February 15, 2016

Left or Right? Why a Character's Lateral Movement On-Screen Matters in Film

If there's only one tenet of filmmaking you learn today, let it be that everything, everything in your film matters -- including the direction your characters are moving on-screen.

That's right. It matters whether your actors are moving right or left across the screen. Or whether your character appears on the right or left side of the screen. Or whether they are right-handed or left-handed. Why? Because -- science -- and psychology.

In the very educational video below, you'll get to learn about how different directions of character movements affect audiences the way they do, as well as why it happens.

I love this video because it touches on some very important concepts in aesthetics (basically the dictionary of mise en scène), namely spacial properties of objects, size, and movement. How does the size, movement, and placement of an object communicate to a viewer? What do they communicate?

These aesthetic theories are explored (finally, a film theory actually put through an official test) in a study conducted at Cleveland State University, in which participants were asked to, first, watch a scene where the characters' movements went from left to right, as well as from right to left, and then share how each video made them feel.

Their findings? The footage that showed right to left lateral movement made the participants feel -- bad. They responded that watching the footage made them have more negative feelings than the footage in which the lateral movement went from left to right. Why? It's not entirely or definitively clear, but if you think about it, our culture has trained our brains to view left to right movement as an indicator or progress -- of success.

Other factors play a role in how we interpret a subject's movement within a frame. For instance, there's a concept in aesthetics that defines the actual angles of lateral movement -- the lateral (L-R/R-L) movements that are either angled up toward the top of screen or down toward the bottom of the screen. These are defined as easy/hard ups/downs. They're broken down as such:

  • Left to right from top to bottom: easy down
  • Left to right from bottom to top: easy up
  • Right to left from top to bottom: hard down
  • Right to left from bottom to top: hard up

All of these things have different indications. For instance, an easy up composition would be Rocky running up the stairs during his training montage. He's powerful. He's driven. He's a good guy. He's running toward success. He's going easy up!

Now look at this image from World War Z. What's the difference? The zombies are also powerful and driven, but they're bad guys running toward the destruction of the human race. They're going hard up!

Just take some moments to look at each image. The first one inspires thoughts of progress, hope, success -- even good, altruism, and heroism. The second one inspires thoughts of antagonism, regression, hopelessness, failure, and evil. Essentially, one is positive, and one is negative. Why? Because of the direction of the lateral movement. Both images are angled up, but the one that moves from left to right is the one we consider to be positive, while the other that moves from right to left is considered negative.

Again -- why that happens is still not officially determined, but the study from Cleveland State University, which I highly suggest you take a peek at, aims to figure it out scientifically. To learn more about the role character movement plays in aesthetics, as well as how those things communicate with your audience, you can check out the CSU study here.      

Your Comment

19 Comments

Great article. Great video essay. This video might be an appropriate addition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X05TDsoSg2Y

February 15, 2016 at 8:49PM, Edited February 15, 8:49PM

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Isaiah Corey
Director of Photography
248

Nope I don't get this explanation. Does it mean in Arabic countries right to left will feel more natural?

February 15, 2016 at 11:08PM, Edited February 15, 11:07PM

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Virani
Content developer
167

That is the implication.

Personally I usually like framing movement left to right. Perhaps if I was born reading right to left I would feel otherwise.

February 16, 2016 at 1:41AM

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Andy Zou
Producer
Filmmaker / Creative Director

Yes, the meaning we give to left/right is culturally imprinted.

There was a brand of babyfood that used their add in Arabic countries.
It was a triptych
A crying baby, the baby food, a happy baby.

It was no success as it was read as: happy baby, baby food, unhappy baby...
In other words: this food makes your happy baby cry.

February 16, 2016 at 8:46AM, Edited February 16, 8:46AM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
7895

So, if this theory was applied to American politics...................?

February 16, 2016 at 6:02AM, Edited February 16, 6:02AM

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Jerry Roe
Indie filmmaker
834

Great article... I have used these principals before and never realized why lol when you learn you grow!

February 16, 2016 at 7:01AM

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Stefan Foderingham-Garraway
Director/Cinematographer
216

Left = sinister.
Sinister is Latin for left. :-p

February 16, 2016 at 2:18PM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
7895

This is unnecessary affectation .. its just a director Choice and taste ..

Heroes in Braveheart and The Last Samurai Attacking from right to left ...

February 16, 2016 at 4:02PM

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Arthur
98

Indeed they fight from right to left.

SPOILER:
and they are meeting their doom by challenging the status quo or technological progress.
(Some extra affectation ;-) )

February 17, 2016 at 5:39AM, Edited February 17, 5:39AM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
7895

:)

February 18, 2016 at 4:05PM

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Arthur
98

you better get "RIGHT" or your going to get left.

February 16, 2016 at 9:14PM

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A quickie from Every Frame a Painting on left or right in Snowpiercer: https://vimeo.com/110329961

February 17, 2016 at 2:12PM

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Nathan Taylor
Jack of all trades, master of none
263

Very interesting article. When I look at how I envisioned both versions of my screenplay, I noticed how all my camera angles and movements from right to left are when they were moving into danger, and left to right when they were escaping danger. Interesting.

February 18, 2016 at 12:23PM

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Kenn Crawford
Screenwriter
81

When I learned shooting for television some 12 years back, one of the first tips I got from an older colleague was: "only pan from right to left if you have to, or if you want to express a negative emotion. Left to right pans on the other hand evoke positive emotions in the viewer"
I always wondered if this may differ in arabic countries where people read from right to left.

February 19, 2016 at 10:09PM

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I would say another reason people didn't like the video moving left is because it was flipped. Subconsciously you would realize it's flipped and it would make you uneasy.

February 20, 2016 at 8:46AM

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Andy O'Neill
Filmmaker / Cinematographer
2370

That was really informative.
Thanks :)

February 20, 2016 at 11:45AM

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Sameir Ali
Director of Photography
109

I used to have that Raquel Welch poster too! Why's it backward?

February 24, 2016 at 6:45PM

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Edmond Deraedt
Broadcast Television Lighting Director
74

There are scenes in Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs" that uses a pan from left to right to illustrate Jobs's states of mind (or multiple personalities). When he's being mean, they cut to his face on the left side and when he's being vulnerable, the camera moves to his face on the right side.

April 14, 2016 at 3:48PM

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There are scenes in Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs" that uses a pan from left to right to illustrate Jobs's states of mind (or multiple personalities). When he's being mean, they cut to his face on the left side and when he's being vulnerable, the camera moves to his face on the right side.

April 14, 2016 at 3:51PM

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It's not clear, where it comes from, but look into the stadium, the 100-Meter-Run. In Front of the people and in every TV, they run from left to right. It's counter clockwise. On all sports, also ice skating, bicycle and even swimming, the goal is on the right side.
Think of people with bathing stuff, who cross the street. When they go from left to right, you think they are going to the beach. If they go from right to left, it doesn't mean, the beach is on the left side, it means, they coming back.

May 21, 2016 at 5:09PM

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Juergen Liebenstein
Director of Photography
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