For most people in the industry, the issue of crossing the line is to film making, what trigonometry is to high school.
At it’s most basic level The Line means not confusing the audience about which character is where and looking at who and coverage means giving the editor enough angles to work with that they can effectively do their job. Coverage is making sure you have all of the camera angles you need.
This is achieved by having each character shot from angles that have them facing in a direction on screen that is consistent with their relationship to the other characters in the scene.
The easy way to do this is to draw a line through the scene that acts like the proscenium arch of a stage and as long as the camera stays on one side of that 180 degree dividing line, the scene should appear consistent on screen.
In most cases, the line flows from one character’s eyes to another.
In practice there are many things that affect the line, you might stay on one side of the room for a whole scene and yet inadvertently cross the line many times. You can cheat across it it or even carry the audience across. In most scenes the are many lines and they usually move more than once. The trick is knowing where the lines in your scene are and then using them to make the audience see what you want them to.
In this example from an episode I shot of the TV Drama All Saints there are 6 key characters in the scene and the solid yet economical coverage consists of 14 setups including moving and roving cameras. This episode was directed by Jean Pierre-Mignon.
This is a good example of weaving in and out of the line rather than directly crossing it or being hemmed-in by it.
One Line, or Many?
The first thing that is confusing about crossing the line is actually calling it “The Line” …as if there is only one. If there’s more than two characters in the scene and/or the characters move, then there are instantly more lines. Depending one where the characters are standing these lines may be close enough to stay on one side of without additional setups. If there’s much difference in where they’re standing, the editor will probably want extra coverage (extra setups from different angles).
The easy rule of thumb is that you minus 1 from the number of characters and then multiply that by the number of characters for total coverage. This is based each character needing an angle looking to each other character but never one where they’re looking at themselves – for obvious reasons.
- 2 characters is: 2-1=1, then 1×2=2 for 2 close ups.
- 3 is 3-1=2, then 2×3=6 means we need 6 close ups.
- 4 is 4-1=3 then 3×4=12.
- 5 is 5-1=4 then 4×5=20.
- 6 is 6-1=5 then 5×6=30, with a master that’s 31 setups for 6 characters!
So we have 3 lines, each between 2 of the 3 characters in the scene. If we pretend that we are only dealing with 2 characters, lets say A & C then we have another very simple scene with two setups and one line:
As another example here’s the equivalent with actors A & B and their cameras:
3 Characters, between them 3 of the 180 degree lines and 6 close ups for seven setups if you include a master shot. Now, any experienced director will tell you that this is a lot of setups for a 3 person scene. So we try to simplify it, and that works quite well:
Even if you have only directed a little, this will look more comfortable and familiar. Here’s an example of that scenario in action. It has 2 extras who do not have to be considered in the coverage and 2 brothers standing side by side who can be treated as a single character for the purposes of coverage. This rough cut of a scene from the film McLean’s Money uses a Steadicam shot as the master and then a simplified 3 setup plan from there. This was directed by Gerald Lawson.
Here’s the exact layout of that scene and it’s coverage:
This level of coverage works well with up to 3 “characters” per scene. In fact, because we are only prioritizing 2 “characters” in this scene it remains easy to deal with the compromise risk of the simplified setup, which is getting too far off the eye-lines of the main characters. Beyond a 3 person scene, the rules become surprisingly more rigid.
Of course, all of this also applies to the a character moving between different positions through the course of a scene. The only difference is that we obviously don’t need the angles between the two positions of the character that moves. Here’s a simple example:
The trick with this is that camera 1 has to be moved to be on the same side of Line #1 as the reverse. It’s then possible to remove Cam 2 setup. The upshot of all this is an approach to this scene that is both faster to shoot and easier to cut.
If we wanted to be on the other side of Line #2 for the second half of the scene, maybe because of background issues, it is possible to carry the audience across the line with a dolly or Steadicam move as Actor “A” walks:
As long as the editor stays on Cam 4 while the line is crossed, there’s no problem because the line is crossed within the shot rather than between shots. In this situation, cutting directly from Cam 1 to Cam 3 or from Cam 4′s first position to Cam 3 would be very disconcerting for the audience because it crosses the established line (#1) without establishing the new layout of the scene.
The big thing to remember about the line is that it exists primarily between characters and is only occasionally about the room. One technique I’ve found useful in getting practice at working out coverage and the line is to look at films and tv shows and simply count the setups in a scene. If it’s well directed, you will usually be surprised at how many setups there are and occasionally by how few there are. If it’s not well directed, you’ll probably learn just as much by noticing the flaws and jarring moments!
On the many shoots where I’ve been asked at some point… “will this cut together?”, the fastest way I’ve found to be sure is to play the scene in my head with the shots we’ve taken or are about to take and see if there’s a moment or a relationship between characters that is missing or jarring. This takes a lot of concentration but is the fastest way I’ve found to be sure that you’ve got the scene.
Director’s Viewfinders are a great tool for planning your coverage on set or in preproduction and buying through these links helps support this site.
Ben Allan ACS