Welcome to the Lights Film School video tutorial on the 180 degree rule and other shot sequencing tips. But before we begin we’d like to take a moment to show you our lighting setup for this tutorial. We always like to do this to remind you that you don’t need a truckload of lights and equipment to create strong compositions and well lit shots. Here we have a wide shot showing our scene. In this shot we’re only using two lights. We have an overhead practical light exposing our main character and a small kino flo in the background acting as a “rim light” and giving our background a bit of texture.
Here is how it looks in a medium shot with a third light located behind the curtain turned on. Now we’ll show you one by one what each light is doing. We’ll turn our rim light off so you can see specifically what it accomplishes in this scene…. Now we’ll turn it back on… It’s intensity is a bit too “hot” so let’s turn it back down to ensure we don’t “blow out the whites” around our subject… There we go… We still have a nice highlight around our subject but now the bright areas of the frame have been tamed.
Now we’ll turn the light behind the curtain off. And now back on again.
Now we’ll turn off the overhead lamp above the main subject. As you can see we are left with nothing other than a little rim around the subject, some light behind the curtain and a small splash of light on our background. Not quite enough for a proper exposure so let’s turn our lamp back on… There we go.
Okay, so let’s get back on topic and discuss the 180 degree rule.
First, let’s establish our scene geography by creating our “line of action”. Let’s look overhead to see how we establish this line. Here we draw a line towards the subject and the person or object they are in communication with. In this case our subject is reading a piece of paper so let’s draw our line in this direction. The 180 degree rule states the the camera cannot jump the imaginary “line of action”. This helps ensure your scene direction stays consistent and you don’t disorient your audience.
Now let’s see how it looks on the ground if we break the 180 degree rule. Notice if we change the camera position from here…. to here.. the image reverses like this… and gives the impression that the subject is talking to himself. In “Shot A” he’s looking camera left and in “Shot B” he’s looking camera right. This disorients your audience which for the most part, and of course there are exceptions, but you’ll try to avoid.
There are cases when you can jump the line of action. The most common reason would be when you need to establish a new line of action because the area of action has changed. For example, imagine a large group of people standing in a circle engage in a conversation. Let’s imagine that character “A” and “B” start talking, but then Character “D” has something to say. In this case you may need to break your initial line of action to establish a new line of action. A “master shot” at the beginning of this sequence will help your audience orient themselves to your scene geography so once you start cutting they will know approximately where the actors are positioned.
Alternatively you can jump the line of action by doing the following things:
You can insert a shot with neutral screen direction in between the other shots. The insert shot helps bridge the shots where you crossed the line of action and it will soften the impact of the otherwise jarring transition between those shots.
Some people call “insert shots” “cutaway shots”. Either way these shots should have substance and help push your story forward and not simply be used as a technical tool to break the line of action.
You can also cross the line of action during a take. This way the audience stays oriented with the geography of the scene because they are moving with the camera.
Lastly, you can also use a visual “anchor” to help you provide a reference point within your scene. For example, imagine two men standing stranded on an island. On one side of them is open ocean stretching for as far as the eye can see. On the other side of them might be dense, intimidating jungle. Again, as long as you establish a clear sense of scene geography during your master shot you may find you have more liberty to jump the line of action. That being said, if you don’t need to jump the line of action, you should try to avoid it.
What we’d like to explore now is a shooting and editing practice to help you add a little more dynamism to your shot sequences.
It’s often visually a little more interesting when you come back to a shot if there is a slight variation in it. It will often be the case that some emotional change or circumstance will motivate these visual changes. So let’s create a scenario. Lets imagine our character is face to face with his lifelong nemesis. Our character is reading his nemesis an incriminating transcript from a taped conversation from a few weeks ago. Our “shot A” establishes that our character is reading from a paper.
Notice that our “shot A” is a little bit “hot”. let’s turn down our rim light to tame the “burnt out” whites on the back of the subject’s head. That’s better.
Okay, now let’s start thinking about this shot. Why don’t we do two takes of the same shot from slightly different depth perspectives. Our first shot (Shot A) will be when our protagonist is going over the transcript for the first time. The second shot will be a close up “insert shot” showing the paper he’s looking at. The third shot will be when he looks up from the paper having discovered new information. For this third shot we want to be psychologically a little closer to the inner workings of our character so let’s punch in a little bit like this…. There…. That’s much better.
These shot choices and framing variations not only help you compliment the narrative thrust of your story, but they also ensure your editing and shooting style is dynamic and changing with your character rather than being static and lifeless. Remember, your camera needs to act as a sort of metaphor to things that are happening within your story.
Let’s run the scene once in a static fashion by keeping our shots A and C the same with an insert shot in the middle. this is how it will look.
Here we have shot A. Here we have shot B. And here we have shot C which is identical to shot A.
The shots side by side would look something like this:
But now, let’s change our “shot C” from our “shot A” to compliment the emotional change experienced within the scene. Again, here we have shot A. He’s looking through the transcripts for the first time. He finds a piece of information that troubles him. And so he hesitates.
We follow this up with “shot B” the “insert shot” when he looks down at the piece of paper.
Now as we come back to “shot C” he has new information he doesn’t yet know what to do with. He thinks… and thinks… The camera is positioned closer to him than it was in shot A to help bring the audience closer to the inner workings of his mind. This camera setup compliments the nature of the story better than the first camera setup did. The first example was far too static. The changes in the second example are subtle, but the impact is fairly dramatic. The shots side by side would look something like this:
Now let’s compare the two shot sequence options side by side.
Above is the more static example.
Below you’ll find the example that is much more dynamic.