“180º Rule”… not so much

This is a review of an experiment that tests the “180º Rule” of film editing using eye movements, and finds that no evidence for negative cognitive effect is found.

The 180º Rule claims that in film editing, when showing two characters on the left and right of a shot, it would be confusing if the next shot reversed the perspective so that the characters end up on opposite sides. Filmmakers often dance around this by using over the shoulder shots that keep characters constant to their location in the frame.

The experimenters filmed two people having a conversation sitting around a table with a constant background from all angles. They cut the conversation into 22 shots and varied the number of correct vs. reversed-angle (180º violation) shots there were. This video was then shown to participants whose eye movements were tracked, measured from the “starting point” of where their eyes were located when the previous shot ended.

The results showed that eye movements were determined almost wholly by tracking who was speaking in the frame — the agent of the shot — no matter where they were located in the frame. The results showed no evidence for confusion at 180º Rule violations, nor did it show any evidence that participants were “mentally rotating” the scene to make up for those reversed angle shots.

In other words, all claims about the ill effects of 180º violations were not confirmed. They take these findings to indicate that editing rules do not cause confusion or ruin a scene’s representation, and that the content of the expression overrides the way it is represented.

ResearchBlogging.orgGermeys, F., & d’Ydewalle, G. (2005). The psychology of film: perceiving beyond the cut Psychological Research, 71 (4), 458-466 DOI: 10.1007/s00426-005-0025-3

[Originally posted on 3/16/09]


  • That’s interesting. But it still feels wrong.

    Maybe due to 100 years of the rule being in effect. I’d say audiences might be fine following it, without “confusion”, but going 180 might still create tiny narrative speed bumps that could create an awkward tension.

  • Did anyone ever actually believe that a scene of two people talking would be rendered incomprehensible if the camera switched sides? It would probably still be comprehensible if you cut to a close-up of the character’s cat grooming itself for the duration, as long as you could still hear what they were saying.

    The point of the 180 degree rule is to give the viewer a clear sense of space. Since the image isn’t 3D, keeping the plane 2D makes that easier. There are definitely ways around it, but a test that places the characters in a completely blank environment doesn’t really say much about them.

    That said, I think comics have more in common with soviet montage editing than tradition continuity editing, since as the reader you pretty much have to imagine the space and action for yourself anyway.

  • Thanks for the comments!

    Just as a clarification: the study did not test any degree of “comprehension” (i.e. an assessment of how “wrong” it felt to people) and only measured eye movements. In the post-test debriefing, participants confirmed that they were unaware of what was going on.

    If people were having trouble with the changes in positioning, then their eyes movements would have been bouncing back and forth to follow the different characters. OR, they would have slowed and/or taken longer to focus on the speaker.

    They didn’t find this at all — movements were quite smooth, but focused solely on the speaker, no matter where they were located. Putting them in a place with no background is an experimental control — you want to limit the amount of confounding properties.

    And, actually, there was only one case where the speaker wasn’t looked to directly. Here, the listener (of that moment) was briefly glanced out before going to the speaker, though they later figured out that the listener had made a minor movement right after the cut. That is, participants’ eyes were directed to the action — again not a factor of due to positioning.

    My suspicion is that this is a “rule” the same way that “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” is a “grammar rule” of English. That is, it is a totally erroneous convention that has been repeated so many times that people feel it’s valid, despite not reflecting any real property of the communicative system.

  • I can’t believe the rule is a totally erroneous convention. I have been annoyed far too many times by people screwing with it, and that began way before i was even aware of it’s existence. It’s not that it renders a scene incomprehensible, it just feels wrong. Maybe it’s purely sujective, but disregarding it sounds like saying ‘hey, i can make drawings full of clutter and use lots of garish colors clashing against it other, and people still understand it’. Yeah, it’s still understandable, but something is changed, therefore we should try to understand the effect.

  • Neil,

    I think you’ve missed Kane’s point–if the 180 rule is about creating a sense of space, then setting up a control that eliminates the concept of space necessarily also eliminates the relevance of the rule being tested. The rule isn’t about helping viewers follow the subjects of the shot–it’s about helping them follow the background. If a scene has no background, then trying to apply the 180 rule would be like applying the rule about ending sentences with prepositions to a sentence that doesn’t have any prepositions in it in the first place. Of course dropping the rule isn’t going to cause any confusion–because confusion simply wasn’t possible in the first place. The experiment has been controlled to the point where the results are predetermined.

    Here’s another way to look at it: when I write a play that takes place in a more or less constant location, I make a clear decision about what sits to stage right and stage left, beyond the audience’s view. Then, if I decided that, say, the kitchen is off stage right and the front door is off stage left, I always make sure the character exits in the appropriate direction for their destination. Then, any time a character exits the stage, the audience will know exactly where they’re going without my having to tell them. But this only works because the orientation of the stage is constant. If the stage were rotating, it would become much harder for the audience to know where characters are going once they start moving.

    The 180 rule exists to help filmmakers achieve that same orientation in space that a static stage allows. But if the play (or film) is set in a completely featureless space, then you don’t need those rules.

    Again, finding the speaker isn’t the issue–knowing where all the off-screen objects are in relation to the speaker is. Tracking eye-movements in this experiment tells us nothing about that issue.

  • I wonder if the 180 degree 'habit' of filmmakers has more to do with set design. Sets often have 3 built walls and one open side for the cameras to see inside. The 'fourth wall' is all camera space and people trying to avoid tripping over cables and extras. Hiding it or building a fully enclosed set costs more money.

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