180 degree rule

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Crafting a Viewer’s Perceptions

What is the 180 degree rule? We see it in use the most in film. If a character enters from the right side of the screen, they stay on that side and face the same direction, even when the scene cuts from shot to shot. This helps create a sense of space for the viewer. If the line is crossed (ie, suddenly we see a new shot where that character is facing the opposite direction, or is on the other side of the screen) it becomes a “reverse angle” — and it can royally screw with our perception of the scene.

So how does all this apply to comics?

Comics are a visual media, and making sure characters don’t cross the line into a reverse angle can be just as important for us as a film! Being aware of how the eye and brain take in information will allow us to prevent (or, for effect, cause) confusion in readers. This may seem like a no-brainer concept, but I know from experience how easy this is to mess up!

The way I think of the 180 rule in comics is to consider two aspects of every page or scene: (1) When do characters speak? (2) Where are the characters?

WHEN

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Most of us start with a script in some form. I know I do, and usually for more than just one page at a time, so I know who says what and in what order. Since most western cultures are used to reading from left to right, top to bottom, they expect action and dialog to move through time in that order as well. The first person to speak should have their words at the left and/or top. This in turn determines where in the panel they should be. First person to speak? They should be on the left, and they should stay on the left for the rest of the comic page. This can get really complicated once I get into a scene, and if I’m not careful I can completely screw up the flow of the page. I’ll show you an example of how easy this is to get wrong in a little bit, but first let’s cover the second aspect…

WHERE

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I don’t just think about where a character is once they get on-panel, but also when they’re off-panel. If a character speaks from one side of the page or another, they should also appear from that side of the page. So if Chicken turns to look a specific way to speak to Dog, Chicken should always be looking that direction to talk to Dog, even when Dog is not visible in that particular panel. I might want to have a close-up panel of just Chicken’s eyes or face (I won’t here, lest those goggle-like orbs BURN INTO OUR SOULS) but even then, his eyes and face should remain looking in a consistent direction. Otherwise our brains get confused about where people are in the scene, and relative to one another. Kinda like what happens if we draw two right hands holding something. The brain might not catch it right away, but it’ll bother people even if they don’t know why.

Right and Wrong

To summarize, I’d like to break down two pages from my own work. In the first one, I screwed these concepts up. In the second, I got them right, even though I ran into some challenges because of speaking order in my scene.

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Page the First, the mistake. On the left, you see the original page. Next to it, I’ve outlined each character in either blue or red. At the top, red speaks first, and is on the left. Blue speaks second, and is on the right. Yay! It works with the eye and brain! No confusion! However, in the middle panel I start shifting things around. Blue is left! He’s right! He’s light-speed wall-leaping ninja! And by the bottom, he ends up on the opposite side of the page than the one he started on. Even WORSE, even though he’s on the left, he doesn’t speak first! Red does, but he appears (as our eye/brain sees it) second. Whoops! I was so focused on what I wanted to put in the background that I forgot to pay attention to the scene, and the whole page suffers because of it. Fortunately, I got to redeem myself a few pages later.

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This time, Blue speaks first, and appropriately appears on the left side of the page. Red is second to speak, and appears on the right. We have a cluster of panels on the right side, and in one of them Blue appears a second time, but even in this panel his position is consistent — he is on the left side of the panel, and he’s facing to the right. Red and blue maintain their locations in the last panel, with Blue in the left foreground and Red in the right background. But wait! Because of the pacing and paneling, in that particular shot, Red is speaking first, so shouldn’t their positions be reversed? But then they’ll have an inconsistent location again! Oh no! What should I do??

I solved this problem by doing two things. First, since the Where of the characters was set horizontally at this point, I knew I couldn’t rely on that plane for word balloon placement. So instead of a left/right flow of dialog, I changed it to a top/bottom flow. Vertically, “top” = “first” just like “left” does in the horizontal plane. The second thing I did was to push the balloons outside of the panel boarder. Although those words belong to the last shot, the brain doesn’t fully associate them with the image until it has crossed that border barrier. This way it becomes a continuation of the earlier shots and their arrangement (Blue left, Red right) so by the time the eye “enters” the final panel, the Where of the characters doesn’t seem disorienting, even if the order of their speech might be otherwise.

When to break the rules

As I’m sure you noticed with Dog & Chicken, messing with these rules can be quite disconcerting! No good if I’m trying to do a feel-good scene, but there is SERIOUS potential to raise the Creepy Factor in dream sequences or other strange, unusual settings. As with all rules, knowing how they work is a matter of learning how to break them in one’s favor!

Robin Dempsey is addicted to storytelling, despite all logical reasoning against this irrationally glorious pursuit. By day she works as a Mechanical Engineer, and in every spare moment outside of that she is making comics. Including in her sleep, on occasion. Addicted to world-building, character crafting, and language making, you can find the results of her sprawling storytelling pursuits at LeyLinesComic.com! Or drop a line on Twitter at RobinofLeyLines.

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Posted in Drawing, Featured News, Helpful Hints, Tutorials.

6 Comments

  1. Pingback: Webcomic Beacon Newscast: Comic News & Discussion for March 17th, 2013The Webcast Beacon Network

  2. ” Even WORSE, even though he’s on the left, he doesn’t speak first!”

    I don’t think it was a problem at all, the way it’s made there, without crossing bubble tails and that stuff. If the balloon positioning isn’t ambiguous or distracting somehow, that’s perhaps a good indicator that it’s OK.

    That was partly thanks to one of the caracters being much shorter than the other. That was something that I think was actually more problematic on this page design, but that’s also significantly due to not knowing the characters and not even reading the story. At first, it even looks as if there are three characters. And all three equally tall. As the first two panels kind of suggest a straight line, despite of the panel break, as the tallest one isn’t obviously looking down (from this image size), and the shorter is at the same height on the panel row, not looking up (unlike the very next panel).

    So panels 3 and four seem to suggest two new characters, again, as if the brain is erasing the panel borders and making a giant panel.

    But much of that is perhaps due to the cursory not-even reading, just the “graphical” reading, and it’s not as bad, even though far from optimal, when one is actually reading. But it’s probably undesirable to have the characters first presented in such way in a story.

    The dog & chicken strip/examples are hilarious.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the adventures of Dog & Chicken. 🙂

      I’ll grant that the problem may not be as serious in this particular page as I’ve presented it (we are our own worst critics, after all!) but it still isn’t ideal, and could have easily been avoided entirely if I’d just thought about it a little more. I frequently see confusing layouts and too often it’s just because the artist didn’t take a little extra time to plan ahead and look at who was speaking when, and from where. If a tiny bit of effort can prevent possible confusion, I personally think it’s worth it. Even if it’s not TOO bad. I always want to be getting better!

  3. I would like to argue that the 180 rule doesn’t apply in quite the same way in comics as in film, as in a comic the panels don’t stand alone, but have a relation to each other on the page as a whole.

    As an example, if we have one panel at the top of the page. In it Amy (on the left) is talking to Bob (on the right), both facing each other. Below it we have two more panels. In panel two we have Bob in profile, talking to Amy who is out of frame, and in the third we have Amy in profile talking to Bob, again with Bob out of frame. Looking at the page as a whole, it would look like Amy and Bob are back to back in the second and third panel, which is likely to confuse the reader, even though we’re strictly sticking to the 180-degree rule.

    This could look something like this (in ASCII art):
    [A> <B]
    []

    I guess that my point is that the 180 degree rule is a good to follow in general, but in comics you also need to take into account how the panels relate to each other, and how the page works as a whole.

  4. Breaking the “180 degree rule” is NOT the same as a reverse angle.

    Reverse angles are NOT an even split, where one character in profile goes from left to right (for example) and vice versa for the other person.

    A reverse angle happens in the following situation: When one character in 3/4 view is on the left (and closer to the reader) and the other character is further away and spatially on the right. The reverse angle would put person #2 (still on the right) in the foreground, while #1 is in the background, and still on the left. Also important: The BACKGROUND changes between the shots.

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