(Excerpt taken from my books, "Shooting Better Movies: The Student Filmmakers' Guide", available on Amazon, and from my forthcoming book, "Making Your First Blockbuster" coming 2019)
From my years in teaching, this single thing seems to be the one aspect most students get hung up or confused about. They either don’t understand it or become overly cautious about it. One thing to remember is filmmakers break it all the time. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. The trick is to know when you should obey the rule and when it’s okay to break it. The whole point of it is to help keep orientation, but if you find your angle or edit crosses the line and breaks the rule, although your orientation is still intact, then you can let it go.
So what is it? The “line” is an imaginary line that connects two or more people and / or objects. Picture a line running from someone’s eyes to where they are looking. A bit like the picture below.
Once we have decided to set up our first angle of the coverage, which will probably be the wide, it is advisable to keep all other camera angles and setups on the same side of the line that has been established from that first wide. See camera placements below:
Now, if you decide to place the third camera position on the other side of the established line, as shown in the picture above and by position C, you’d now be crossing the line. Remember, it doesn’t matter where the characters are in relation to each other or objects when you filmed, it is what the camera sees once the scene has been edited together.
Look at the corresponding images that the camera placements will give us in our picture. The close-up from position B and the close-up from position C give us images that look the same. It appears that the woman is looking in the same direction as the man, even though she is not!
Another thing to take into account is that an actor can cross the line for you. “What?” I hear you say. Yeah, this is where you might need to pay extra attention. You may have set up the cameras correctly, but Anna is talking to Simon, and Simon gets up and walks to the door behind the camera. If Anna has been looking from the left of frame to the right during the conversion:
Then Simon gets up and moves to the door . . .
. . . and Anna’s eyeline follows him off to the left of the screen . . .
Anna has now changed the line, and the camera will find itself on the other side of it. Simon, when he gets to the door and turns to continue the conversation, will now have to look from the left to the right to match the new line made by Anna’s eyeline change.
(Left to right, or vice-versa, is described from the camera’s point of view. The person is literally looking from the left side of frame to the right.)
Crossing it can hinder a sense of momentum. In my early days as a student, we’d shoot chase scenes and cross the line all over the place and wonder why the chase didn’t feel as fast as it should. Geography helps your audience orient themselves, so don’t confuse them by bouncing your camera all over the place.
Let’s take example. Maybe we have cops chasing robbers in cars. We film a wide of the cars chasing each other from right to left (setup 1), then film the robbers as our first single also driving right to left (setup 2). Our director makes the mistake of crossing the line for the shot of the cops with them now driving left to right (setup 3). It now looks like the cops are going in the opposite direction! Maybe in the split-second blink of an eye, the robbers have somehow evaded the cops? No. Even though the cops are going in the right direction on set, it appears that they are going in the wrong direction on screen.
It is also possible to cross the line with the camera during a take. You might have a scene with two people talking. One looking right to left, the other looking left to right as normal. Then halfway through the take on one particular angle, you dolly behind the actor’s head to the other side of them. Now that actor is looking to the opposite side of the frame, and the other person in the scene must also have their coverage adjusted to accommodate this.
On a war film I shot some time ago, the schedule meant that I shot the end battle scene first with the Allies running and firing from the left side of the frame to the right. So I had the German soldiers running and firing from the right to the left. All good. Weeks later I shot the lead-up to this attack depicting the Allies getting prepared before battle. The field we filmed this in was only really picturesque from a certain angle, which meant our Allies had to run to battle . . . from the right to the left of frame, which we had already established was the way the Germans were firing during the battle. To have left things this way would have caused the edit to jar slightly, since audiences might get confused which way the Allies were running and, even worse, who was who! To match the previous shot in the field and the forthcoming battle, I needed the camera to cross the line in front of our Allies when they run in from the right, then have them run toward camera a little before heading back out of the right side of the frame. I shot a low-angle dynamic swoop in front of the first soldier, which corrected my “line” issue and added a cool shot to the movie. When finally edited with the previous footage, as the battle starts, the Allies would now run in from the left side of the frame and match my previously filmed battle shots.
Editor Walter Murch (Cold Mountain, The Godfather, Ghost), in his excellent book In the Blink of an Eye, lists six factors to make a cut or edit work. In order of importance:
5. Two-dimensional plane of screen
6. Three-dimensional space of action
What’s interesting here is that number 5 and 6, which refer to the line and orientation of where people are in the room, come in last. While not crossing the line is very important, you can let it go if other things in the scene like emotion and story are still maintained.
Sometimes the line can be reset. If a character leaves frame on the left, and the next time we see them they are walking directly toward us down the center of the frame, then they now are free to walk or look in any direction they please. If they walk or look elsewhere, maintain that newly established direction. Another occasion might be if you leave the character and cut to something else entirely. When you return to your character, you have allowed them to move on or walk into frame from a different side.
You can also cross the line for emotional impact. Look at this example (right) from the end of the film Safe House (2012) starring Ryan Reynolds. Here CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) meets with CIA director Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard) in the final scene to talk about what was in Reynolds’s report detailing the events chronicled in the film. We cut back and forth between the characters as normal but when Shepard’s character suggests something immoral and illegal, we cut to Reynold’s reaction but we cross the line in doing so. The editor had a perfectly good angle on Reynolds that we’ve previously seen, that didn’t cross the line but we do here to establish an uneasy feeling and the sense of something being wrong. The grammar of the filmmaking process is broken to help emphasize a point. Here we see how breaking the 180º rule can be put to good effect.
"Making Your First Blockbuster" is due to be released early 2019 from Michael Wiese Productions.