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The “180 Degree Rule” and Why You Shouldn’t Care

Did you break the “180 Degree Rule” when you shot your exercise “50 Ways to Shoot My Daughter Doing Homework”?  Not that it matters because the video looks great, but did you?

–Sohail

The “180 Degree rule” suggests that you must keep all your cameras on the same side of an imaginary line between you and your actors when shooting. Imagine a circle split in half– the cameras go on one side of the split, the action on the other–  hence, 180 degrees. If you “cross the line” with your cameras, the audience may be confused when characters appear to move suddenly from the right to left side of the screen.

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 (witness, for example, the stunningly layered digital transitions in The Life of Pi) 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.  While which side of the line you’re on is still something to consider when shooting coverage in narrative film and TV, it’s not the “rule” it once was– see Tarantino, Paul Greengrass, and many others for examples of how to break it.

I generally don’t worry about it at all in documentary, most commercials, or reality TV.

So, yes–  I WAAAYY broke the “180 degree rule” while shooting this exercise, and you should too when you try it.

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12 thoughts on “The “180 Degree Rule” and Why You Shouldn’t Care

  1. So you don't think that when your subject is walking left to right down the street and you violate the 180 rule so all the sudden they're walking right to left and then you do it again, that doesn't confuse the audience?

    What about a performance where the pianist is seated at a grand piano playing? If you violate the 180 rule, she'll be facing one way in one frame and then in the next (assuming a cut) she's facing the other way, but she hasn't moved at all. That's not confusing?

    I'm sincerly asking because I think it is, but as a videographer I can get too close and notice too much.

    I agree that a lot of films (especially action sequences) don't require strict adherance, but I've see so many novices violate it and it made me feel ill at ease and I knew why.

    Paul

    • I’m not saying you have to ignore the 180 Degree rule– I’m saying you can if you want to. This is more my personal reaction to the idea of this (or any video advice) as a “rule”. Deciding such changes are jarring– or deciding they work for YOUR audience– is up to you as the videographer.

      If you watch the video on this post, it’s not visually confusing at all even though there are lots of 180 violations. Admittedly it’s not a super-exciting narrative sequence, but it works.

      Understanding the 180 Degree rule makes you a better shooter. Slavish adherence may limit your creativity. If you’re “too close” to your video and want to experiment a bit, try picking up your camera and shooting whatever’s going on around you. As an exercise, try intentionally screwing with this rule as you shoot and see what you learn.

      • I guess we agree then. People who understand rules can break them for good reasons. I just wouldn't under some circumstances without those reasons. I didn't understand that you were saying, "break the rule if you know why you're doing it." I thought you were saying, "Don't even consider it in the list of things you think of." Those are, of course, different.

  2. This was more of an exercise than a finished piece wasn't it? It shows there is more than one way to shoot something, forcing you to think of new ways of seeing something. I found this exercise to be a real eye opener and me start thinking differently on how to approach on camera angles.

    This was my take on it: http://youtu.be/0rnMU9TyF9g

  3. Hi Steve, I think the most important thing about the 180 Degree rule is first understanding it, so you then can see where it works to break it, and where it doesn't. Shooting interactions between people where they are supposed to be looking at each other, but aren't, because the shooter didn't know any better, is not good. Seeing cutaways of news crews at a Press Conference where the line has been crossed and it looks like the cameras are pointing away from the subject is not good. One of the most difficult scene I have shot was a Boardroom table with about ten people sitting around it. Different people interacted with each other at different times so it was critical to know where the Line was changing to for each of the interactions and where it would be for the next part of the script. Important for the right people to be looking at each other when talking to each other. I do agree though that for a lot of things now, it is not as important as it used to be. Music videos have made us able to accept just about anything. Do jump cuts matter anymore? The ease that anyone can shoot anything, and cut it to a piece of music without knowing much at all, I think will be a limit to how far they will go in the industry if that is their desire. I think knowing all the [old] rules helps you to know what you are seeing and what makes it work. Then you can break all the rules and still make an exceptional story. Love your work by the way

  4. You have to know what the rules are and why they work first in order to break them later. I think your post does a disservice to people who are just learning to shoot video and tell stories visually. And I wouldn't hold up the video you posted as an example on how you can break the 180-degree rule and it doesn't matter. If you were showing a piece of narrative video that actually tells some kind of story, and the 180-degree rule is broken in the process, that's one thing. The video you posted is merely a collection of shots edited together with no rhyme or reason behind them. One shot does not motivate the next. So if you're using that video as an example of rule-breaking "Video That Doesn't Suck," then I think you are cheating beginning videographers.

    I'm not trying to be negative here or put down your video work or your teaching. But I do think that if you're going to build a site around the idea of creating "better" video… than you should be held to a higher standard than you've displayed here.

    • I see your point, Bob, and I’ve responded to some of it above (see “Paul”). But your comment did make me think about where people are in their learning process since, as you point out, this is about teaching. So here’s my thinking about the 180 rule as applied to “levels of expertise”.

      Novices shouldn’t worry about the 180 degree rule at all. Novices aren’t doing multiple takes of the same scene and don’t know much about editing, which means there are many more important things for them to be learning. I guess I have to disagree with you about “cheating beginning videographers” because for me this rule is waaaay not in the first 10 things you need to know to shoot great video. For real beginners, it’s a jargony distraction.

      Pros who know and adhere to the rule should consider whether they’ve played enough with breaking it– rules and art are not always friends. There is much more latitude in modern narrative filmmaking than there was even 10 years ago. Plus it’s just fun to mix things up. Finding ways you enjoy breaking the rules will make you a more artful shooter.

      Everyone in between should at some point, when they need it, learn the rule. Then they should break it whenever it works for them.

      Hmmm. Now that I think about it, this is the way I feel about MOST “rules” about art.

  5. I have to agree with Bob, your video is merely a collage of a single subject or character that is well established at a kitchen table, the only shot that really confuses or disorients is the upside down overhead shot at the 1:38 mark and IMHO is the only shot that truely breaks the rule in your video given the context of the visual story, it is the one shot that detracts from the entire presentation and is a good example of why the 180 degree rule is important to understand in visual storytelling, in this case the rule applies to the orientation of the camera.

    • It's Life of Pi, not Life of Pie. Big difference there, haha. As for your question, yes, it does in some scenes. However this is done by professionals in a very professional manner, and I wouldn't try to imitate it.

  6. The 180 degree rule is intended mostly for dialoue between two characters or direction of travel, this video isnt even eligible as an example as it's not even a video it's thinking/composition exercise. An excellent one, but still not apples to apples. This could be done with a still camera even.
    Great book, btw.

  7. The argument would be better if followed by examples of successful breaking of the rule.

    If the video that follows is intended as such, I don’t think it’s a good example, as it has no dialog. It would perhaps be an example if followed by a dialog after a few of those crazy/nonsensical camera/angle changes, so the viewer is more set-up to expect such inconsistencies as style. Kind of an “MTV” vibe.

    The rule not being used in improvised situations (reality tv, documentaries, live TV) isn’t also a good argument to not have it in more carefully crafted pieces over which you have more control over all aspects of production.

    People viewing may not be dumb. But it’s surely an odd moment if a person in profile looking to the left is talking to someone, who answers in an identical frame, also looking to the left, as if they were both looking at the same direction in a way, when they really were facing each other. Or if one of them suddenly appears in a close-up as if “looking” to a different direction. The viewer will just take half a second or less to understand. But it does interfere with the readability.

    So “forget the rule” is somewhat akin to “don’t worry about all this grammer ortography and spelling stuff in your bookz. Ppl arent dumb alot of ppl understand this nowadays write books just as i wrote this pargraph it would tototally by okayz, LOL”

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