Editing – The 180-degree rule (Part 3)

Keeping the camera on the same side of the action plane is easy when actors stay relatively still, but how about letting them move around? Whenever a subject crosses the viewing axis, the action plane shifts from one side of the camera to the other accordingly. As long as this motion looks continuous on screen, it will allow the camera to switch sides without blatantly breaking the 180-degree rule.

 

The mobile and the pivot

When a character (the ‘mobile’) paces back and forth across the screen before the eyes of a static character (the ‘pivot’), the action plane passing through both of them follows suit. As the plane rotates around the ‘pivot’, it also goes through the camera, making it switch sides without even moving. It doesn’t matter whether the ‘mobile’ moves in the foreground — as in Birdy (A. Parker, 1984) — or in both the foreground and the background alternately — as in Love Actually (R. Curtis, 2003) — the effect on the camera is the same. As long as this movement looks continuous on screen, the audience will understand the change in configuration and won’t feel it as an infringement to the 180-degree rule. In both cases, those incursions across the action plane illustrate the characters’ efforts to tackle a problem from different angles, as though they — and we — were constantly changing their/our view on the situation.

This ‘mobile-and-pivot’ game is also frequently used to visually let one character (the ‘mobile’) torment another one (the ‘pivot’) by surrounding him from all sides, as in the following excerpts from Mad Max 2 – The Road Warrior (G. Miller, 1981) and The Hitcher (R. Harmon, 1986). Switching sides only once is enough to convey a feeling of both encirclement and elusiveness. Again, as long as the character’s motion looks continuous on screen, the audience will duly adapt to the change in configuration and won’t feel it as an infringement to the 180-degree rule.

Switching sides of the action plane has another noticeable side effect: It makes the audience feel a turning point in the story. In Romancing the Stone (R. Zemeckis, 1984), letting Drogan — originally looking screen-right — cross the viewing axis to steal the booty from the heroine makes the relational action plane go through the camera. From there, we see him under a different light — he is now looking screen-left — and we instantly feel that he has a new ‘unexpected’ goal in mind. In Jaws (S. Spielberg, 1975), Quint lashes out at Hooper and angrily tosses him from one side of the screen to the other without warning, making the action plane go through the camera. This change of side brings out a turning point in the scene, as Quint suddenly turns into a physical threat to Hooper.

 

Refusing to switch sides

Letting a character cross the visual field doesn’t automatically mean that the camera has to stay on the other side of the action plane. As seen above, letting characters switch positions on screen can bear different meanings. If those meanings are unintended, the audience will get confused with mixed messages. In that case, we can merely let the camera go through the action plane again and catch up to its original side. Everything will then fall back into place in full respect of the 180-degree rule.

180-degree rule - subject crossing the viewing axis

Fig. 1: The camera is on the highlighted side of the action plane. The ‘mobile’ character then crosses the viewing axis.
Fig. 2: The camera didn’t move and is now on the ‘wrong’ side of the action plane.
Fig. 3: The camera is brought back to the highlighted side of the action plane to maintain original relationships.

The two following excerpts from Thelma & Louise (R. Scott, 1991) and The Name of the Rose (J.-J. Annaud, 1986) showcase this issue in action and solve it the same way. At first, an action plane passing through both characters is clearly defined. Then one character (the ‘mobile’) crosses the visual field in the foreground, making the action plane go through the camera. The characters’ positions get momentarily inverted on screen, but this happens only for a second, just before the camera is brought back across the action plane so that both characters get displayed again at their original relative positions on screen. Note: A couple of redundant shots have been removed from the second excerpt for the sake of brevity.

 

Camera crossing the action plane

Now the other way round. Instead of letting characters move across the visual field, we can have the camera itself go through the action plane with the same consequences on the audience as outlined before (e.g. bringing out a turning point in the story). Yet again, as long as its motion looks gradual enough on screen, the change of side will not break the 180-degree rule. In The Shining (S. Kubrick, 1980), the camera circumvents the character in two steps — so that the audience has enough time to take their bearings. This change of side highlights a most dramatic turning point in the story, as seen before. In Run Lola Run (T. Tykwer, 1998), the camera circles the characters to describe their relationship from all sides of the action plane for another dramatic turning point in the story.

 

What’s up?

Letting a character move across the screen in front of a static character makes the camera go through the action plane without breaking the 180-degree rule, which can have a number of important meanings: reconsidering a problem, surrounding a character from all sides, bringing out a sudden change in a situation or reaching a turning point in the story. The camera can then stay on the other side of the action plane, or deliberately go through it, either to stick to the original side or to trigger a change of side. None of those approaches will break the 180-degree rule provided that the movement is gradual enough.

Since action planes often come in twos (or more) at the same time, we will see how to deal with multiple, conflicting action planes in part 4.

 

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