In every field, there are a few skills that are tricky to master. Meet the film studies culprit—the 180-degree rule. College of Arts & Media Assistant Professor Eric Jewett wanted an effective way to teach it. When he couldn’t find it, he decided to create it.
What is the 180-Degree Rule?
The 180-degree rule relates to point of view in a two-person scene. “If you have two people, a woman and a man, sitting at a café having a conversation, she is looking left at him and he is looking right at her,” Jewett explained. All the camera shots need to remain consistent in order to situate the viewer in the scene. “The camera always has to stay on their side of the 180-degree line. If you cross the line, one of the characters is looking in the wrong direction, which confuses the audience.”
Jewett, who worked as a director in Los Angeles for more than 40 years, knows what he’s talking about. Having directed television shows like Weeds and Party of Five, as well as working as assistant director on many films, including Return of the Jedi and Lost Boys, Jewett has learned to maintain the 180-degree rule. “It’s easy to break the rule, but it’s a major filmmaking crime to do it,” he said.
Class Becomes Film Set
Jewett decided to turn his spring Advanced Acting class into a film set in order to make a movie that illustrates the 180-degree rule. The resulting short film, titled 180 Degrees, includes a dramatic short film followed by a brief instructional film. In other words, 180 Degrees both shows and tells.
Of course, Jewett needed a script. In a previous senior thesis class, Jewett had read a student script he really liked. “I approached the student writer, and I asked her if I could have the rights to her script and turn it into a short film,” he explained. He liked it because it was a movie about a woman who creates agency for herself. “It’s a neo-noir about a young woman who gets abandoned by her rock star boyfriend after he becomes successful—and then decides to get even,” he said.
After choosing the script, Jewett worked diligently to convert his Advanced Acting class into a film shoot. “I started this class as if it were a professional film,” he said. “I had all the students send me headshots, they all did monologues and taped themselves, and they submitted it to me as the casting director.”
To Be or Not to Be
COVID-19 posed an additional challenge to an already-demanding film schedule. First, Jewett’s students had to decide if they wanted the film to reflect pandemic life. “I asked them if they wanted to make it a record of this period of time or not,” he explained. “They all agreed they hated COVID.” So, 180 Degrees would need to be filmed with unmasked actors.
Jewett and his students were set to shoot one day a week for eight weeks, from noon until midnight. Additionally, they filmed on Saturdays. Safety was paramount, so Jewett worked with CU Denver to maintain health guidelines, which included masks for all crew members. The lead actors also had to be tested for COVID-19 weekly before filming without their masks.
Not all pandemic-related circumstances were bad, however. With far less people on campus, Jewett was able to use multiple Auraria buildings as film locations. The campus Starbucks became a coffee shop, a Tivoli conference room was converted into an apartment, and MSU Denver’s student-run restaurant at Springhill Suites provided another location.
Monique Salas, who was cast as the lead actor, thinks that making the film taught her the 180-degree rule in the best possible way. “Talking about the 180-degree rule in class and watching some movies with the 180-degree cut is a nice example,” she said. “Still, it is very different from actually being there during the filming process and watching exactly what doing that cut looks like.”
While making the film taught students how directors actually use the 180-degree rule, the process was time-consuming. “Let me say that the act of producing was quite difficult for me and the students,” Jewett said. Unfortunately, he is already waking up at three in the morning with ideas for more meta-films. “This morning I just thought of a new idea—Three and Me,” he said. “It would be about how to shoot three-character scenes. Twos and Fours are easy, but shooting threes is challenging.”
For Salas, turning the class into a film shoot also improved her acting skills. “Seeing the process of diving into the character and being directed by someone with strong intentions and plans for a role is very different from what I had experienced before,” she said. “I couldn’t have been more excited.”
Jewett was also excited with the 180-degree project—for other reasons. “One of the things that excites me about CU Denver in general and this class in particular is that I’m working with very diverse students—42% of the people in the class are of people of color and 30% of my cast are women of color,” he said. “I think it’s important to show that people of color have stories, that they have lives because they’re so often ignored in mainstream filmmaking.”
Jewett plans to use the film as a teaching tool. He also hopes to market 180 Degrees to other film schools. He will take the summer to finish the film, a process that will include sound editing. When it’s ready, Jewett will be happy to share the work. “We’ll have a screening in the College of Arts & Media, I’m going to show it to my students—and to anyone on campus,” he said.