Breaking the Rule of 180 for Emotion and Story

rule or heuristic?

Walter Murch, identifies and prioritizes six criteria for the ideal cut. (Murch, W. 2001:18)

  1. Emotion
  2. Story
  3. Rhythm
  4. Eye Trace (Described also as Gaze cues (Smith, 2005))
  5. Two dimensional plan of the screen
  6. Three dimensional space of action

Interestingly, the 180 rule in filmmaking (where the camera remains on the same side of a axis of action, typically between two people), is most closely related to Eye trace and the 3 dimensional space of criteria. While suggesting that it is best to achieve all the criteria, Murch is clearly identifying which should be maintained at the cost of the others. This reduces the 180 degree rule to a heuristic; a rule of thumb. If course, there may be (and are) other ways to establish and support the diegetic 3d space of the film for the viewer

There is an interesting departure from the 180 degree heuristic at the end of Casablanca. (Curtis, 1942) You can see the scene in context at and the time references below relate to the time into the linked clip in minutes and seconds.

That’s Separate Ways 241all over a long time ago: 2:41. Rick has obtained the signed letters from Captain Renault the axis of action runs from the background right to the foreground left through the two actors.




Separate Ways 245I Understand 2:45. Victor  in a reverse shot, still   on the same side of the axis





Separate Ways 247Here it is: 247. This shot is on the other side of the axis, not following the heuristic. In this shot, we see the exchange of papers , a handshake, and several facial expressions and glances. It is followed by a jump back over the access to:




Separate ways 252Welcome back to the fight: 252.

This scene is driven by emotion and story and rhythm. Showing the exchange of the papers might have been attempted by extending the scene before (I understand) to show the transfer over the shoulder. However, this would not have been able to show the body movement, gesture, expression, and handshakes of both men which is important to the story, to the resolution of their relationship, and the emotion of the scene and continuing the OTS shot would have failed to bring Ilsa’s highly emotional performance back into view.

I’ve never heard (and do not expect to hear) anyone speak up to criticise this scene. Indeed, I expect that few if any viewers see the cut or are taken out of the moment by the cross over the axis. Many people will report this as one of the most emotional moments they have encountered in film and it is a perfect example in support of Murch’s priorities. It is also an example that supports an attentional theory of cinematic continuity. Viewer’s attention is highly focussed on the men’s faces, their handshake, and Ilsa’s sob. The shift of gaze is used several times to prime saccadic eye movement to an off screen target that will be cut to momentarily (so we know that viewers who anticipate will be effectively blind for about .15 seconds and will not see the cut about to be made – more on this below). Finally, their mise en scene, the constant gazes, and the cross axis cut serve to provide a spatial metaphor of them as a triangle. This is surely an intended purpose and the cross-axis cut is essential to this purpose at the same time that it is well hidden in several ways. Not only does the audience not get lost in diegetic space, but that space is used to reinforce a central point about these three as a triangle. March’s criteria are all fulfilled (and expanded on) without the 180 heuristic. Indeed, ‘breaking’ that rule was necessary for the outcome.

On the gazes in this scene

There are several ways in which our eyes move. They can pursue an evenly moving target slowly if such a target exists or they can reorient quickly (saccade) to locate a new target or to catch up with a faster target. They also have a vergence movement when we converge our view on a close object. There are also smaller movements: nystagmus( a very small but constant tremor), drifts, and microsaccades (which occur when poor motor control causes view to drift and is suddenly corrected) (Rayner, 1998). Of significant interest to a discussion of editing are the saccadic eye movements

Saccadic eye movement, Saccadic suppression and edit points

Saccadic eye movements occur several times per second. They are very fast, reaching a speed of 300 degrees of rotation per second and hence they are also brief (20-50ms). However, a process of saccadic suppression prevents us perceiving before (about 75ms) during, and after (50ms) this would add up to approximately 0.15 seconds and is comparable to blinking in duration. One amusing experiment you can do is to look in a mirror attempt to alternate your gaze quickly from eye to eye. You will notice that you can watch someone else do that and see their eyes move but you cannot see your own eye motion. (Smith 2008).  So a viewer is blind for a significant period of time between fixations which last approximately .3 seconds when viewing a scene (Rayner, 1998). At these rates, you are not visually perceiving the world around you for about 20-30% of the time. 

Creating saccadic eye movement

Fixations are the result of attending. So you might saccade between letters and words while reading (there is much research on this available), you might saccade towards the location of a sudden sound as part of an orienting response, you might saccade to follow the gaze of another person towards the person or object they are viewing, or you might simply follow an arrow or someone pointing. A gaze cue is seen in the Casablanca clip referenced above.

Separate Ways 239 gaze cueAt 2:39, Rick turns his gaze from Victor to Ilsa and this is immediately followed by a cut which the viewers would have expected. Form many viewers, this might prime a saccadic eye movement from Rick to the left. and the cut should occur in about a tenth of a second.




Separate Ways Gaze cue IBSeparate Ways gaze IB 2Ilsa is positioned approximately where a saccadic eye movement might land by the time the cut occurred. She is, initially, looking at Rick but then turns to Victor.




Separate Ways Gaze VictorWho is positioned as a landing spot at just the correct time once again.

Even prior to this example, the three have been glancing off screen to maintain the viewer’s ability to keep their spatial relationship in their mind’s eye. It is the gazes that establish both the space and the rhythm with (or without) the cuts which are mostly likely invisible. It may be that mixing cuts and non-cut periods of gaze exchanges further serves to further hide the cuts. It is also likely that the constant establishment of their spatial relationship improves the viewer’s mental model of the space in a way that lets them orient across the axis crossing discussed above with ease (rather than notice the cut.



Curtiz, M. (1942) Casablanca. Warner Brothers

Murch, W. (2001) In The Blink Of An Eye. Ed 2 USA: Silman-James Press

Rayner, K. (1998) Eye Movements in Reading and Information Processing: 20 Years of Research. Psychological Bulletin,1998, Vol. 124, No. 3, 372-422

Smith, T. J., Henderson J. M. (2008). Edit Blindness: The relationship between attention and global change blindness in dynamic scenes. Journal of Eye Movement Research 2(2):6, 1-17



The Brilliance of Walter Murch


Walter Murch is, of course, a renound editor and sound recordist. In the process of doing some research on cutting for my masters degree, I had the pleasure of reading his book, “In the Blink of an Eye” (Murch, 2001) which is a transcription of a talk he gave.

Asking: “Why do cuts work?”, Murch says: “nothing in our day to day experience seems to prepare us for such a thing, Instead, from the moment we get up in the morning until we close our eyes at night, the visual reality we perceive is a continuous stream of linked images”.  (Murch, W. 2001:5). Cognitive scientists disagree. They have learned that things such as saccadic eye movement (and shifts in our gaze and or attention) imply that the input is quite ‘jittery’.  Although “raw visual perception is in many ways discontinuous, … normally we are unaware of this gappines” (Bacon 2011). 

This disagreement should be no surprise because the body-brain processes that give us the conscious perception of continuity operate in a pre-conscious domain. The term “prenoetic” is used by cognitive scientists. Even the most reflective and insightful people fail to consider the implications of this because these processes are unavailable consciously. One might think that Murch is one of the unaware, but you would wrong.

Well into his talk, he returns to this thought saying: “Something to consider, though, is the possibility that there may be part of our waking reality where we actually do experience something like cuts” (2001:59) and then he goes on to speak about blinking and looking about as examples of discontinuities. Astonishingly, he is lecturing on cognitive film theory and is exactly correct. Indeed Murch is cited in Tim Smith’s paper: “An Attentional Theory of Continuity Editing” which expands on these and other cognitive aspects of cognition as it relates to editing in an academic context.

This is not a new idea. D. W. Griffith said: “[A shot of a whole battlefield would be incomprehensible because] Looking at real things, the human vision fastens itself upon a quick succession of small comprehensible incidents, and we from our eventual impressions, like a mosaic, out of such detail… The director counterfeits the operation of the eye with his lens.” (Griffith, 1926, quoted in Jesionowski, 1989:46)

As I work on my studies in cognitive film theory, people remind me that “filmmakers don’t talk in those terms”. Indeed, they do not but they DO talk about the subject. At least the brilliant ones do. They navigate to it because it is important to making film and because they can observe the implications through watching audiences reactions and their own; treating cognitive processes as a black box and discussing the results in everyday terms. This interest in cognition (if not cognitive science and neuroscience) dates back to the roots of hollywood film and the first days of continuity editing.

Brilliant, simply brilliant



  • Bacon, H. (2011). The extent of Mental Completion of Films. United States: Berghahn Journals : Projections Volume 5, Issue 1, Summer 2011: 31-50.
  • Festival International du Film de La Roche-sur-Yon FIF 85 (1985) Header Image: Walter Murch. Downloaded from Flickr Accessed Nov 14 2015. used Creative Commons terms Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic
  • Jesionowski, J. (1989) Thinking in Pictures: Dramatic Structure in D. W. Griffith’s Biography Films. California: University of California Press
  • Murch, W (2001) In the Blink of an Eye Ed 2 USA: Silman-James Press
  • Smith, T. J. (2005) An Attentional Theory of Continuity Editing Scotland: Institute for Communicating and Collaborative Systems School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh Available on the web: accessed Nov 14 2015

Filmmaking by the lake

[huge_it_video_player id=”1″][huge_it_video_player id=”1″]This is a rather strange tagline but it happens to be true. My great great aunt bought a property in the 1920s with the plan to build a lodge. In the end, only the main cabin was built. It was intended to be an evening gathering spot and was built in the lake. It seems that one of her builders was Mr. Right but he did not want to be an innkeeper so….

They kept it as their summer home and eventually it became my home. We preserve over 24o feet of lakefront as an important riparian zone and have the rest of the property registered officially as a managed forest with the goal of habitat preservation and sustainable firewood (Most of what dies, gets to keep us warm but some gets left standing as habitat. We have been rewarded with a wide variety of wildlife taking shelter.

Building the ParQuin Lakehouse from Mike Milton on Vimeo.

Reflection on Research

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Is deep necessarily focused and narrow?


Metaphor has always been known as a powerful way to communicate. In recent dacades it has been investigated as a mechanism of thought (Lakoff, G. Johnson, M. 1980, 1999). A metaphor maps one thing onto another in order to imply attributes. They give the example of the metaphor: argument as war and point to how that gets embedded in language: (1980:4)

• “Your claims are indefensible
• He attacked every weak point in my argument.
• His criticisms were right on target”
and so on. The point is that, when we accept a metaphor in out conceptual system we accept the mapping of attributes from the source of the metaphor onto the subject we are thinking about or discussing. “we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments”. For example, if you are told that the criticism of your work was on target, you skulk away to do better. You accept the metaphor. Then the authors play a very entertaining trick. They postulate a culture which uses the metaphor of argument as dance. In such a culture, “people would view arguments differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all” The result would have the goal of being “balanced and aesthetically pleasing”

So I would like to dance around the topic of research and, particularly research in depth. This came up because a proposed bibliography of mine seemed to have too many references and surely mining or drilling down to the depths of the subject should necessarily require focus. This, without being explicit, implies the metaphor of research as mining (or perhaps well drilling). The metaphor has merit in many (perhaps most) contexts and the comment was a welcome and useful caution not to wander off topic. (remember, we are dancing here, not warring).


I dutifully reflected on this and wondered why it seemed best to have a large bibliography. Indeed, I seem to need one and it is growing as I work. One thought is that my work is both cross disciplinary and, within each discipline spans a number of topics. I feel more like a hunter gatherer seeking berries and fruits wide and far for dinner than a miner. I think that is a more fitting metaphor for the task at hand. It seems that depth comes from completeness as much as it comes from a laser focus. That said, reflecting on mining, that metaphor will also serve as long as I’m mining for something very valuable (diamonds?) or very sparsely spread. Yes, an open pit mine will do.

Regardless, the caution was well intended, apt, and something to keep an eye on. This tiny paper is simply a different caution: that we should be very careful when we apply metaphor, particularly when they are implicit and not something we have consciously explored.

References and Rights


• Lakoff, G. Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By Chicago: University of Chicago Press

• Lakoff, G. Johnson, M. (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh New York: Basic Books


• Cover image: “Open pit of the Rio Tinto Rössing uranium mine, Namibia” by jbdodane uploaded to Flickrused under the creative commons Attribution- NonCommercial 2.0 Generic licence

The Animal Project

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And a bit about good acting

I had the good fortune to attend a screening of this film with the Director (and friend), Ingrid Veninger, the cast and much of the crew. The evening kicked off with a presentation about making the film and ended with Q&As

The film was, in part, an experiment in writing a script for the actors. This began by seeking out a set of actors who were diverse and interesting people each providing individual character archetypes to form a set that could be the base of an interesting story.

One result is that every viewer will be able to see some aspects of themselves and their story somewhere in the film. They might laugh, cry or just shake their heads knowingly. Whichever is the case, they will become involved. Brilliant filmmaking.

The film also reflects brilliant acting. During the Q&A one question was: “what did you learn about acting from this work?”. Several of the cast (led by Hannah Cheesman, if I recall correctly) Immediately exclaimed: “Don’t act”. The implication is that acting is not a pretense of a something, it is being that thing.

Basil Hoffman said: ““Acting is many things, but for one concise description of good acting, this is my definition: Acting is disciplined truthful behavior in contrived situations.” (Hoffman, 2009)

Aaron Poole plays Leo. In one scene he reflects on  the challenges of being a single dad, reflects on his lost wife and sinks to his knees by his couch saying “I need help”. This is disciplined, truthful behaviour. Anyone who has gone to this place in their lives will feel this moment to their core.

So, what does Leo do? He wraps himself in his courage (literally, see the picture to the right with Aaron in his lion costume) and goes out to find and hug his son.

The cast provide many other moments of truth. Your special moment might be eating poutine,  kiss you right now!, or watching the bunnie project. One thing is sure, you will be gifted with such moments. Every member of this cast fully embodies Hoffman’s definition.

DO be sure to see this film.

By the way, the picture of Leo is a production still by John Gundy and makes quite an addition and conversation piece on our cabin wall. So also be sure to wrap yourself in your bravery and face life.

For an extra treat, watch the bunny project: