Editing – Breaking the 180-degree rule (Part 3)

In part 3, we will see that inverting characters’ positions on screen by breaking the 180-degree rule is a common way to bring out a shift in power between opposing characters. The temporary loss of bearings it causes on the audience’s side is also very frequently used to describe minor to major turning points in a story.


Change of power

Very close to the ‘surrounding’ effect of crossing the action plane is the ‘change of power’ effect, when the ‘victim’ takes over the situation. Because breaking the 180-degree rule inverts characters’ positions on screen, the ‘weak’ swaps places with the ‘strong’, effectively shifting power at least visually. In Wanted (T. Bekmambetov, 2008), the camera switches sides of the action plane to bring out how Fox forces a dangerous proposal on her boss with a nod of her head to help Wesley overcome his repeated failures. In Battle Royale (K. Fukasaku, 2000), Haruka is fed up with Satomi threatening her team with a gun. The camera crosses the action plane as she decides to switch roles and accuse the accuser.


Minor turnarounds

More generally, a breach of the 180-degree rule can be a signal sent out to the audience that a scene is taking an unexpected turn. In Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides (R. Marshall, 2011), Jack Sparrow learns from Gibbs that an impostor impersonating him is reportedly being recruiting a crew in town. The camera crosses the action plane the moment Jack fully realizes the situation, so that the audience feels a ‘turnaround’ — in every sense of the word. In Sleepy Hollow (T. Burton, 1999), Ichabod Crane realizes that the hooded silhouette he was about to shoot is none other than his girlfriend Katrina who followed him to give him a helping hand. Again, the camera crosses the action plane to make the audience feel a sudden ‘turnaround’ in their relationship.

Breaking the 180-degree rule to highlight unexpected twists in the story is common place in movies. In The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring (P. Jackson, 2001), when Sauron breaks the sword of Isildur’s father, the camera crosses the action plane to outline the hopelessness of the situation. On the other hand, such 180-degree-rule breaches are not always synonymous of tragedy, as proven by the following excerpt from Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Q. Tarantino, 2003), when ‘The Bride’ — bored with killing Yakuzas — sends the last of the ‘Crazy 88’ off with a spanking. Switching sides of the action plane changes our perspective on the events, which is conducive to reconsidering the action.


Major turning points

Now when a twist in the story is so dramatic that it really turns the tide, you really want to break the 180-degree rule conspicuously to ensure that the audience deeply feels a turning point. In Spartacus (S. Kubrick, 1960), when Marcellus — the head of the Capuan School of Gladiators — decides to make an example of Spartacus, the camera explicitly changes sides of the action plane to make it clear that the story has reached a critical stage. In Pulp Fiction (Q. Tarantino, 1994), when Jules scuppers Ringo’s and Yolanda’s robbery of a restaurant and turns the situation around, the camera explicitly switches sides of the action plane to emphasize one of the most important twist in the story: Jules is not going to kill them, he wants to help them. He has become …’good’.

Turning points in a story frequently relate to a change of mindset of a character, and breaking the 180-degree rule fleshes out that change. In The Bourne Identity (D. Liman, 2002), the camera abruptly switches sides of the action plane the moment Bourne realizes that Marie is in love with him, which will dramatically change both their relationship and the story. In Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (N. Oshima, 1983), Jack Celliers has decided to challenge the authority of Captain Yonoi — the young Japanese camp commandant — at a personal level. The camera crosses the action plane conspicuously to question Celliers’s sanity as he seems to act as though he wanted to force Yonoi to kill him.

All the examples we came across so far seem to demonstrate that turnarounds are always shot relatively close to characters — from Mid Shots to Close-Ups — so that the audience can see their faces reacting. But breaking the 180-degree rule works perfectly with long descriptive shots too, as in Cliffhanger (R. Harlin, 1993), when Gabe throws the money Qualen demands into the chopper blades. The ‘turnaround’ effect is caused by a temporary loss of bearings on the audience’s side. It’s definitely not just related to characters’ attitudes or facial expressions.


What’s up?

In part 3, we saw how inverting character positions on screen — by breaking the 180-degree rule — could outline an implicit shift in power, as well as all sorts of minor and major twists in the story.

But the real ‘into-your-faceness’ of breaking the 180-degree rule is yet to come. See you in part 4.


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