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The 180 degree rule is one of the most fundamental tenants in cinematography. It’s commonplace across every genre and filmmaking style. Once you understand the basics, it’s easy to spot where it’s used and intentionally broken. This year’s excellent drama The Souvenir breaks the 180 rule in one pivotal scene we will examine here.
At its most essential, the 180 degree rule states if you were to draw an imaginary line between the two characters, the camera stays on only one side of the line for the length of the scene. The camera’s placement limitations to a 180 degree arc give the rule its name.
For example, if you have two characters in front of the camera A and B unless they physically swap positions, A is always to the left of B in the frame and vice versa. Classically filmmakers associate the 180 degree rule with dialogue between two characters, but it can apply to any character interaction. Note the practice has nothing to say about shot selection itself; the camera can capture the scene at any angle or length. Following the rule just means keeping the camera within the prescribed 180 degree arc.
Filmmakers follow the 180 degree rule to establish continuity and orient a scene for the audience. It’s not a good look to have actors magically swap places. However, occasionally filmmakers will break this rule. The camera “jumps the line” to invoke disorientation, signal an emotional break, or heighten tension.
As a setup for the scene we’ll break down here (mild spoilers ahead), The Souvenir follows a romantic relationship between film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and Anthony (Tom Burke). It’s clear early on that that Anthony has an untrustworthy side that later manifests as drug addiction. However, for over 40 minutes, writer-director Joanna Hogg pushes the subject matter to the periphery, both visually (we don’t see anyone shoot up) and verbally (no character talks about the subject.) It’s unclear if Julie has fully caught on to the extent of Anthony’s drug habit, or if she has, how she feels about it.
That all changes during a dinner party Julie and Anthony host with two friends, Patrick (Richard Ayoade) and Lydia (Lydia Fox). To follow along, skip to 41 minutes and 16 seconds from the film’s start (The Souvenir is available on Amazon Prime and other streaming services for rent.)
Technically this is a conversation among four characters, two on each side of a dinner table. However, Hogg focuses mainly on Patrick, who delivers almost all of the scene’s dialogue, and Julie, the film’s protagonist. For most of this four minute scene, the camera follows the 180 rule closely, staying on Patrick’s right side and Julie’s left.
At this early point in the conversation, Patrick has a conventional positioning within the frame (still A). While it’s tangental to the 180 degree rule itself, the camera places him with ample space both above and to the right of his face. It’s roughly in line with the “rule of thirds” that keeps a subject a third of the way from the top of the frame for balanced, aesthetically pleasing content.
When the camera reverses back to Julie (still B), it’s worth calling out how much closer Julie’s head is to the corner of the frame compared to Patrick. Julie has the top of her head slightly cut off the frame and very little room to her left. Also, while Patrick’s view gives amble room to see his partner Lydia nearby, the blocking in this shot effectively cuts Anthony off entirely. This lack of headroom and Anthony’s absence posits a subtle foreshadowing of Julie’s conflict with Anthony later in the movie.
Roughly three minutes into the conversation, Hogg breaks the 180 degree rule. After the camera reverses from Julie back to Patrick and Lydia, the characters swap positions (still D), with now Lydia on the left, Patrick on the right. This visual change isn’t due to the two characters physically switching seats. Instead, close inspection reveals the camera to be shooting into a mirror to reverse the shot. Notice how the bow on Lydia’s top and the shadow on Patrick’s face have changed position. On a practical level, Hogg places the camera on the other side of the table against a mirror to capture this angle.
When we reverse back to Julie (still E), we remain on the other side of the table, with coverage of Julie’s right side. Per diagram F below, the camera jumps the line only once for the remainder of the scene. However, on a practical level, the audience feels like we are skipping over the line repeatedly given both Patrick and Julie occupy the right side of the frame and are looking to the right. The rest of the conversation continues to flip between the two angles in diagram F for a final minute before the scene ends.
To understand why Hogg would break so drastically from the 180 rule, not only jumping the line but doubling down on the split in continuity through capturing a mirror image, look to the scene’s dialogue. In the first three minutes, Patrick rants about film school being a waste. It’s a pretentious rebuke to Julie’s schooling, but a form of advice and Julie acknowledges it as such (“Thank you for your advice, it’s really helpful.”)
Just as the conversation turns to Anthony’s drug use, Hogg breaks the 180 degree rule. The camera jumps to the other side of the table as Patrick asks if Julie’s dabbles in drugs (“You don’t seem druggie to me.”). Julie confirms she doesn’t, and moments later, Patrick explicitly calls Anthony out as a “habitual heroin user.” It’s clearly of concern to Julie based on the look that registers across her face. But Hogg smartly realizes an actor’s response is just one tool to convey bewilderment and shock. By breaking the 180 degree rule, the camera itself adds to the disorientation and chaos. Hogg exchanges the conventional shot reverse shot pattern with fresh angles, a visually reversed image, and Julie off looking in a different direction.
The entire scene is a reminder that impactful cinematography doesn’t have to come from dramatic, showy camera techniques. Sometimes the most significant changes are the smallest. A small change in focal length, a slow push in, or as we see here, new blocking to capture a simple two-way conversation, can help deliver a sizable emotional shift for the audience.