What is… the 180° rule?

The 180° rule is a principle of film making that allows the viewer to better understand spatial relationships between characters and their surroundings. Obviously, there are very few proper ‘rules’ in film making, and as such the 180° rule is more of a basic guideline.

Here’s a (hopefully) simple explanation: A line (imaginary, of course) connects characters, and by keeping the camera on one side of that line throughout the scene, the viewer will better understand the characters’ spatial relationships, even if they don’t always appear on screen or we don’t see a wide shot of the scene. It is probably most helpful during conversations between two characters; it will keep one person talking from what appears the left side of the room and the other from the right.

If this rule is not adhered to and the camera doesn’t stay on one side of the line, it is known as jumping or crossing the line. Using the conversation example again, jumping the line would result in both characters appearing to be talking from the same side rather than looking at each other. Here’s a delightful little diagram to illustrate the idea…

Screen-Shot-2012-08-28-at-11.29.00-PM

The 180° rule is essential for a style of editing called continuity editing, making a smooth series of events from what is essentially a collection of separate shots. However, it is not uncommon for directors to jump the line, and there are various reasons why they might do this. They might jump the line to create a sense of disorientation and confusion in the audience, perhaps in a dream sequence or to show someone going insane. It could also simply be a purposeful disregard for standard cinematic practice, such as during Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave classic À bout de souffle.

Another possible use is to show an integral link between two characters, suggesting that as they appear to be talking to and from both sides of a room, that they are similar or the same. This would support the jumping the line in the bathroom scene in The Shining with Jack Torrence and Delbert Grady, and also during Batman’s interrogation of The Joker in The Dark Knight. However, one of the most obvious examples is during The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers where Gollum shows his dual personality by talking to ‘himself’. This example is essentially done by jumping the line, giving the impression that there are actually two Gollums. Watch the video below for a little reminder…

Of course, a director may have myriad reasons for jumping the line, and it is only really a ‘rule’ in certain circumstances. It helps to create the shot reverses shot of a conversation but it’s probably not necessary in situations such as people sitting in a car as it’s abundantly clear the spatial relationships between the characters and their surroundings.

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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49 thoughts on “What is… the 180° rule?

  1. mettelray says:

    This brings back memories of my film semiotics class where we discussed these kind of things that create understandings and meanings for the viewers through technical choices. Such a nostalgic read for me, thank you!

  2. LOVE your blog! Very informative. Thanks!

  3. Mark Walker says:

    Excellent work again here, Chris. I often wondered about maintaining continuity and had never heard of this rule before. You’ve enlightened me, man. Cheers. 🙂

  4. theipc says:

    I really dig your posts like this – a lot!

  5. keith7198 says:

    Very nice post. I love learning new things. Now I know that there are two Gollums!!! 😉

  6. filmhipster says:

    Very cool Chris, I love learning new stuff. Especially on Monday’s. 🙂

  7. nediunedited says:

    Nice! I love the two Gollums! Great example.

    Cool stuff! 😀

  8. Nick Powell says:

    Well then. I learned something on a rather mundane Monday! Great post!

  9. ckckred says:

    Great write-up. I studied the 180 degree rule before. Another prominent example of it being broken is in Tokyo Story, which I believe is done for the reasons you’ve explained before.

  10. Garrett says:

    Awesome post. I never knew about this before.

  11. ruth says:

    I LOVE this series, Chris, I always learn something new!! Thanks for giving an example with a clip, that Gollum one is a very efficient use of this technique. I think they used it too in The Hobbit between him and Bilbo. Once again, GREAT post!

    • Thanks very much Ruth! I think you’re right about The Hobbit, I’m sure I recall a very similar scene during the Riddles in the Dark section. I’m glad you like this series, I like writing it, helps me refresh my memory over some things and learn some completely new stuff too.

  12. Cool. Love these posts.

  13. Popcorn Nights says:

    Excellent, thanks! Very informative as always Chris.

  14. jackdeth72 says:

    Hi, Terry:

    So this is your coop?…. Cool!… Very clean and user friendly!

    I also heard that you “coulda been a contendah!”

    The three camera system developed and pioneered by Desi Arnaz for television is a variant of the 180 degree rule. And it’s been around and utilized for decades. While your layout provides for optimal close ups and varying angle shots.

    Most definitely cool piece of history, there.

    • Hi Jack, welcome to the coop! Ha!

      I wasn’t aware of the three camera system or its links to the 180 degree rule so thanks for sharing that, love learning new bits and pieces. I can go away and give that a bit more research now!

      Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  15. Chris says:

    Hi Chris, just discovered your blog through your guest post over on filmhipster and love the site, particularly this series which I’ve just skimmed through the entirety of! I learnt about this rule last year while working in broadcast journalism, and it’s one of those things that’s just stuck with me ever since. Very useful to know.

    • Hey Chris, thanks for the kind words 🙂 I remember touching on the 180 degree rule during my journalism degree but didn’t really go into it in that much detail. Just shows that it’s a basic principle for just camera work in general, not just in films.

  16. Novroz says:

    this is very informative. Thanks 🙂

  17. A simple explanation is to think of how a football match is broadcast. The cameras all have to stay on the same side of the pitch so the viewer knows which team is playing in which direction.

  18. Nostra says:

    Great explanation. There is one movie where they messed this up and it really stood out to me. Check out the scene in the tent in Hanna when the two girls are talking….it’s impossible that these two are facing each other….

  19. vinnieh says:

    Great post, I recently watched and reviewed the LOTR Trilogy and that scene is still in my head.

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