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Camera 101: Dont Cross The Line

Creating visual continuity in your shots By Stephen Schleicher

In the last couple of years DV cameras have flooded the market.  There are also an equal number (if not more) ?new directors and cinematographers making use of this medium for their indie films.  Unfortunately, picking up a camera and making a film isnt that easy.  The biggest mistake for all new camera operators is forgetting the basics.  In this first installment, Ill take a look at one of the oft missed concepts The Axis Line.

When I say the Axis Line, Im not talking about megalomaniacs uniting to take over the world.  Instead, Im referring to the line that can be used to create visual continuity between shots.  You may be familiar with the Axis Line by one of its other names; The Action Line, The Line of Interest, or The 180-degree Rule.  Regardless of the name, they all refer to the same thing.

Simply put, this concept is defined as ?the line running through the scene in front of the camera.  Used to as a reference line to make sure multiple shots of the scene can be cut together without confusing Left/Right screen space.

Why is visual continuity between your shots needed?  As someone who is shooting video (or film), you will eventually need to edit the myriad of shots together to create a logical flow.  While your dialogue may be spot on, if your screen direction isnt consistent you could quickly lose/confuse your audience.

Lets first identify what this line thing is.  To do this, well create an imaginary scene between two people having a conversation.

Because the two are having a conversation the Axis Line (Line of Interest) is running between the two people.  This line usually runs between their eyes, but not always depending on the staging.

For this simple conversation, we typically shoot the following:

A) Establishing wide shot of both people on the screen at the same time (aka the Master Shot).
B) Individual shots of each performer (aka Singles)

In order to capture the scene with enough basic coverage for editing, we need, at a bare minimum, to place the camera in three different locations.

The position of the Master Shot determines which side of the Axis Line we will place all of our other cameras.

In this example, lets place the camera for the Master Shot at Position A.  This results in the following:

The audience now has a point of reference for who the principals are and identifies their surroundings.

For our close up and reaction shots, we place the camera at Position B and C on the same side of the Axis Line (Line of Interest).

In fact, we can place the camera anywhere with-in 180-degrees of our Axis Line and still maintain screen direction.

If we were to cut these shots together we would get

This sequence flows logically.  We have established in our master shot that Person 1 is on the left side of the screen, while Person 2 is on the right side of the screen.  The close ups obtained from camera Position B and C keep the screen direction in tact.  Person 1 is still on the left (looking left to right), and Person 2 is still on the right (looking right to left).

What would happen to our screen direction if we crossed the Axis Line and placed our camera at Position D to shoot Person 1 instead of Position C?

This results in a shot that looks like this.

Our edited scene now looks like this:

Because we crossed the line, the screen direction and the visual continuity of the scene confuses the audience. It seems like the two people aren't talking to each other, but both appear to be looking at something else.

I mentioned a moment ago that you can place the camera anywhere within 180 degrees of the Axis Line.  This includes putting the camera right on the line.

By placing the camera on the line, we are creating a Point of View (POV) shot.  This shot is used to establish what a character is seeing.  POV shots can be hard to edit into a scene easily, unless they are motivated.  But should you need to, your screen direction will be preserved.  You just need to make sure your camera is exactly on the line.  If you drift over the line slightly, your visual continuity is messed up once more.


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Related Keywords:camera technique, action line, axis line, line of action, line of motion, 180 degree rule, schleicher

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