The Logistics of the Reverse Angle

The reverse-angle shot is more complicated than it looks on the screen. The drawing presents a schematic showing one of the key ways in which continuity of space is generally ensured under the classical continuity system. We begin with the assumption that any onscreen action occurs along a hypothetical 180º axis (represented by the dotted line). In order to take shots for the scene, the director can place the camera anywhere on the same side of the line (thus the limit of 180º on the camera angle). From the spectator’s perspective, the camera positions labeled 1, 2, and 3 would therefore retain the integrity of pro-filmic space, while camera position X would violate it. In the accompanying screen shots, we see this principle (called the “axis-of-action” or “180º” principle) when it’s applied to a reverse-angle sequence from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (USA/New Zealand, 2003). The first shot takes up camera position 2, viewing the action over the shoulder of Elijah Wood as Frodo and thus “favoring” Sean Astin as Sam; the second shot—the reverse angle—takes up camera position 3, “favoring” Wood/Frodo. In the American film, the use of the reverse-angle shot had become quite common by about 1915.

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