A Fine Line
One of the most common problems I see with microbudget filmmakers is to break 180 degree rule. In other words, “crossing” or “jumping” the line. While the rule itself is fairly easy to understand, in application, on the set, when the pressure is on and the clock is ticking, it can become very confusing.
Some say that “the line” has become more malleable in recent years. That is certainly so in fast-paced action sequences which move so quickly that logic becomes irrelevant. But in almost any other case, to cross the line leaves a bad taste in the audiences’ mouth, and throws their heads out of the picture. Savvy movie goers will regard, at that moment, it as the work of an amateur, and they will stop caring about what they are watching.
So what is this line and why is it so important?
In any given movie scene, you, as director, must imagine a line running through the center of the action. Once a camera is placed on one side or the other of that line, it must remain on that side of the line for the rest of the scene. That means for every single shot needed to cut the sequence later.
To break this edict is to create jarring lapses in logic, pertaining to screen direction and eye-lines. A car traveling one way suddenly reverses direction. Two characters are conversing, but in their coverage, their close-ups, they both look off to frame left. Their words and emotions connect, but their eyes do not.
Wide shot and close-ups:
When the line is broken, it leaves the audience feeling uneasy. General audiences may not be able to articulate the problem, but they know something is wrong.
Keeping all this straight on a set gets confusing even in a scene with just two elements interacting. Imagine how complicated it becomes when there are a dozen or more elements to juggle. Imagine a scene in a board room with a dozen executives sitting around it, all articulating and interacting.
In the case of that example, a director would establish several lines of axis between the key speaking characters and those they interact with. The director can then change the line in mid-scene by essentially breaking the scene into many smaller scenes. However, each of these smaller scenes-within-the-scene must be set-up with some kind of master shot which shows the new relationship and establishes the new line.
If I am directing and the line becomes fuzzy or confusing to me, I will make a little overhead diagram of the scene, showing camera placement and the dotted imaginary line of axis. Then it becomes apparent if the line is being broken or not.
My older films are peppered with line-breaking incidents. They make me cringe whenever I see them now. Sometimes I have been able to fix a mistake by reversing the image in post, so that left becomes right and right becomes left. But if there is anything with writing on it in the frame – labels, posters, anything – it will be obvious what you did. So that fix is no panacea.
Don’t be like me. Don’t look back at your old films and weep. Spare yourself that future indignity. Keep your eye on the line now. Plan. Prepare. And keep an errant eye on the set.