May 11, 2017
video essay

Let Kubrick and Aronofsky Tell You When (and How) to Break the 180° Rule

Everyone is always talking about the importance of the 180-Degree Rule, but this video shows that it's also important to know when to break it. 

The rules of film grammar exist to orient the viewer in space and establish relationships between objects. In essence, they allow a filmmaker to visually "tell" a story. Perhaps one of the most vaunted of these rules is the 180-Degree Rule.

A new video from Fandor shows how many master filmmakers break this rule's tenets, the reasons why, and what effects they achieve. Because before you break the rules, you should at least know the rules you're breaking.

The 180-Degree Rule exists to preserve screen direction. It's an invisible line drawn down the center of a scene between two actors; a semi-circle extends half of a circle's radius (or 180 degrees) around them. The rule preserves eyeline in a dialogue sequence, and, crucially, maintains screen direction (so that one character is always moving left and the other, right).

What happens, though, when a director intentionally breaks this rule? 

The Shining: Jack and Grady

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is a horror film that keeps the lights on; its disturbing qualities don't come from horror tropes, but from the subtle disorientation of identity and reality that happen to both the characters and the audience.

In this scene, Jack and Grady, the "caretaker" of the Overlook Hotel, meet for the first time in the bathroom of Gold Room during a possibly hallucinated dress ball. Jack's character, who is beginning to become more and more possessed by the hotel, learns for the first time of the hotel's nefarious plans for him. Grady tells Jack, "You are the caretaker," and the cut reinforces this shift in identity. As noted in the video, "Kubrick breaks the rule to create a jarring cut that reinforces the uneasiness of the scene." 

All of this goes to show that breaking the 180-Degree Rule, will, for better or worse, make people feel that something's not quite right. 

Requiem for a Dream: Ghosts

In Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dreamreality is also tenuous—though in this case, the cause is less supernatural than chemical. In the above scene, Harry, a heroin addict who is constantly pawning his mother's TV for drug money, comes to visit her. While he's temporarily flush with drug money, Sara is falling into the grips of her own addiction. He tries to present her with the gift of a new TV. 

Here, the line is broken not by a cut, but by camera movementA theme of the film is the characters being haunted by the past; here, Sara directly addresses her dead husband, Harry's father. As she does so, the camera moves around Harry as he comes to the slow realization that his mother is starting to become a diet pill addict (and, hence, hallucinate). Here, the line is broken in order to establish a new dynamic between the two. Notice how the shadow falls on her face as they argue, and how the line is recrossed here when Sara gets up and moves across the frame in a cut-away from the conversation, avoiding a jarring cut across the line.

Aronofsky, in a film justly famous for its bravura editing and sequences, affects a very subtle cinematic move that's barely noticeable but carries significant emotional weight. It's a perfect example of how—and why—to cross the line, as it were. 

The video essay shows clips from some other great films, as well. It's a great way to learn about not just applying a rule, but deploying it, too, so that, like conventional grammar, you use it to write a sentence and not the other way around.       

Your Comment

2 Comments

I don't entirely agree with the argument here. Kubrick seems to break the 180 rule because it was logical to do so from the vantage point of the camera on opposite sides of the characters - of course their positions would be reversed because that's what would happen if the viewer (the camera) actually shifted to that space. It's neither an error or a deliberate change in emotional perspective.

Kubrick does it because it was visually advantageous (and he needed cutting points) while NOT being visually jarring. Proof? The scene actually STARTS from the reverse shot. So he didn't save the angle for an especially subtextural "revelation". The two shots are logical angles given the location, and Kubrick simply trusted his audience's spatial orientation skills. Just my opinion. Happy to be proven wrong.

In my own experience, you can break the 180 rule as long as it makes spatial sense and doesn't unintentionally jar. However, MOVING figures that "cross the line" can indeed be disastrously jarring. So it works best for static subjects.... unless you REALLY know what you're doing.

Cheers and luck
Heath Blair

May 11, 2017 at 7:48PM, Edited May 11, 7:48PM

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Heath Blair
Film maker and composer
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In my opinion, do whatever in the hell you want, this is cinema and cinema is an art form, there are no rules in art. We are not trying to reproduce life, in real life people don't fly, in cinema they do! I would rather call it the 180 degree guideline, rule is such a strong word.

October 23, 2017 at 2:15PM, Edited October 23, 2:15PM

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Elmoutasam Aziz
Chief Learning Officer
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