At this year’s ASPERA Conference in Brisbane in early July, Tim Thomas from the University of Canberra presented a paper called The Bass Girl Research Project. The focus of the paper was on how Tim and his colleague Susan Thwaites used the production of a short film to conduct a research experiment into what is known in screen production as ‘crossing the line’ or the 180 degree rule. This is an approach to filming screen action designed to convey a consistent sense of spatial continuity.
It commonly applies to two situations: characters facing each other in dialogue, where observing the rule ensures that it always appears as though the characters are looking at each other when close-ups are intercut; and filming a person or object in movement, where observing the rule ensures that the person or object always appears to be moving in the same direction when different shots are intercut. For a detailed explanation of the rule, see ‘Film Art’ by Bordwell and Thompson (1993, pp. 262-264).
What I thought was interesting about this paper was its attempt to take a different approach to screen production research, using the production of a film for the specific purpose of testing a clearly defined hypothesis. According to Tim, while intending to make a successful film in its own right, the filmmakers also carefully designed the shoot to incorporate ‘crossing the line’ edits at key moments in the unfolding screen narrative, working on the hypothesis that emotional continuity is more important than spatial continuity in whether these edits worked or not. Their conclusion in the end was that the hypothesis was supported.
The paper generated a lively discussion afterwards. There were a couple of concerns expressed. One was around methodology, suggesting that audience evaluation was required to determine the ‘success’ of the edits. Tim’s response, if I’m recalling it correctly, was that they were not studying the audience. It was practitioner research focused on the filmmakers’ perspective. This approach has the advantage of making certain of the filmmakers’ intention.
The other query was around the value of researching ‘crossing the line’, as the perception of this as an ‘error’ in screen grammar or a failure in filmmaking practice is now a thing of the past. In other words, as an editing technique it was so commonly seen these days that its use did not need to be defended. I don’t agree with this myself. Firstly, while crossing the line is not uncommon in feature films and some TV series, it is still seriously frowned on in much mainstream production and is very much a marginal coverage strategy, the province of indy filmmakers or to be used in isolated cases by more stylistically adventurous directors.
Even if you accept the argument that crossing the line is now a commonplace element of screen grammar, the value of better understanding how to use it effectively through research is not diminished. In other disciplines, research is often undertaken into questions where there is a well-established ‘common sense’ understanding of an issue. Sometimes the research supports the existing understanding, sometimes it contradicts it. Often the research provides a more complex and nuanced understanding. Some issues are researched over and over, to see if earlier findings can be replicated or understandings developed. In all these cases, it is hard to see that the research is not worthwhile.
I think the approach described in Tim’s paper has potential and I’d like to see it developed further. Jump cuts and handheld camerawork are a couple of related production techniques that quickly come to mind. I’ve written elsewhere about what I see as a ‘tyranny of continuity’ pervading the practice of film production: how a concern for a style of storytelling that reflects spatial and temporal continuity unduly influences the way films are made. This is an issue that goes way beyond crossing the line and one that could be investigated with the research approach presented by Tim’s paper. Tim says he and Susan are planning to publish the findings from this research, which I’m very much looking forward to.