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Respect the axis of action

Watching film or video, we instinctively make assumptions about what is on the left-hand side and what is on the right-hand side of the image. Learn about the axis of action and the 180-degree rule.

Under normal circumstances we orientate ourselves in space with our body as the anchor point. If you know which is the left hand, you also instinctively know what is situated on the left. Even if you turn 180 degrees to explore your surroundings, it still is obvious to you what is on the left and what on the right. You do not lose your bearings because left and right have now been reversed compared to your first viewpoint.

Imagine that you and a conversation partner are standing on a line that stretches straight ahead in front of you and continues in a straight line behind you. That line is the axis of action in your video. Your camera should always stay on one side of that line. You can move your camera around anywhere on that side of the line, but you shouldn’t cross over to the other side of the line. In filmmaking, this is called the 180-degree rule.

By keeping your camera on one side of this imaginary line between you and your conversation partner, the spatial relationship between the two of you will be consistent from shot to shot.

As we watch images, we relate left-hand and right-hand to the position of our body in space. Without further hints, we always assume that what is on the right of an image is also on the right-hand side of the spatial situation. This phenomenon is expressed in the axis of action; in other words, in the fact that every image has an orientation.

This may sound obvious, but if you string shots together – for example from your lab – and do not think about spatial orientation, this might slightly confuse a viewer who does not know your lab. In fact, the axis of action is one of the more intricate problems in staging, as with just a slight turn you might cross the axis and get shots that don’t work well with each other, breaking the 180-degree rule.

Consider the following example: for your video abstract you conduct a short interview with your supervisor. Obviously, her time is very limited. You therefore decide to film the interview in two parts. First you film all her answers, showing her medium close as she looks slightly to the left. Then she goes to her next meeting and you film your questions. For this, you leave the camera where it is, go to the spot where she stood but decide on a close up. Which direction should you now look in? Try to find a solution – there are many, but there are also some which look decidedly odd. Maybe you could simulate this situation using your smartphone: take first a picture of a (willing!) colleague, then try to photograph yourself as if those two pictures were stills taken from an interview. If you now watch one after the other, do they really look as if they were taken from a tv-interview?

Note: once the layout of a filmed situation is clear to the audience, it is no longer necessary to observe this very strictly. Broadcasts from football stadia easily cross the axis of action – even if in the previous image the blue team chased the ball from right to left and this direction is reversed in the next image, we do not assume that the blue team now wants to score an own goal. The layout of a football stadium as well as the rules of the game are assumed to be the same everywhere.

In the following video, Thomas Lehmann summarizes the axis of action.


University of Basel