Shooting Your Way Around the 180 Degree Rule and an Introduction to Composition Basics

As modern filmmakers, we have the benefit of hindsight in understanding what has been established in cinema, like the basics of scene coverage and shot composition. One of these shooting essentials is the 180 degree rule, which guides our coverage of a conversation between two subjects. Think of how commonly two people hold a conversation in films you've seen, and you'll have a good idea of how often the rule can apply! Read on to see how scenes can be boiled down to the most powerful imaginary measuring stick at a filmmaker's disposal, plus some more on basic shot composition and framing.

These videos come from a strong resource in the essentials, Lights Film School (also on YouTube). The video also goes into some detail about light placement and what each light source contributes to the exposure and texture of a scene:

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You may think of the one-eighty degree rule as a compass by which you can navigate the shooting of your scene and the way in which you select your coverage. Conversely, it orients the viewer to the layout of a scene, and the spatial relationship things within that scene layout have to one another (like subjects, or important objects).

Another great thing about the basics is that we can fall back on them to simplify how we're shooting and still come away with something that works. Such a 'fall-back plan' could really be a life-saver on a shoot that might have benefitted from a bit (or a lot) more pre-planning. Just as there's no scene without a shot and no shot without composition, there's no composition without the proper orientation 'the line' provides -- each exerts an influence on the others. Here's more from Lights Film School on the basics of framing:

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It's interesting to note, particularly in the first video, the way the shooter chooses to angle a 'profile' perspective of the character. The perspective moves closer to the subject in a way that emphasizes a realization (or similar character/narrative moment) when it is most effective or 'sensitive' to do so. The choice of an almost full-on profile perspective can be very dramatic, though you may find a more front-on view allows for a greater display of subtleties, like an actor's facial expression changing. It's all about what works for the moment within each unique scene, and that's always your choice, but wielding the basics may grant you a strong place to start.

Have you guys ever turned a confusing shooting situation around by getting back to the basics? When have you 'broken' the line intentionally, and to what effect?


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I found this set of tutorials some time ago and subbed their channel. They are really good.

February 10, 2013 at 4:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I wish they put up more tutorials, they're so well made and informative.

February 10, 2013 at 5:09PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Good stuff. I love a brit voice over...

February 10, 2013 at 5:11PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I found those videos like more than a year ago and they are amazing .. great narration and production of the tutorials.
planning to take some of their diplomas in the future .. seeing those videos back then made me feel good about my self, i love it :)

February 10, 2013 at 6:47PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

zohair salama

I think the 180 rule is one of the most important ones that newbies don't get. Despite what Steve Stockman says here: , I've seen audiences confused when people didn't follow it.


February 10, 2013 at 7:19PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Multiple Oscar winning editor extraordinaire Walter Murch (who literally wrote THE book on editing) famously said...

An ideal cut (for me) is the one that satisfies all the following six criteria at once:
It is true to the emotion of the moment
It advances the story
It occurs at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and "right"
It acknowledges what you might call "eye-trace" – the concern with the location and movement of the audience's focus of interest within the frame
It respects "planarity" – the grammar of three dimensions transposed by photography to two (the questions of stage-line, etc.)
It respects the three-dimensional continuity of the actual space (where people are in the room and in relation to one another).
Emotion (51%)
Story (23%)
Rhythm (10%)
Eye-trace (7%)
Two-dimensional plane of screen (5%)
Three-dimensional space of action (4%)
Emotion, at the top of the list, is the thing that you should try to preserve at all costs. If you find you have to sacrifice certain of those six things to make a cut, sacrifice your way up, item by item, from the bottom.

WALTER MURCH, In The Blink of an Eye

I think Lights Film School offer a really wonderful service. However, I often cringe when I hear people throwing around terms like the RULES of filmmaking or the RULES of screenwriting. Should someone who wants to direct a film understand the 180 degree rule? Sure, I think it would be incompetent to turn up on a set as a director and not understand it. But, I think we should also remember two things...
1. Strict adherence to this "rule" may actually damage the emotional or pictorial impact of your scene.
2. There are other ways to orient the audience in the space of the movie that don't require you to stick to the 180 degree rule. Indeed, legendary Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu (whose film Tokyo Story was voted the greatest film of all time in the Sight and Sound 2012 poll by some of the most learned and influential directors working today) famously flouted the 180 degree rule in favour of a much more intricate exploration of space which utilised a 360 degree system and exact eye-lines to orient viewers.
It would be a shame if a young filmmaker saw this post (or read one of the many books out there that purport to teach you the rules of filmmaking) and thought that the 180 degree rule was the only way to construct a scene. As filmmakers (or would be filmmakers) today we are in the unparalleled position of having access to about 110 years of cinema, often from the comfort of our own homes. As well as taking on board the filmmaking techniques of the classic Hollywood studio system we should also take note of the renegade filmmakers across cinema history; the French New Wave directors of the late 50s and 60s, the New Hollywood filmmakers of the 70s, the Russian Montage movement, Hong Kong cinema and many many more movements and filmmakers who flung all of the rules out of the window and gave us exhilarating new ideas about what forms and styles cinema can take and the content it can contain.

February 11, 2013 at 10:41AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


A great point. However, it is probably important for beginning filmmakers to get a good grasp of this. Once they've reached a level where they know the "rules" well enough to bend or break them effectively, they'll almost certainly do so.

February 22, 2013 at 8:30AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


While the 180 rule is something new filmmakers should acknowledge, it is too common to resort to over the shoulder shoots rather than telling the story with the camera. I'm definitely guilty of this and trying to break from it.

February 10, 2013 at 7:30PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Interesting thought. Do you have any examples of what you mean by "telling the story with the camera"? I watch a lot of tv and film with particular eye to the blocking and coverage selected and this point would be interesting to qualify.

February 10, 2013 at 11:25PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Haven't shot a narrative yet, just some scripted promos, music vids etc. I mostly shoot doc/reality stuff but apply these rules when ever I can. Not only does it emphasize the actions of a character, it also adds production value. Learned a while ago that well composed shot does wonders when using shitty equipment. ;)
Nice article

February 10, 2013 at 7:31PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Anthony Marino

If you are interested in a college-level breakdown of 180 and continuity...

on Dark Knight action scenes...

watch this first (by film critic Jim Emerson)

then read Joseph Kahn's response:

February 11, 2013 at 12:19AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Those guys are both clueless smart asses.

February 11, 2013 at 3:17AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Anyone done the online training course through Lights Film School? Thoughts?

February 11, 2013 at 7:38AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Hello everyone. First of all, thank you Ryan for publishing our tutorials on your site. You offer one of the best indie filmmaking resources on the web so I'm glad you found our tutorials helpful. Let me address a few of the other comments in your comment feed so far. @ maghoxfr, Xiong, Weldon and Zohair… thank you for your incredibly kind words. This type of feedback encourages us to continue to create the best tutorials we possibly can. Like the rest of our program, we've put an astronomical amount of time and effort into the creation of our online video tutorials so we're glad you appreciate them. @ Lane - Although we run one of the more popular indie filmmaking blogs online we actually don't have a large student base so in the event that nobody responds to your question I wanted to point you in the direction of a page we published where students have told us what they think about our program. You can see a few testimonials in our sidebar as well as on our page under "about" --> "testimonials".

@ Xiong you mentioned you hope we publish more tutorials. Well some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we have a great number of new tutorials planned for this year. The bad news is that we probably won't be publishing them until the spring / summer. Some of our new tutorials will include topics ranging from "how to use filters to color your images in-camera", to a really comprehensive video tutorial on "chasing the sun" which will explain in detail how to harness the beauty of natural light under a variety of different natural lighting conditions. We're really excited about the tutorials we have planned for this year. We also have an entire season worth of screenwriting tutorials planned to be published on our blog in the hopes that we can make you all better storytellers! I should also mention that we love to hear from our audience about what you want to learn. So if you have any suggestions for tutorials send them our way.

Thanks again Ryan for sharing our tutorials. And to your readers… We look forward to helping you strive towards filmmaking excellence :) If you're not familiar with our blog we can check it out by clicking our name in the comments field. Bye for now!

February 11, 2013 at 8:54AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


"a really comprehensive video tutorial on “chasing the sun” which will explain in detail how to harness the beauty of natural light under a variety of different natural lighting conditions. "

As long as it's got nothing to do with lens flares!
Man, I'd just love to watch a DSLR clip on Vimeo that didn't have a single lens flare in it.
Apart from shallow DOF, it's the most abused technique going (and over here in England, you can't move for TV adverts combing both lens flare and Scandi-grades).

Keep up the good work!

February 12, 2013 at 2:38AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Fresno Bob

Having just watched the latest Bourne-flick I was once again reminded that not only is the 180 rule important, it's also ignored to a worrying degree by even big budget filmmakers.

I would even argue that the faster your cuts. The more one should adhere to the eye-trace and 180 degree-rules. Because I love creative angles, but if I don't get the time to reorient myself it's just a frustrating mess of a constant effort to understand what I'm watching and no brain-power is left to actually enjoy the entertainment.

One other thing I have read about this and also in estethics overall between western filmmakers and the asian ones is that the western ones want to hide the cuts. While a lot of eastern ones prefer it to be felt. But the shot-length are longer to accomodate the reorientation required.

Or put in another way: In the west we cut to hide, in the east they cut to show. Though, exceptions abound of course :)

February 12, 2013 at 4:44AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I think when they break it in the Bourne movies, it is generally intentional. These movies are meant to leave the audience feeling a little uneasy and confused through most of the action and chase scenes.

That being said, I don't typically enjoy the confusing action scenes and repetitious story lines of the Bourne films.

February 14, 2013 at 1:04PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Yes, I think you're right in that it was intentional, but I'll echo your position on not enjoying confusing action scenes.

Confusion is good when we want the audience to feel disoriented from an event, but overusing it starts to feel like it's covering up for bad choreography

February 14, 2013 at 2:27PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I think these tutorials are excellent, very easy to follow and nothing left to chance, I'm off over their website to see what they have to offer me. I'd love to see more of this sort of professionally done tutorials.

February 15, 2013 at 12:46AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Funny thing this rule. I must admit I didn't know it as a "rule", but I always felt uncomfortable when a scene didn't used it. One of the mainstream directors who didn't use this very often in his first movies is Christopher Nolan. Yeah, you betcha! (e.g. Batman first appearance in Batman Begins and a LOT of Memento scenes).

Now I feel good, because I knew it unconsciously. Although I think rules in filmmaking very out of place in most of the moments, you have to think on them to understand if what you're doing is the better option to your audience. The Batman scene, for instance, was a bit confusing in the first view.

February 16, 2013 at 5:33AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Rodrigo Molinsky

I suppose this rule exists because breaking it makes most people feel uncomfortable and disoriented, which is probably exactly why Nolan does it so often. I'm not surprised that it happens so often in Memento - that whole film is designed to confuse.

February 16, 2013 at 2:58PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


@Dominic Indeed.

February 19, 2013 at 11:46AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Rodrigo Molinsky

To hell with rules. Make your damn film how you want to. Not the way others want you to

December 11, 2013 at 9:46AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Dominic Drummond