How to Not ‘Cross The Line’

      18 Comments on How to Not ‘Cross The Line’

In my post ‘What’s Wrong With Your Storyboards‘, the first storyboarding mistake I mentioned was screen direction and crossing the line.

How do you not ‘cross the line’? I’ll tell you how.

Forget about ‘the line’. Sorta.

But you better know what the heck the line *is* before I start telling you to ditch it.

The line of action, 180 degree line or the axis line (whatever you like to call it) is an imaginary line drawn down the center of the action of a scene. In many live-action film making books it looks something like this.

Illustration from ‘Film Directing Shot by Shot’ – Steven D. Katz/FrankBolle.

What’s a circle? 360 degrees. Draw a line through the center of it and you get 180 degrees (isn’t math fun?).

Illustration from ‘Film Directing Shot by Shot’ – Steven D. Katz/FrankBolle.

The principle is that once you choose where that line will be, you can put your camera along any part of that 180 half circle and the scene will work direction-wise. Like this.

Illustration from ‘Film Directing Shot by Shot’ – Steven D. Katz/FrankBolle.

If you place your camera suddenly on the other side of that line, your direction gets screwed up.

Illustrations from ‘Film Directing Shot by Shot’ – Steven D. Katz/FrankBolle.

Someone or something is now facing the wrong way. This can really disorient the audience.

Rule one of visual storytelling: don’t disorient your audience.

Now these down shots with little cameras is all well and good. But you know what else it is?


Especially when you’re drawing cartoons. In cartoons we work on 2 dimensional paper or a computer screen, not in a real 3 dimensional room (well, yeah we do…but you know what I mean). I suspect it can get confusing for the live-action folks too. Especially when you get beyond just two bozos sitting at a table.

But I will stick with the two bozos at the table for now. Let’s learn the easy part first, shall we?

Now when I say forget about the line, I don’t mean forget about *the rule*.

The rule always applies.

I just want you to think about it in our wonderful 2 dimensional world. On paper. On a screen. Even you live-action gurus. It just might make your life a little easier.

Illustration from ‘Film Directing Shot by Shot’ – Steven D. Katz/FrankBolle.

Instead of the imaginary line and the little cameras and the half circle, just think about the frame (or the storyboard panel…same thing). Draw a line down the middle of the frame and that frame has two sides. (OK, I lied…there is a line).

Illustration from ‘Film Directing Shot by Shot’ – Steven D. Katz/FrankBolle.

A left side and a right side. When storyboarding, always think of the left and right of the frame, not the ‘left of this character’ or the ‘right of that character’. Just the left side of the frame and the right side of the frame. That’s it.

Now we have our two folks at the table. The dude is on the left, the chick is on the right.

Keep them there.

Where does the dude have to look to see the chick?

Right side.

Where does the chick have to look to see the dude?

Left side.

Illustrations from ‘Film Directing Shot by Shot’ – Steven D. Katz/FrankBolle.

That’s it.

Keep them always facing that other side (and keep them on their own sides) and you will never cross the line.

I know it sounds stupidly simple. But people screw it up all the time. When they start using different shots and angles, it can slip away from them for a shot or two (or seven).

It doesn’t just work with people in a shot. It can be the guy and his TV.

The dog and a tree.

The child and the moon.

Just keep asking yourself the questions.

Which side did you establish the TV, the tree, the moon on? Then which side of the frame must the guy, the dog, the child face to see it?

Then face them that way and keep the person/object on their own side.

Now things can get a lot more complicated. Add in a few more people. Have them all sitting at the dinner table. Have them enter and exit.

You can change the line and establish new ones. Then you follow the same rules. But I think this is enough for one post. I hope it made some sense. I just wanted to give you the simplest examples so you grasp the basic concept.

Remember you have to learn the rules before you can break ’em.

But uh…don’t break ’em.

Promise? 🙂

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18 thoughts on “How to Not ‘Cross The Line’

  1. Liana

    Karen :

    Very straight forward and I understand the basic concept of ” not crossing the line” Going to the movies will never be the same anymore .

    My curiosity into the storyboard world , kind of became an obsession , I love reading the concept , even if this is not my side line .( no pun intended ) .

    Looking forward to the continuation of this topic.

    Liana 🙂

  2. Lorin

    Excellent post. For one of the most basic and fundamental rules of boarding/visual storytelling it seems to be one of the hardest for people to grasp.


  3. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    @ Liana
    Cool! If this can make sense to anyone reading it, then I’m stoked. Glad you’re enjoying the ‘world’ so much. 🙂

    Until I looked at it this way, I screwed it up in the early days too. It is one of those simple-yet-hard things to grasp for some. I hope this makes it a little easier. 🙂

  4. Friar


    These are your pictures, right? With the guy watching TV and the dog.

    I love them. So loose and free. You are a great cartoonist!

    I always like looking at other people’s gives me ideas for my own.

  5. Pete

    Yeah good post, I always found thinking about it as a line confusing.

    Theres a cool bit in ‘the godfather’ where they decide to break it. when Michael Corleon is talking with his wife in the hotel somewhere around the middle of the movie, suddenly they just break the rule and you feel disorientated. I can’t take credit for noticing it though my teacher pointed it out.

  6. Dan Szilagyi

    Nice and simple but a very important aspect of boarding, i’m guilty for forgetting it time to time myself.

    I argee with Friar though, you should post up some artwork time to time Karen!

  7. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    @ Friar
    Yup, they’re mine. I was going to include a disclaimer to “please excuse my crappy little drawings” (I literally whipped them off in 10 minutes for this post), but thought that would be lame and irritating to others. So I’ll do it here. 😉

    @ Pete
    There’s lots of examples of crossing it in live-action films. (Not all of them on purpose, I’m sure!) And it’s a little more forgiving there I think.

    The directors that do it on purpose, you just know they *know* what they’re doing and that it’s for a reason. Because they know the rule in the first place. But in cartoons, it looks like the big ol’ mistake that it is.

    @ Dan
    Thanks! Yes, I probably should. I just don’t derive that much pleasure from drawing anymore. It’s such a ‘job’. Crazy, huh? 🙂

  8. Friar



    Your drawings arent’ crappy. Not in the least.

    I think they’re awesome.

    They’re fresh and spontaneous. There is an honesty in the way you express yourself here.

    I can tell by your drawing style that you were relaxed when you did this. You manage to fully convey the emotions of your characters with the minimum amount of lines and sketching.

    That takes a considerable ammount of talent, not just anyone can do this.

    Don’t sell yourself short, you really ARE a gifted cartoonist.

    (And I’m not saying this to be polite and touchy-feely, either). I mean it!

  9. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    @ Friar
    Aww shucks, thanks. 🙂

    I always prefer to see rough drawings of artists too. Ever see any rough animation reels from Disney artists? SO much better than seeing the finished product!

    There’s definitely something to be said for drawing fast and rough. Everyone should practice that way. It’s good to get away from that ‘planted line’.
    Loosen up and have fun. 🙂

  10. Lorin

    What? No, I ENJOY breaking the rules!!! All premeditated and intentional. My 180 rule rockets off into the 4th dimension.

  11. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    I’m sure you do, you rebel you. 😉

    As long as you *know* the rule that you’re breaking in the first place.

    (But STOP IT! For the love of all that is good in the world…STOP IT NOW!!!!) 🙂

  12. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Crossing the Line

  13. Doron

    Tarantino flawlessly implements the rule in his converstion scenes (see the Big Kahuna burgers scene from Pulp Fiction, or the opening conversation in Reservoir Dogs). The characters always stay on the same side of the line relative to the character they’re addressing, even though they’re all facing different angles and the conversation jumps from person to person.

  14. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hi Doron,

    Yes, some great examples there! It’s scenes like that where I mean things can get *a lot* more complicated. All that planning was no accident. He knew what he was doing so the audience would never get lost with the many characters on screen.

    Thanks for the input. 🙂

  15. Rebecca Abbott

    The first illustrations come directly from Steven Katz’s Film DIrecting: Shot by Shot. You might want to give credit to him and his co-illustrator Frank Bolle, for their original work. And you might want to recommend Katz’s book, which is an excellent introduction to visualizing stories in film.

  16. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hi Rebecca,

    I’m very much aware of where I got these illustrations. I have recommended this book on the blog and to many, many students in the past. So thanks.

    I certainly didn’t intend to give the impression that those were my drawings and thought it was pretty obvious by including my own at the end.

    Not giving credit was just a huge oversight on my behalf in this post, as I always try to give credit where it’s due on my other posts. *slaps self on side of the head*

    My apologies to Mr. Katz and Mr. Bolle. This mistake has been corrected.

  17. Chetan Hosaktoe

    Please share the book Film directing shot by shot…….I desperately need it….

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