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To Break or Not to Break: The Significance of the 180-Degree Rule

Jourdan Aldredge

We dare to challenge one of the most famous, yet controversial, rules in film and video production. But, we’re not the only ones . . .

If you’ve ever taken a single filmmaking class in film school, or attended any video production workshops, or even just watched film or video theory tutorials on YouTube, you’ve probably heard of the 180-degree rule. As far as film rules go, this is one of the most famous, and originally considered the most unbreakable.

However, if that’s the case, why do we see it broken so often in modern film and television? Didn’t all of these filmmakers take the same classes and watch the same YouTube videos? Or, are we to believe that this famous, unbreakable rule is simply out-of-date at this point?

Let’s explore these important questions as we take a look at the 180-degree rule, why it exists, and how it’s been used over the years as we try to answer this final question: Is the 180-degree rule still worth following? 

What Is the 180-Degree Rule

As defined by the Columbia Film School Language Glossary, the 180-degree rule is a “rule of shooting and editing [that] keeps the camera on one side of the action.” The definition goes on to explain how if a “camera stays on one side of the axis of action throughout a scene,” then this “keeps characters grounded compositionally on a particular side of the screen or frame.”

At this point, the 180-degree rule is an industry-wide guideline that helps to inform all manner of filmmaking and video production for everything including corporate videos, television commercials, online and digital content, and (of course) films and movies. However, while we’ve seen this invisible dotted line drawn in textbooks and YouTube videos for years now, we still have to ask why it even exists in the first place.

Why the 180-Degree Rule Exists

It’s hard to imagine now, but at one point, there was no 180-degree rule. In the earliest days of film and cinema, there were no rules at all. Just a single, static camera that captured images at 24 frames per second. It was up to these early film pioneers to begin to define the many laws, rules, and guidelines for filmmaking.

And, simply put, many of the choices they made early on would become standard practice as they made the most sense—at the time. A lot of them were practical as well, and had to do with how we shoot and light the scenes and subjects for our moving pictures.

The 180-degree rule exists because of these elements, the two biggest ones being lighting and continuity. As you can read for yourself, lighting a scene for the 180-degree rule does make the most traditional sense as it helps define the barriers between “on-set” and “off-set,” and helps to keep lighting setups consistent between shots. 

The 180-degree rule also helps our brains understand the geometry of a set and scene. We perceive the action as if we’re watching it from the camera’s POV—what’s left stays left and what’s right stays right. However, as we’ve advanced both in terms of lighting and film and video comprehension, these rules are starting to change as well.

How to Break the 180-Degree Rule

I’m a big fan of this above breakdown video by Film Riot which, after giving you many of the same definitions and explanations of the 180-degree rule, also shows you some quick examples of how to break it. And, it’s true, you do see the 180-degree rule broken quite often in modern film and television.

However, in each case, there’s always (or, at least, should always be) a good reason. More often than not, it’s simply because the filmmakers are filming scenes with constant action or movement, which kind of makes it impossible to keep one consistent 180-degree throughout.

You could argue that instead of “breaking” the rule, per se, the filmmakers are simply “re-establishing” the 180-degree rule from sequence to sequence, and occasionally from shot to shot. Today audiences are much better at understanding on-screen action and orienting themselves to what’s happening in any given scene.

Examples of Films Breaking the Rule

Along with the times, you might want to simply re-establish the 180-degree rule to keep up with quick action sequences. There are also some important examples of filmmakers intentionally breaking the 180-degree rule for cinematic and psychological effects. In the video essay above from Fandor, we look into a few important instances where this has happened in cinema history.

After starting off with some classic examples of the 180-degree rule in action, we’re presented with three scenes from the films of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kubrick, and Darren Aronofsky where these acclaimed directors experiment with how the 180-degree rule works and can be manipulated to help with their cinematic storytelling.

These intentional breaks, where the 180-degree rule is established early in a scene, then deliberately broken, can challenge and unnerve viewers, even (perhaps) without them understanding why.

Should You Still Use the 180-Degree Rule?

So, now that we’ve established what the 180-degree rule is, why it exists, and how it’s been used and broken in the past, the question remains: Should you still use the 180-degree rule in your film and video projects?

I’d argue that you should at least understand the rule and let it inform your most basic shot types. Every scene still needs an opening shot and you should always try to mix in a variety of wides, closeups, and cut-aways to help you narratively tell your story.

However, I also think that at this point, audiences are more than proficient at understanding the language of cinema and can actually be quite bored from seeing the same old shots and scene constructions. You’re not going to turn any heads (so to speak) by following the 180-degree rule the same way that films have in the past.

I recommend that any aspiring or up-and-coming filmmaker or video professional make use of the 180-degree rule early and often in their projects to show proficiency in their cinematography, lighting, and compositions, but to completely challenge the rule from there. 

Try to find new angles and compositions to explore. Try putting your camera in new, unique places and strive to give audiences looks they might not always understand. The rules of cinema might have come from necessary roots, but they’re always meant to be broken.

For more insights into filmmaking and film theory, check out these additional articles:

Cover image from Kill Bill: Vol. 1 via Miramax.