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Is screen direction overrated?

Screen direction – one amongst many rules in visual storytelling. This one dictates the direction in which people look at each other, or the direction in which they walk, implying that on the two- dimensional screen, the characters are engaged by their looks, or walk away or toward one another.

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I’m editing a film right now, and okay, some mistakes were made on the set. Not many, granted, but a few. In other words, we thought an actor should have been walking or looking right to left and as it turns out, when we cut it together, there’s a jump where we’ve crossed the 180 degree “line” – the actor should have been looking or walking the other way. In the last week, I’ve asked myself, in this age of very sophisticated film viewing, does it even matter anymore? Should we just sort of, get over it?

My editor, sitting next to me, says “YES it’s relevant and NO we cannot get over it. You can’t have a car crash without screen direction,” he says. The cars would be following one another … one car in one shot traveling left to right, and in another shot the other car traveling … left to right as well — a crash instantly, erroneously becomes a chase.

True enough. But even according to Brian Retchless’s article I found on “Why Editing Works,” part of his course “Art and Visual Perception,” one may “cross the line” when visual cues are strong enough:

“If there are strong visual cues as to where the characters are, then a cut across the line of action becomes admissible, as our brain is able to place them within the space and understands that they were not meant to change places. Even when visual cues are weak we are often able to understand a cut across the line of action, but these cuts are jarring enough that they can take us out of the ‘reality’ of the film and remind us that we are, in fact, watching a movie.”

When viewers these days have not simply ingested one movie a week, but hundreds and hundreds of hours of filmed entertainment, since BIRTH, can’t visual cues become more and more discreet, because we are simply more sophisticated?

Well, after some discussion, no. Where it really matters to the story? As in, I’m traveling this way and my nemesis is following me? Critical. When a character simply leaves frame the wrong way, in error? Possibly not as big a deal. If you use rule-breaking as a technique, and it’s used throughout a piece, well, then, it’s a tool, in fact. What films can you think of that break rules as technique? THE INSIDER … crossing the line and disrupting continuity to upset character power structures. Here, even on the DVD cover, the key characters are not “looking at each other!” Any others?

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–AH