Doctor Who “Resolution” Shot Study – Crossing the Line

A month ago I was on a feature film shoot, ready to go into a take. The 1AD had called turnover, everything was slated, and the DOP jumped up, startling everyone, waving his arms. “Wait! Is this a line cross!?”

They don’t always wait until quite so last-second, but a line cross is a DOP nightmare. No matter how you shotlist, plan, and diagram, the moment you have to adjust camera position (because of lighting, because of time, because that beam just won’t move so your camera must), you risk the dreaded “unintentionally crossing the line”, also known as breaking the 180º rule. Of course, rules are made to be broken, and intentional line crosses can be effective. Done accidentally, they can be disastrous.

You can read more here, but the basic premise is: every scene draws an imaginary line across the set, and a stationary camera should stay on one side of it for the duration of the scene. Go further around without repositioning your characters and re-establishing your line, and you confuse the audience.

One way to reestablish is having the camera pull a 360º, like in the gym scene in Widows, thus the audience can see characters and where they are in relation to the camera/audience at all times. You can leave the camera and let characters reestablish themselves, but it needs to happen within take[s] you know you will use. You can also cheat by having a really obvious point of reference, like jail bars between the characters (see this video). Etc. etc. Exceptions and workarounds abound, which serve to make it more confusing, especially since it’s de rigueur to keep the camera moving. As part of / a mostly-natural outcome of following the line, characters end up staying on one side of frame for the duration of a scene. IE, whether it’s a group shot, a mid, a closeup, a shot-reverse-shot, a 2-shot, Character A is always on the left and Character B is always on the right. Here’s a scene sample: whether in wide, OTS, closeup of hands, etc, one person is always on the left, the other on the right.

Exceptions abound; you can shift someone to one side of frame without crossing the line – in fact they do it in this very Doctor Who scene – but often, once you establish a side of frame for a character, you keep them there so long as both character and camera is stationary.

Whether accidentally (for shame!), for dramatic effect, because of logistics, to underline a tonal or character shift, rules are ignored, lines are crossed.

The Doctor Who New Year’s special “Resolution” crosses the line in a big way during the diner scene with Ryan and his dad. The extent to which it works or has effect also brings to bear things like colour and some unusual singles. If you want to watch the scene, it starts around 20:00. Let’s walk it through:

We start with Ryan sitting alone, right of frame.

Dr Who Resolution - Cafe opener.PNG

CAM A (see Sketch 1)

Cut to his dad talking up the microwave to the proprietor. We’re still establishing the space, Ryan is frame right, Dad is frame left, and the camera is moving as Dad comes to sit down at the table.

This is one of only two times we will see red in the background of dad’s frame. (Hang onto that thought, we will come back to it.)

dr who resolution - cafe

We then get a quick shot of the proprietor before dad picks up his microwave and sits down. Because we’re still establishing everyone, we have a cutaway, dad’s moving and so is the camera, this would be a time to reset who is frame right/left, before the conversation gets going, but that’s not what happens.

Instead, we set up Dad FL:

dr who resolution - cafe 3

CAM B (see Sketch 1)

Before cutting back to the same shot where we opened, Ryan FR, and his dad in the foreground FL:

dr who resolution - cafe 1

CAM A (see Sketch 1)

So far, so good. We have also established the a table between them (a physical representation of the space Ryan maintains between himself and his biological father), and a dualistic colour scheme, where Ryan is backed by Righteously Angry Red and his dad by Cool Detached Blue.

The scene goes on like this for 6 or 7 cuts as the two talk, going back and forth between the two above angles, both Over The Shoulder.

Then we get this:

dr who resolution - setup the cross

CAM C (see Sketch 1)

Dad is not only framed against red, he is right of screen.**

This may feel a bit odd because 1. colour switch 2. it’s the first solo shot of the conversation 3. he’s now frame right. But it doesn’t actually cross the line, as the camera is still on the same side as it was before. See sketch below.*

Sketch 1

This, too, could have been a good time to initiate the line cross. It’s a halfway measure; dad is alone, FR, and against red. Instead, they take it more as an opportunity to superimpose him over Ryan, because we cut back to:

Dr Who Resolution - Cafe Cross superimp.PNG

CAM A (see Sketch 1)

As cuts go, it’s fine. The continuity of where Dad is looking is perfect, our eyes are drawn to Ryan because he is approximately in the same place his dad’s face was in the last shot.

Then the shots start moving closer, while staying in the same configuration as before. It makes sense we’re moving into closeups as the conversation becomes more intense.

Dr Who Resolution - Cafe 3.1.PNG

CAM B (see Sketch 1)

Then back once more to the wide of Ryan, before we cut back to dad and suddenly!:

dr who resolution - cafe 2

CAM D (see Sketch 2)

Dad has switched sides of frame, and the camera has moved as well.

Up until now, we have always been on one side of the line. This initiates the cross, and the next shot confirms it plans to stick with it for the remainder of the scene, because when we cut back to Ryan, we see he is now FL.

CAM E (see Sketch 2)

So now the general camera positions are:

Sketch 2

The scene hereafter sticks with CAM D and CAM E, with some adjustments for closeups, singles, etc.

After a cross, having an OTS shot with the other character still in frame for reference (both shots above) is helpful but as the conversation moves on, they cut to Ryan solo:

CAM E (see Sketch 2)

which is especially effective for his big speech:

CAM E (see Sketch 2)

and back to dad solo for his response:

CAM D (see Sketch 2)

Ryan still is backed by red, dad is still backed by blue.

And that, folks, is that. 

This doesn’t feel like a scene which cries out for a line cross, nor does it have something distinguishing between the characters to keep us orientated – say, the Kill Bill kitchen chat/fight, where you can use the kitchen island as a marker of where everyone is at any given time, and then use a moving camera, moving characters, and a birds-eye view to reorient as needed.

So, why did they cross the line? Was in intended as a stylistic flourish from the moment they shotlisted, or was it necessitated by something else (someone knocked over a set wall halfway through – who knows, anything can happen!) or was it an ‘accident’ and they ran the entire scene on all 5 cameras and the editor had to make it work using half from two cameras, half from the other two, and a stray shot from Camera C? No idea. But however it came about, since they were going to do it, they chose a good time in the scene. Crossing the line *immediately* before Ryan’s unbroken take where he lays out what he needs would confuse the issue too close to an emotional moment. Doing it this way ensured the audience is orientated before we jump into the unbroken take.

This scene – really, Ryan’s entire arc in this episode – tries to cram in what should be at least 3 episodes of emotional beats, but the actors make it work. It’s a beautiful, standout scene for Ryan, beautifully shot, and they keep the cross out of the way of the big emotional moments.

Stray Observations

– *I’m not suggesting they shot with 3 cameras at once, just that this is the approximate camera position for the main setups.

– **This is very “aughts prestige UK TV”

– While it is very In for a camera never to sit still, especially in superhero-esque shows, I wish network TV would have more scenes on sticks. The Powers That Be obviously think it conveys movement even when people are standing delivering expository dialogue, but it can be a lazy way of trying to inject momentum, which often means momentum through story or blocking is ignored. Plus, too often it injects restlessness, which is not the same thing.


One Response to “Doctor Who “Resolution” Shot Study – Crossing the Line”
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  1. […] I did a more detailed breakdown of a line cross (or breaking the 180 rule) in another post. Doctor Who is shot in a little more of a traditional style, whereas Succession goes the Friday Night Lights route of playing everything as a fly-on-the-wall narrative, with a floating camera giving it a bit of a documentary or reality show sans interviews. This feel also means casual blocking and line crosses are more common, but the way Roman and Kendall are juxtaposed here makes it feel quite intentional. […]

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