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Breaking the 180 Degree Rule

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 12/29/2009

Learn how and when to break the 180 degree rule.

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    Another Video Principle

    The film and video format is guided by central principles that inhabit our entire tradition. Many of these visual aesthetic guidelines that are follow hail from earlier works of art, with those being inspired by the natural sense of perception between the eye and the brain. Our sense of motion in relation to space gives us a general area of where events are taking place in relation to each other, and it is with that mental geography that we are able to relate to a film image and absolve ourselves to it.

    The 180 degree rule is one that marks the medium perfectly as it defines the sense of perspective the audience has. Filmmakers should never abandon the 180 rule as a basic principle of digital video production as it is an important guide post for viewability, but all rules should be broken when so inspired. Here are a few ways that you can break the 180 degree rule once you have mastered it.

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    Break Continuity

    The 180 degree rule is usually included so as to maintain continuity of direction and content in a scene. The 180 degree rule states that there is a straight axis within a shot ranging from right to left. As shots are cut together with coverage you must maintain the sense of direction that you have in your scene.

    For example, if you have two people talking and one character is looking directly to their left in their close up it is important to have the other character looking right. If a character walks to the right they have to also be looking in the same direction. You do not jump over this 180 degree line during the shot as this will confuse the audience.

    If you would like to willingly usher in that sense of spatial confusion you can do this easily. Shoot the scene from several different angles and then compile it during the non-linear video editing process without regard to screen direction. Instead focus on the performances or quality of framing. Find the elements that are most important to you and do not consider any visual continuity. As long as the break from the 180 degree rule is profound enough you should be able to usher in a complete disconnect to spatial reality for the viewer.

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    Motion and Space

    The 180 degree rule is perfect at communicating a real sense of space, but if you want to over realize the movement and areas that are part of the frame then you may want to break the 180 degree rule. Breaking the 180 rule can be a great start to creating a sense of deep movement and space that were not possible because of your material conditions. With this you can give the visual illusion that a long open space was crossed, that there are more people there than there are, and turn a small living room into a large dance hall.

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    Common Perspective

    Often times you will have to break the 180 degree axis simply to get the perspective you need. Many different perspectives are natural to the viewer because they appear in their lives. These shots can be interspersed easier with those following the 180 degree rule, even though they may not. For example, if you switch from a car driving to the left to a shot of the driver looking to the left in the side mirror you will technically be breaking the 180 degree rule. This will not be as unsettling, however, to the audience that is watching it in comparison to other break shots.