Why do people make this so complicated?
I’ve seen a lot of confusion over this and time wasted on set, so I thought I’d add a blog post. Let me stress though that this is solely my own views and other people will inevitably disagree. (But they are so wrong)
First, the ‘line’ is not a line. It is a plane that extends vertically between and beyond the characters. (Though if the camera is at a point where you are looking down you can generally disregard it).
Second, and this is the core of the matter: The ‘line’ goes between the subject of the current shot (who will be the audience’s focus of attention) and the object that this subject is looking at (which can be a person or thing). Simple as that.
The ‘line’ defines where we the audience (the ‘invisible guests’) are in relation to the drama we are watching, and is very important during editing. Editors usually strive to make a sequence fluid, and need to understand where the line actually is at the point of an edit.
Various factors can move this line around. We (the audience) can be physically carried through the ‘line’ via a camera move, or the subject of the shot may themselves 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 while talking to someone. She hears something and looks over her shoulder thus dragging the line to the right. She can still be talking, but it’s her visual focus of attention that matters.
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, and what we don’t cross. 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. But if the audience’s attention has shifted to the door at the point of the cut the subject has now changed and 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.
But what happens when we cut to another character in the scene, who is outside of the current shot, and who is observing the previous shot’s subject? There’s a subject/object line there too, so the camera will be on one side of it before the cut, and should remain on that side after. If that’s not adhered to you will likely get a jump. 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 sport have discovered.
In a 2D football 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 WSs 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, and I’m looking forward to where that might lead.
Hope that helps…