If you're a filmmaker, you’ve probably heard about the 180-degree rule and watched videos about it. You know, where you draw a line between two actors having a conversation and keep the camera on one side so they eye-lines match.
And yes it can be helpful, especially during preproduction when you’re blocking out your shots with a top-down view drawing. But when you get to set and start blocking out your shot, something always changes. Are you going to create a new top-down drawing? Do you even have time?
Frame Direction is King
To be honest, I've rarely heard anyone mention the 180-degree rule on set. We don’t have a top-down view camera rigged on set. The only view we have and care about is on the monitor. What we’re filming and what the audience will ultimately see, the frame. And that’s why we only care about screen direction. Who’s looking frame right and who’s looking frame left.
If Cortney is looking frame left at James offscreen, what works is James looking frame right at Courtney offscreen.
If James was looking camera left it just doesn't work. It's that simple. Until a character moves into the space like James when he goes to get his phone.
But then that's easy to handle. We cover the action of James leaving his shot camera left, show him wipe the camera while Courtney’s eye-line follows him.
She’s now changed her eye line in the shoot, looking frame right at James and he’s looking frame left at her.
Coverage for 3 Characters
But adding a third person, when Manu walks in, really complicates thing. Now we have a Mexican standoff of eye lines. We have a triangle.
How do we cover that? If cameras were inside the triangle, that would work, a single for each person, and their eye-lines work.
Courtney looks frame left to Manu, Manu frame right to Courtney.
Manu then looks frame left to James
James looks frame left to Courtney. Courtney looks frame right to James.
But what if we want over the shoulders? Now we have to move the camera outside the triangle and choose which side of the line we want to be on. it gets tougher because now the eye-line directions could change.
For instance, Courtney is now looking frame right to Manu, Manu looks frame left to Courtney. It doesn’t match the cameras we had inside the triangle.
How to handle it? If you have time and money, you could shoot the whole scene with complete coverage, inside and out. But that’s 12 camera positions just for the over the shoulders.
Case Studio Reservoir Dogs Mexican Standoff Scene
Let's look at how they did it in a classic Mexican standoff in Reservoir Dogs.
Eddie is yelling at Mr. White, Harvey Keitel, to stop pointing the gun at his dad Joe.
Eddie’s looking camera right, Mr. White at him frame left.
Joe is looking frame right at Mr. White. Mr. White is looking at Joe frame left. The camera is inside the triangle for those two shots.
It works because they never show Mr. White look frame right at Eddie from the inside the triangle camera position. If he did it wouldn’t work but because they would both be looking frame right.
So they cut back to the other over the shoulder setup, and show Mr. White from there. It works.
I don’t know how much coverage they shoot for this scene but I do know the late, great editor Sally Menke did an amazing job on this segment of this classic scene using a wide shot, three over-the-shoulders, and two singles. That’s it.
Ultimately, this is all about geography. Where are the characters in relation to each other in the space? You want the viewer to be in the scene with your characters and then stay there, not confused by mismatching eye lines.