You don’t always have to speak grammatically – we all understand what they mean when a public figure says something like “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  However, we do raise an eyebrow (or at least some of us do) if we hear “Please give the information to John or to I.”  The incorrect grammar jars, is not meant as a joke but is a mistake, and for a short time our brains are taken up with working out what they should have said, and so we sometimes miss what they are actually saying now.

The same goes for film grammar.

There is a tendency for new film makers to say (or be taught at their film academies) that there is too much fuss over “crossing the line”, that you don’t have to obey the rules if you don’t want to.  Well, of course you don’t, but you run the risk that the audience will be so taken up with working out what you should have done, or even worse, be trying to work out where the actors actually are in relation to each other, that they will miss your next bit of narrative as they deal with the distraction of your bad film grammar.

Anyway, here are:

The Golden Rules on Crossing the Line

1. General Rules on Crossing the Line

a.  Do not cross the line – if you do then in the editing suite your editor will be cutting to avoid your errors, rather than cutting to maximise your drama.
b.  Crossing the line is a slight (sometimes great) shock to the audience, so only use it when this is your aim.
c. The hardest thing to plan is a 3-handed scene;  once you see this in a script, realise it is going to take a number of planning hours to sort it out.
d. There are two sorts of line – the line of movement, and the line of looking.  When you have both in a scene, you must choose one of these, and stick with it.

2. Specific Trouble Spots When Shooting

a. Doorways – be particularly careful with cross shooting over a doorway, since the door gets in the way, and it is easy to get the camera on the wrong side of the line, because you will be tempted to put it where you can, rather than where it ought to be.
b. Framed shots – when you have one person framed by two others in the foreground, be aware that the direction they are looking (to the person on the left or the person on the right) will determine where you shoot the reverse shot from.  Once you have set up this shot, let alarm bells ring!
c. Third person – if when cutting between two people you suddenly cut to a third person, the audience will be confused, because they expected to see the ones you are cutting between.  Introducing the third person needs care and thought, so the audience can follow and understand the geography of the scene.
d.  Cut-ins – be careful when doing a close up of what someone is looking at not to cross the line –  remember, the line will now be between their eyes and the object they are looking at.

3. Preparation for the Shoot

a. Once you have prepared your camera plans (you will prepare them, won’t you?) go through them all checking that you have not crossed the line.
b.Make sure that if a character is walking, you maintain the direction of movement (say to yourself: “He/she is moving left to right, the next shot must have him/her moving left to right”).  Not maintaining the direction of travel between shots implies to the audience that some time has passed – so do it if this is your aim.
c. Recite to yourself “She is on the left, he is on the right” when working out if two shots will cut together, and maintain the order of characters going from left to right in your sequence of shots until you choose to change the line you are cutting across, or the actors move.

4. Solutions

a. You can change the line by tracking the camera, so you move the audience over the line, and they now understand that people’s positions would have changed.
b. You can use an actor’s head turn to establish a new line, as long as the camera sees this, and you use it in the edit.
c. You can “wipe the slate clean” by going to a wide shot – this allows you to cut back on any line you choose.
d. You can get the same effect by going to a cut-in;  after the cut-in, the camera can tilt up to whatever line you wish.

Epilogue

I was talking to a PA who often worked with a well-known director on his features, who told me that he always ignored her pleas not to cross the line, saying it would work out in the edit.

And did it?

No – it just meant that a lot of nice shots got left on the cutting room floor.  All that work from the actors and crew, all that precious time taken, all the money it cost – were all wasted, because someone did not take The Golden Rules into consideration.