Shit Happens

I just saw this post on Reddit:

Christopher Nolan breaks the 180 degree rule in The Dark Knight

Can anyone explain why he did it, and also why it works?

I’m new to film making, and I’ve been told that this rule is a rule that you shouldn’t break. But after seeing that Christopher Nolan breaks this rule, I am left confused.

The replies ranged from “There ain’t no rules” to “He was trying to get into the psychology of the Joker and blah blah bliddy blah.” But here’s the truth– shit happens.

I didn’t work on The Dark Knight, but just by watching the camera movement, you can tell how it was shot. The camera was placed over Batman’s right shoulder, slowly drifting to the left as they spoke. Then they turned around, put the camera over Joker’s left shoulder, and slowly drifted right.1

The cameras pass behind their respective characters at almost the same time, but since they weren’t shot simultaneously (each camera would’ve seen the other, obviously), it’s unlikely that they’d be perfectly in sync, no matter how good the dolly grip was.

The fact that they were so close implies that the filmmakers intended to not jump over the line, but rather slide across it during the conversation. Maybe one or two takes even matched. But in the end, the editor, director, and anyone else with input decided that the performances trumped the rule violation.

The camera movement hides the jump a little bit, since we, the audience, are anticipating crossing behind the character’s heads, anyway. The fact that it is the Joker we’re talking about means you can do crazy things and get away with it. In the end, most people probably never even noticed. It certainly didn’t bug me until ilikefruitydrinks pointed it out.

But we’ve had auteur theory crammed down our throats for so long that young, aspiring filmmakers (and, sadly, many film critics) really believe that every single shot and cut is filled with intention and purpose.

That’s simply untrue.

There’s only so many hours in a day, and therefore only so many setups can be shot. Even David Fincher has to call out “Print! Moving on!” at some point. We don’t always get it perfect. Compromises will be made.

A lot of times, the mistake you see in a film really is that– a mistake. Then, in the cold darkness of the editing bay, the post team has to figure out how to make a film with the footage they have, not the shots they intended to get.

This isn’t what people mean when they say “fix it in post;” this is standard filmmaking. Every movie, from your first short film to the most expensive Hollywood blockbuster, is a series of compromises. Sometimes we call those compromises “collaboration;” sometimes we call them “fuck ups.”

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. You do what you can with what you have. Sometimes it works, and you come up with The Dark Knight.2 Sometimes you get Trans4mers.

So don’t look at a movie and assume everything about it was the way the director intended. Because it’s just not.

Some of it is, but some it is just shit that happened.


Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. Yes, there are other shots in the scene, but they’re irrelevant to the current discussion.
  2. Although, not everyone thinks that it’s a great film.
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3 Responses

  1. Speaking to the technicality of the 180 degree rule, and when you’re “allowed” to break it:

    The rule is meant to anchor the viewer in the scene’s geography, specifically character’s positions relative to one another. If we see one character facing right, the other facing left, they look like they’re looking at each other. If one character faces the left side, and the other ALSO faces the left side, it feels like they’re looking in the same direction, which is wrong.

    But this rule can be very easily, and often, broken using camera movements as TAPA stated, and other mechanics in the scene. In this case, we know that the room only has Batman and the Joker in it, and we know they are sitting at a table, facing each other. So when the camera “jumps the line”, because we know that the characters haven’t moved, and the cut that jumps the line is always followed by another shot that is its correct opposite, the illusion is never broken. Combined with the slight camera crabs, and no one has a problem with it.

    All that being said, breaking the 180 is a couple of steps above filmmaking “basics” and does require you to understand what you’re doing when you break it. Not following it could render your scene confusing and unwatchable in unskilled hands. This is why it’s hammered in to newbies so hard.

    To sum up: you can break the 180 rule as many times as you want as long as you don’t confuse the viewer about scene geography and character positions.

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