Wall for Impact. 

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Up Next: The Fourth Wall: How to Break The Wall for Impact → 

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