Editing – Breaking the 180-degree rule (Part 4)

So far, we have limited ourselves to studying the different effects of breaking the 180-degree rule from the standpoint of the story. But storytelling is not all about the story. Crossing the action plane can also be a way of pushing the audience around and spreading a bit of panic as they struggle to find their bearings again. It may be hard to believe that it can have a soothing, uniting effect too. And yet…

 

A disturbing effect

When breaking the 180-degree rule, the audience momentarily loses their bearings, which can become quite disturbing — even scary — if they also try to keep up with fast-paced action at the same time. In Battle Royale (K. Fukasaku, 2000), the camera keeps switching sides of the directional action plane as the students rush to the windows, in order to disorient the audience and make them experience the panic of the crowd. The same effect is used in Gladiator (R. Scott, 2000), when a tiger is released from a pit of the arena. The camera switches sides of the directional action plane in the middle of the tiger’s move towards the surface to disorient and stress out the audience.

The longer the audience is kept on the same side of the action plane, the more stunning the effect. In Once Upon a Time in the West (S. Leone, 1968), a long series of static shots accustom the audience to staying on one side of the action plane, only to deliberately breach the 180-degree rule when ‘Harmonica’ opens fire. Completely disoriented for a second, the audience loses control of the action and fully undergoes its violence. In Jurassic Park (S. Spielberg, 1993), Tim gets inverted on screen from shot #4 mostly to have us accustomed to seeing him from that side of the plane, so that it’s a real shock when the camera breaks the 180-degree rule as he gets thrown backwards towards screen-right — as seen from the other side of the plane. Sounds like common sense, but disturbing effects like those need preparation.

 

Instability

Edited in a repeated pattern, this disturbing effect can support the instability of a situation, as in Fast and Furious (R. Cohen, 2001), when O’Conner helps Toretto escape police after street racing. The camera repeatedly changes sides of the directional action plane to have the car ‘switch direction’ on screen, which conveys the unsteadiness of the situation. This also works with static subjects, as in Terminator 2 – Judgment Day (J. Cameron, 1991), when John tries to raid an ATM with a supposedly homemade electronic device. The shots from the boy and the device are taken from two different sides of the relational action plane, to convey how uneasy the character feels.

This effect can be made super-conspicuous to depict the high instability of a character’s mind. In Dancer in the Dark (L. von Trier, 2000), the camera keeps switching sides of the action plane to describe Selma’s mixed feelings as she tries to withdraw from participating in a drama class with a lie — let alone the jump cuts which contribute to the effect. In Lenny (B. Fosse, 1974), the camera keeps switching sides of the relational action plane between Honey and her interviewer to bring out the mental instability of the character.

 

Soothing and uniting

Now, after all the disturbing effects we have come through since the beginning of this article, would you believe that breaking the 180-degree rule could have a soothing effect on the audience? Well, in Battle Royale (K. Fukasaku, 2000), the dialog between Noriko and Kawada is entirely edited as an alternation of shots taken from both sides of the action plane — which is supposed to be a big no-no — and it works wonderfully. Same with this dialog from Sleepy Hollow (T. Burton, 1999), when Ichabod tells Katrina how and why his mother died when he was a child. None of those dialogs are displayed following the classic ‘tennis-match’ approach where opponents — staying on opposite sides of the screen — compete to alternately draw the audience’s attention. Instead, the characters swap positions so that their faces appear at the exact same area of the screen. As a result, they look visually united. They seem to connect to each other. Moreover, the audience’s attention is only drawn to that one area, and they certainly find it more relaxing than scanning the screen like crazy during hectic action scenes. Amazing how breaking the 180-degree rule can feel so …continuous.

 

What’s up?

Isn’t it surprising how crossing the action plane can have a disturbing, even shocking, but also soothing effect on the audience, depending on the way it’s done?

To sums things up, if complying to the 180-degree-rule provides continuity and spatial consistency to a scene, then breaking the 180-degree-rule is second to none when it comes to bring discontinuity — which is equally important in movies — for a whole lot of storytelling effects.

Now that we have been acquainted to the general principles of editing, let’s get down to business and study those pesky cuts that make movies so attractive.

 

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