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