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Arts & Entertainment

Understanding the 180-Degree Rule in Cinematography

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: May 13, 2020 • 2 min read

The 180-degree rule is one of the first directing rules taught in film school, but like any rule, there are scenarios where breaking it is acceptable.

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What Is the 180-Degree Rule?

In filmmaking, the 180-degree rule is a cinematography principle that establishes spatial relationships between on-screen characters. The rule states that the camera should stay on one side of an imaginary line between two characters so that each character always appears to be facing the same direction, regardless of where the camera is positioned. When you keep your camera on one side of this imaginary line, you preserve the left/right relationship of your characters and help the audience maintain a sense of visual consistency. This means that no matter what type of shot you use, the viewer still knows where everyone in the scene is located.

How to Follow the 180-Degree Rule

There are a number of ways to ensure that you consistently follow the 180-degree rule when shooting a film.

  • Storyboard your shots. Planning your shots in advance prevents you from accidentally choosing a camera position on set that breaks the 180-degree rule. Before filming, draw some basic storyboards that establish the placement of the camera and characters in each frame. For basic two-person dialogue scenes, the most common shot selections include a two-shot with both characters in the frame (which establishes your imaginary line) and then single medium close-up shots of each character from the same side of your imaginary line.
  • Block your scene, then draw an imaginary line. Once you’re on set, determine where your actors will be standing, and mentally draw your imaginary 180-degree line between them; then, choose which side of the line to shoot on.
  • Pay attention to eyeline. When cutting between single shots in a dialogue scene, you want both characters to appear as if they're facing each other. The character on the left side should face camera-right, and the character on the right side should face camera-left. This ensures that the eyeline matches. If both characters appear to be looking in the same screen direction in their single shots, it means you've broken the 180-degree rule and your eyelines won't match.
  • Establish a new line to account for moving characters. If any of your characters move across your imaginary line, cut to a wider shot that reorients the viewer to the updated positioning, and draw a new imaginary line. You can also cut away to a shot without your actors (and without any established orientation) and then establish a new line once you cut back to the actors.
  • Know that it’s acceptable to cross the line mid-shot. Cutting to a shot across the imaginary line breaks the 180-degree rule, but moving the camera during an uninterrupted shot allows you to cross the line without disorienting the audience. You can use this technique to signal that there's been an emotional shift in the scene.
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When to Break the 180-Degree Rule

Breaking the 180-degree rule is known as a "reverse cut.” The jarring nature of a reverse cut may disorient the viewer, so make sure to use reverse cuts sparingly and to communicate a specific message. For example, Spike Lee breaks the 180-degree rule in 25th Hour when Edward Norton's character is surprised by a DEA drug bust at his home. Norton is bewildered by the bedlam occurring, and the reverse cuts make the viewer experience that same disorientation.

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