Editing – The 30-degree rule (Part 2)

In part 1, we went through two most common infringements to the 30-degree rule and saw how to keep away from them. But is the ‘rule’ always reliable? As we will see, it is certainly not bulletproof. Sometimes, it just falls short of its objective: avoiding jump cuts. In some cases, complying to it might even not be suitable.


Error #3: The subjects are different but look the same

This is a huge pitfall in the 30-degree rule, which is sometimes very difficult to avoid. The ‘rule’ only applies to consecutive shots of the same subject, but then, how about subjects that are different indeed but look the same on screen? This issue is more frequent than you might think.

Let’s reformulate the 30-degree rule once more:

If consecutive shots remain centered on the same subject or their respective subjects look the same on screen, then either the shot scale or the viewing axis must significantly change to avoid a jump cut.

The following cut from The Lost World – Jurassic Park (S. Spielberg, 1997) feels a bit jerky because both groups look quite the same — silhouetted as they are by a strong backlight. Both shots share the same scale and viewing axis, therefore their compositions are too similar to avoid a jump cut. Conclusion: Make sure that different subjects look really different on screen so that the 30-degree rule doesn’t inadvertently apply.

However, it doesn’t take much to change the composition of same-looking subjects. For instance, the following shots of a crowd from 8 Mile (C. Hanson, 2002) have a common viewing axis, but the scale varies from shot to shot, and more importantly the subjects look different — in composition, color, shape, motion — just enough so that no jump cuts are felt. In this series of one-shots from Raiders of the Lost Ark (S. Spielberg, 1981), neither the shot scale nor viewing axis change much, but the composition of the shots and the character’s poses are different enough to avoid any confusion. In a nutshell, if the shots look different enough — whatever their subjects — no jump cuts will occur. Note: Those shots will just look like regular parallel-axis cuts.


Violating the 30-degree rule

Now the 30-degree rule — as useful as it may be — is just what it is: a guideline. It’s certainly not written in stone. Sometimes, against all odds, ‘breaking the law’ just works. In the following example from Poltergeist (T. Hooper & S. Spielberg, 1982), the two last shots are in complete violation of the 30-degree rule: same subject, very close shot scales and viewing axes. And yet, it works. Same story with the following excerpt from For a Few Dollars More (S. Leone, 1965). It definitely works, even though the change in scale is mild and the viewing axis unchanged.

This couple of shots from Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008) break both the 30-degree rule and the 180-degree rule (more on this in an upcoming article). And yet, they undeniably work well together. So yes, breaking the rules is part of the editor’s job. Sometimes, you just need to try and see.

Now we all agree that duly complying to the 30-degree rule should keep you away from jump cuts. But what if you do need jump cuts? What if you need the shots to be jerky? Pay close attention to the last two shots of those excerpts from Black Book (P. Verhoeven, 2006) and The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring (P. Jackson, 2001). They deliberately break the 30-degree rule in order to shake the audience and add a bit of chaos to the action. Jump cuts aren’t evil. They are often sought after as a means to bring more intensity to a narrative (more on this in an upcoming article). Rules are made to be broken, and so is the 30-degree rule.


The 30-degree rule: A guarantee?

Not really. There is no guarantee that slavishly complying with the 30-degree rule will save you from the big bad jump cut. In spite of their common subject and shot scale, and despite shifting the viewing axis by more 30 degrees, this couple of shots from The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers (P. Jackson, 2002) simply don’t fit together. It just feels weird. So clearly, the 30-degree rule is not bulletproof, and a good rule of thumb might be: You never know until you try. So try, and simply discard the result if it doesn’t work and try a different combination of shots (like using a different shot scale, inserting another shot (i.e. an insert) in-between, or using an establishing shot or a moving shot instead).


What’s up?

The 30-degree rule is deceptively simple. It’s not only a matter of changing the scale or viewing axis. If different subjects look the same on screen, the ‘rule’ may unexpectedly apply. Moreover, the ‘rule’ is not bulletproof. In some cases, it might just fail to avoid jump cuts. Conversely, you may not want to comply with the 30-degree rule on purpose, especially when jump cuts are suitable for specific effects.

In next article, we will run into the intricacies and details of another essential guideline: the 180-degree rule.


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