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Film Editing: Understanding the 180 degree rule and then breaking it

The 180 degree rule in film editing used to be sacrosanct, but does that still hold true today? We find out with a little help from our friends.

What is the 180 degree rule in film editing?

According to the Filmmaker Glossary: The 180-degree rule of shooting and editing keeps the camera on one side of the action. As a matter of convention, the camera stays on one side of the axis of action throughout a scene; this keeps characters grounded compositionally on a particular side of the screen or frame, and keeps them looking at one another when only one character is seen onscreen at a time.

The technique allows for an expansion of the frame into the unseen space off-screen. It is referred to as a rule because the camera, when shooting two actors, must not cross over the axis of action; if it does, it risks giving the impression that the actors’ positions in the scene have been reversed.

Can you break the 180 degree rule?

Sure you can, filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Greengrass, Stanley Kubrick and Ang Lee do it all the time.

Here’s a great example of how to do it from a couple of film school students. Epic stuff!

So why was the rule created in the first place?

Director, Steve Stockman, says that “this ‘rule’ is left over from days of yore.  In the early twentieth century, when cinema was new, audiences were easily confused by film language. They needed dissolves to understand passage of time, wavy wipes and twinkly music to clarify that a character was dreaming, and long establishing sequences so audiences knew where they were.  Our modern film language would have confused the hell out of them. Times have changed.  It’s harder to confuse audiences now, and more sudden moves work on screen.”

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