There’s an old adage that says that rules are meant to be broken. And in the world of film and video, this is doubly true. Every hard truth or rule about cinema has probably been broken, crossed or thrown out the window at this point. Every rule that is, except this one.
The 180-degree rule, while not completely unbreakable, is about as steadfast as they come.
But what is this rule, and why does it exist in the first place?
Let’s take a look at the 180-degree rule and clearly define what it is, how it works, and how you can use (or yes at times fudge it up) in your film and video projects.
What is the 180 degree rule?
So, what is the 180-degree rule and how does it work? Well, as far as basic definitions go, it pretty much comes down to this:
The 180-degree rule states that two characters (or more) in a scene should always have the same left/right relationship with each other.– Filmmaking Gods
The rule dictates that you draw an imaginary line between these two characters (or subjects) and try to keep your camera(s) on the same side of this 180-degree line.
If your camera crosses this line, your audience’s understanding of where the characters are and their left/right orientation will be thrown off. And unless you’re intentionally trying to exploit that, it makes things look confusing, messy and unprofessional.
How can you use the 180 degree rule in your videos?
While the 180-degree rule might be one of the more important ones in filmmaking, it’s also one of the easier ones to follow.
By definition, all you have to do is define your 180-degree line and stay true to it.
For your standard interview shoots and other simple production setups this is quite easy. Position your subject (or subjects) as you would normally within a set or a scene, then draw your 180-degree line in your head. (You can even put marks down on the floor if it helps you remember.)
From there, you’ll just want to keep your camera (or cameras) consistently on the same side of this 180-degree line. If you follow this rule, you won’t have to worry about orientation or defining left vs right in any of your shots later as they’ll all stay consistent throughout.
How to use the 180 degree rule in live streaming
Live streaming should be no different for following the 180-degree rule as well. However, depending on your setup and video needs, the rule does become harder to follow once you put your camera in-motion and move it around a set or scene.
For example, if you’re taking your live stream remote and going handheld as you follow a host or subject, you’ll want to keep your orientation as consistent as possible throughout. Still, the basic principles of the rule should remain the same. As long as you stay on the same side of your subject(s) the line will remain unbroken and your audience can keep up with what’s going on.
How to break the 180 rule (and when you should!)
Now, as mentioned above, while the 180-degree rule is indeed one of the most important ones in the world of film and video, it’s also been one which has been broken over the years. (And, as with most rules in cinema, it is indeed being broken more and more often in recent years.)
However, for every French New Wave film which intoxicates viewers with disorienting cuts and transitions, and every Michael Bay blockbuster which spins the camera around a chaotic fight scene, the rule is only being broken to help tell a greater story overall.
Intentionally breaking the 180-degree line will understandably cause confusion for any viewers trying to figure out where your subjects or characters are in relationship with other characters and the camera.
And while this effect can be manipulated for the right use within a greater narrative, it should only be done after a clear 180-degree rule has been established earlier and with the right intentions of the project at heart.
Overall, while there are indeed times where breaking the rule might be an appropriate artistic choice, for the majority of film and video projects the 180-degree rule isn’t meant to deter you. It’s merely there to help keep things clear and oriented for your audience’s — and your editor’s — sake.
More reading for aspiring filmmakers
- Your quick-and-dirty guide to 3-point lighting
- Video editing 101: Here are 6 basic tips every beginner needs to know
- How to make a commercial in 6 easy steps
- Your A-Z glossary of video terminology you should know
- Here’s how to crop a video (without even opening your laptop)