Has a Line Been Crossed?

Directing tip # 1: Crossing the Line

The first rule of filmmaking most students learn in film school is ‘don’t cross the line’. I’ve met those who see this rule as one of the few inviolable principles of directing for the edit, and others who think that movie grammar has outgrown this quaint prohibition. I’m not sure that either view is correct, but my experiences on a recent job have taught me more about this very basic principle.

So, crossing the line: what does it mean? Imagine a scene where two characters are talking, facing each other. Now imagine a line running from one character to the other along their line of sight as they look at each other, and that this axis extends in front of and behind each of them. This is the line. Conventional wisdom states that when shooting the two characters’ conversation you need to keep the camera exclusively on one side of this line. Shoot an angle from the other side of the line and you’ve crossed the line. Which means you die. Or at least the scene won’t cut together and your editor will laugh at you – just as bad.

The rule gets more complex when more than two characters are involved. If you have three characters in a scene, and each of them addresses both of the others at some point during the action, you have three lines – between character A and character B, between A and C, and between B and C. This means you could end up having to shoot six camera angles (A looking at B, B looking at A, A looking at C, &c.) just to get the close-ups for the scene. If you have to shoot a dinner party, you really have to plan quite carefully which angles you’re going to need or you’ll be shooting that scene for the rest of your life. You can see why people want to wish this rule away.

So why bother? The simple answer is that we understand the geography of a scene from the direction in which the characters are looking. The most basic line cross in a two-character scene can give the impression that the two people are not in fact talking to each other. Cross the line and they’ll both be looking from left to right, say; when you cut those shots together they will both appear to be addressing a non-existent third person. Even if we know that there can’t be a third person in that room, our understanding of the scene is jarred for a moment, taking us out of the action. Don’t take us out of the action unless you mean to.

Crossing the line can also confuse our sense of the geography of the location, which might be crucial to our understanding of the scene. For example, if our characters are stuck in a shell hole in the middle of a battlefield and one of them decides to disobey orders and retreat, it would be really confusing if they then appear to run towards the fighting. This is the sort of trouble that ignoring the line can bring you.

Looks like we’re stuck with obeying that line rule then. Or are we?

There are a number of well-established tricks for crossing the line. If we see the camera move over the line during the shot, we’ll not lose our sense of geography (the subsequent shots will all need to be taken from the new side of the line). Similarly, a big close-up on some detail of the scene might allow you to come back the other side of the line. Conversely, cutting to a distant wide shot of the action can also allow you to jump the line.

Recently my attitude to the line has changed somewhat. I was cutting a movie called We Still Kill the Old Way, directed by the estimable Sacha Bennett. Sacha takes a relaxed attitude to line crosses, one that would really have alarmed me if I didn’t know that he’d directed a number of features and really knows where to put the camera. I was pleased to find that all Sacha’s line crosses worked and even more pleased to learn new tricks.

In one two-handed scene between a couple sitting at a table, Sacha’s camera crossed the line completely: both characters were looking to the left (he later told me that this was due to shooting in a very confined location). However it did not appear that the two characters were looking at a third person because he’d been smart enough to shoot both of the close-ups over the other character’s shoulder. The foreground presence of the shoulders acted to locate the characters’ gaze, making it instantly clear that they were looking at the owner of that shoulder, rather than at a third party.

There was another example: a long two-handed dialogue scene, with one character seated and the other moving around the room. In this scene, Sacha shot close-ups and wide shots from both sides of the line, both to give the scene a bit of visual variety, and because the schedule allowed him the time to cover the scene well. I found that if I mixed and matched between these shots willy-nilly, the scene started to feel messy. However, when we stuck to one side, then decided on a definite point to jump across the line, things worked much better. What helped was that two of the close-ups were pretty much face on and the other two were profile shots. Profile shots are good at dramatising conflict, so when the scene became more confrontational we switched to the side angles. At first the moment we switched was a little jarring, but I soon found that cutting during one of the characters’ more emphatic gestures eased the moment. We crossed back to the original side of the line at the end of the scene simply by cutting between the two wide shots, in which both characters were present so – as in the other scene – there was no confusion.

I’m sure that Sacha and other directors have plenty of other tricks up their sleeve to get themselves across the line. Whatever they are, I’m certain that they’re based on a confident understanding of the rule and why it exists, rather than a blasé rejection of convention. Ignore the line rule at your peril, but with experience you can learn that you don’t have to be a slave to it: you can be its master.


Copyright © Guy Ducker 2014

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

6 Responses to “Has a Line Been Crossed?”
  1. Peter Cole says:

    Try panning sound effects to a scene where this rule has been broken.

    • guyducker says:

      Hi Peter,

      I’m interested, could you say more?
      I can think of instances where creating a coherent stereo/surround ‘image’ would be easier if you crossed the line. Imagine two people talking by a window beyond which was a busy road. Two over-the-shoulder singles are to be shot. If you shoot the classical way, not crossing the line, whenever you cut from one close-up to another the sound of the traffic will jump from left to right (in practice it tends to be centred, because to jump it around can be distracting). Cross the line and the traffic will stay on a consistent side.
      What did you have in mind?

  2. sma1968 says:

    AMEN! Bottom line (no pun intended) is that the scene has to work. Most of the time that means that the rules need to be followed. If they’re broken by someone who actually KNOWS and appreciates the importance of the rules, it’ll may be okay.
    Unfortunately, so much television is low-end these days that they seem to be hiring anyone off the street; people who have no idea about the line or any other film 101 lessons.

  3. rebeccamorrisonline says:

    Thanks for the explanation! I’ve always wondered about that rule!

  4. You’ve made it overly complicated.

    First, the ‘line’ is not a line. It is a plane that extends vertically between and beyond the characters. (Though if you are at a point where you are looking down you can disregard it).

    Second, the ‘line’ goes between the subject of the current shot (the audience’ focus of attention) and the object (it can be a person) they are focusing on at the time of the cut. That’s it.

    Various factors can move this line around. We (the audience) can be physically carried through the ‘line’ via a camera move, or the subjects we are looking at may move, or the subject’s eyeline (what they are looking at) may move dragging the line with it.

    An example of the latter: Our hero is looking left talking to someone. She hears something and looks over her shoulder dragging the line to the right.

    Stick with these ‘rules’ and you won’t go wrong. Here’s a couple of common misconceptions:

    1 – (this one drives me nuts as I’ve heard it used by seasoned camera ops) Imagine a W.S. of a couple getting married and approaching the alter. You can hear them talking. The line, supposedly, is between the two, however if we cut we must stay the same side of their travel to the alter, thereby violating the theoretical line.
    This is wrong. As long as we do not see the couple look at each other, the subject of the shot is ‘the couple’, and the object of their (somewhat passive) gaze is the alter. There is our line. Interestingly, what we hear on the soundtrack is irrelevant.

    2 – Our hero is looking left. Unnoticed by her, a door opens in the background revealing someone. Where is the line? Is it now between her and the door?
    No, not if she is still looking left. If the audience’s attention has shifted to the door at the point of the cut the subject has now become whoever is walking through the door and we are now concerned with their eyeline.

    This is important. The line can be shifting around all over the place, and it may not be between the two people talking at all. Tip: if you’re shooting a dinner table scene get shots of people, saying nothing, looking between the other characters. They don’t have to do anything, but these cutaways will be invaluable during the edit, and are far better than the proverbial shot of the kitchen sink.

    But of course every rule can be broken. And should be. Check out what Kubrick does here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wN6TPtaBKwk
    And some interesting examples from Satashi Kon: https://vimeo.com/101675469

    They do this for effect. Crossing the line for no good reason will just look sloppy or amateur.

    Of important note is what the folks doing 3D football have discovered.
    In a 2D game you have a ‘line’ running between the two goals, and you must strictly observe this or you will confuse the audience.
    In a 3D game this applies to the WS and CUs, but in wider shots with the camera down on the pitch you may cross this ‘line’ provided you leave enough geographical detail in shot, like the goal, to orient the audience. In 3D we get a much better sense of where we are, and are not as disturbed by jumps in space as 2D audiences are. We have yet to see this implemented creatively in 3D drama.

    Hope that helps…

    • guyducker says:

      Thanks Karel for your very detailed response, and in particular for your link to the little Kon documentary. I was also particularly interested to hear that 3D is throwing up some new insights on screen spacial geometry.

      The Kubrick link I’d seen before and it is interesting. While it clearly does cross the line repeatedly, you don’t get the sort of jolt that one usually associates with a line cross. Why? I believe because, as with my example above, both shots are two-shots – there’s never any doubt as to where we are or who’s looking at who.

      Much of what you say about the line is true: the way the characters’ gaze can drag the line with it; the fact that the eye-line isn’t necessarily between characters, the focus of their attention can be an inanimate object (the altar). Whether your explanation of this rule is less complicated than mine I’ll leave others to judge.

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