Editing – Breaking the 180-degree rule (Part 1)

Now that we have spent some time demonstrating the virtues of the 180-degree rule, let’s have it the opposite way. There are many reasons why you would want to deliberately ‘break the rule’ and step through the looking glass. Indeed, crossing the action plane between shots has a variety of important and powerful storytelling effects that you will not want to miss.


A necessity

Sometimes, you just don’t have any other choice but to break the 180-degree rule. This is especially true when some important action can’t be seen from the current side of the action plane, as in Robocop (P. Verhoeven, 1987), when the character airs his gun from the other side of the relational action plane. If the audience is ready to cross the plane to follow some concealed action, then the ‘infringement’ is likely to go unnoticed. This is what happens in Raiders of the Lost Ark (S. Spielberg, 1981), when Jones escapes a gunfire and takes refuge behind a truck. We need the camera to cross the directional action plane to be able to watch the character jump off his horse onto the truck. It looks right because we expect to switch sides, even though it breaks the 180-degree rule.

The same applies to dialogs. In this excerpt from For a Few Dollars More (S. Leone, 1965), the camera trucks back on one side of the action plane so as to frame both Monco and Fernando along with the hotel in the background. But the horse’s head is in the way, interfering with their relationship, and eventually both characters turn their faces away from us. To get a better vantage point on the dialog, the camera crosses the action plane, which breaks the 180-degree rule. But because we expect a better sight on characters’ faces, the ‘infringement’ feels natural. Another dialog from The Shining (S. Kubrick, 1980) starts up with Jack back to camera and Wendy in profile. To get a better vantage point on characters’ faces, the camera has no choice but to switch sides of the action plane and break the 180-degree rule. Because we anticipate this move, it feels natural.

Now as we saw in Editing – The 180-degree rule (Part 3), switching sides of the action plane is always significant, and the four previous examples all take advantage of this. Providing the audience with a fresh inverted sight sheds new light on the action. It forces the audience to ‘update’ their bearings, which in turn renews their interest in the ongoing events. A way to say: “Do reconsider the action! Something important is going on. It’s more serious than you think!”


Entering the arena

When dealing with one character, crossing the directional action plane is frequently done to stress that he has reached an ‘arena’, an ‘arrival place’ where something important is to happen. In the following excerpts from Full Metal Jacket (S. Kubrick, 1987) and Blade Runner (R. Scott, 1982), the first shot shows a character moving screen-right, which establishes a directional action plane. But the second shot shows that character moving screen-left as he enters a new room. By switching sides of the plane, the second camera position breaks the 180-degree rule, which instantly brings out that the character has made it to an important place, as though he was awaited there.

This is especially true when the ‘arrival place’ turns to be an impassable step, like a cliff or a window. Crossing the action plane breaks the continuity of the character’s move, which emphasizes his reaching a dead-end, as in Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides (R. Marshall, 2011), when Jack Sparrow tries to escape King George II’s palace. The most dramatic effect is achieved when the character disregards the danger and passes the threshold as in Young Sherlock Holmes (B. Levinson, 1985), when Bentley Bobster throws himself out of a window to escape a room on fire.


It’s a long road

This discontinuity in space can become a discontinuity in both time and space provided that the environment looks different enough in both shots. In Dances with Wolves (K. Costner, 1990), watching General Tide exit the frame left to right, then enter the next shot right to left not only makes the audience feel that the character has reached an ‘arrival place’, but also that both shots are not in direct continuation with each other. He might well have been riding for several minutes before finding the man he was seeking.

That kind of fragmentation of both time and space can be used in series to outline the time it takes for a character to cover a long distance. The opening credits of Silverado (L. Kasdan, 1985) are edited as a montage sequence of the main character’s journey on horseback. In Gandhi (R. Attenborough, 1982), another long montage sequence (only a part of it is presented here) shows Gandhi traveling by train across India to discover the multifaceted reality of his country. In both cases, the camera alternates from one side of the directional action plane to the other precisely to break the continuity of the shots and emphasize the duration and length of the trip.


What’s up?

There are many reasons why you would want to break the 180-degree rule. It might be necessary to cross the action plane to show some concealed action, but switching sides of the plane is also a way to warn the audience that something important — maybe baffling — is taking place. This can be used to bring out that a character has reached a ‘special place’ or a dead-end. Crossing the action plane can translate into an ellipse or series of ellipses, which emphasizes the time it takes for a character to cover a certain distance.

But the 180-degree rule can be broken much more blatantly with a variety of stunning effects. Let’s see that in part 2.


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