Editing – The 180-degree rule (Part 2)

As we have seen in part 1, the 180-degree rule is based on two kinds of action planes: ‘directional’ and ‘relational’ planes. Keeping the camera on the same side of those planes during a scene brings a sense of spatial consistency to the shots, even when characters don’t or remotely relate to each other, which leads to a number of creative storytelling effects.


Remote relationships

The 180-degree rule is such a powerful tool that it can bring spatial consistency to any character configuration on screen, even if they don’t physically relate to each other. For example, a dialog on the phone can be edited like a regular dialog so that the characters look as if they were facing each other. This approach reinforces the characters’ relationship visually by establishing a fictitious action plane passing through both interlocutors, as in the following excerpt from Moonrise Kingdom (W. Anderson, 2012).

In keeping with the 180-degree rule, dialogs on the phone offer more freedom than regular dialogs as characters don’t really share the same space. In The Shining (S. Kubrick, 1980), Wendy and the Ranger are both framed at the center of the screen — almost on top of each other — as they communicate, to emphasize their closeness (by contrast with the growing distance between Wendy and her husband). Things get even trickier in Thelma & Louise (R. Scott, 1991), when Thelma and her husband are displayed almost back to back as she tries to communicate with him. Just because the 180-degree rule holds the camera on the same side of the action plane doesn’t mean that you are prevented from playing with its ‘side effects’ (read more in ‘off-centered characters’ series).


Converging and chasing

Maintaining the camera on the same side of the action plane is also an efficient way to suggest that characters are converging or chasing one another. In the two following excerpts from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (S. Leone, 1966) and Wanted (T. Bekmambetov, 2008), having characters moving in opposite directions on screen makes it clear they are about to meet, even if no wide shot shows it clearly.

This sense of convergence/divergence can even be induced by the 180-degree rule. In Young Sherlock Holmes (B. Levinson, 1985), having both groups of characters moving in opposite screen directions makes us feel their convergence. Although totally unrelated, the two directional action planes seem to coincide, which induces a strong sense of convergence. In The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring (P. Jackson, 2001), Arwen doesn’t know that she is being chased until she and we realize that other riders go the same direction on screen. In both cases, the feeling of a chase is induced by the 180-degree rule. We feel it before the characters actually meet in one same shot.


Forcing spatial consistency

Many creative storytelling effects derive from the apparent spatial consistency induced by the 180-degree rule. In No Country for Old Men (J. & E. Coen, 2007), Carson is seen to exit the frame screen-right and step in the following shot in one continuous movement, but the two shots actually take place at different times and places. In Babel (A. G. Iñárritu, 2006), this effect is even pushed one step further by switching to different times, places and characters. Using analogous action planes, one action gets merged into the other in one continuous movement.

This kind of ellipses can even be used as a core storytelling technique — as opposed to a mere hinge between scenes — as in Reservoir Dogs (Q. Tarantino, 1992), when Freddy — a cop who is to infiltrate a gang — is rehearsing his cover at home, then in a wasteland as though both shots were occurring in continuity. The action plane established by the pendulum motion of the character is so strongly felt that it overcomes the change in time and location, and brings out the character’s improvements by contrast.


What’s up?

The 180-degree rule brings so much consistency to a scene that it can be used to suggest — even induce — that characters are talking to each other (in the case of a relational action plane) or moving towards each other (in the case of a directional action plane). As the audience always assumes that the camera stays on the same side of the action plane, they feel characters’ convergence/divergence simply by watching the directions they follow on screen. This sense of continuity leads to many creative storytelling effects.

So far, we have only been dealing with relatively ‘static’ action planes. Let’s now push the 180-degree rule around by allowing characters to dynamically cross the camera viewing axis.


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