Continuity is the complex craft of making the hundreds or even thousands of small parts of a program seem like a single, continuous whole. In big studio productions, perfect continuity is so important that crews always include a script supervisor to oversee it.
Even script supervisors can’t catch everything. Remember the disaster movie, Twister? In one shot a truck windshield is shattered by flying debris; but a few shots later, the windshield is magically whole again. In the opening of the cult classic The Stunt Man, a character dives through a closed screen door, ripping one side of the screen. In the matching shot from the outside, the same screen is ripped down the center instead. What we have here is a failure to continuate! Specifically, a failure to match information.
Information is only the first of five related types of continuity. The other four are action, look, movement, and convention; and it’s useful to study all five of them.
Continuity of Information
Information mismatches occur because shots covering the same material may be made minutes, hours, or days apart, often out of chronological order. Many television sitcoms are composites of two or three different takes, and this can lead to strange quirks of continuity in an edited program. A soda teleports from right hand to left, or Rosco’s police cruiser in The Dukes of Hazzard alternates between a Ford, a Pontiac and a Lincoln in one chase scene. In Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, pieces on a chess board in one scene magically disappear a few seconds later. Why? Because the actor and director have forgotten the details of one shot by the time they make the next.
Why care about such trivia? Because every mistake reminds your audience that what they’re seeing isn’t real. Before you know it, they’re watching the production instead of the show. That may be okay for a twisted comedy like Airplane, but in most cases your goal is to make the craft invisible.
What’s the best way to avoid information mismatches? Simple: when you set up a shot, run the footage of the shot(s) it should match, look at the details and take notes if necessary. If you shoot in the classical style, review the master shot of the scene (containing all or most of the action) and then match all the other shots to it. You can also take a Polaroid or digital picture of each scene to compare with the others later. If you don’t shoot a master, match the new shot to the other shots that will bracket it in the finished program.
Continuity of Action
Like the physical features, the activities in a scene should match from shot to shot. Think of it this way: information means which hand carries the soda can; action means when the actor drinks the soda.
Obviously, if the actor drinks in one angle of a shot, and doesn’t in another angle of the same action, you have a major discontinuity. But that kind of goof is easy to spot and correct. A sneakier mismatch involves exactly when the actor takes that sip. If you have…
MEDIUM SHOT: “I love Yummy Cola. It’s a real thirst-buster!”
CLOSE SHOT: (drinks) “I love Yummy Cola. It’s a real thirst-buster!”
…you’re in continuity trouble.
In a case like this you can sometimes edit around the mismatch:
MEDIUM SHOT: “I love Yummy Cola. (the actor drinks)
CLOSE SHOT: It’s a real thirst-buster!”
But if the actor does not completely finish drinking before starting the second line, you’re sunk. Just pray you have a nice insert to cover the break in continuity (see Figure 1):
MEDIUM SHOT: “I love Yummy Cola. (the actor drinks)
TIGHT CLOSEUP: The bottle draining and then lowering out of frame. Voice off-camera) It’s a real…
CLOSE SHOT: …thirst-buster!”
As a general rule, separating mismatched actions with a cutaway will often distract the viewer’s eye enough to conceal the mistake.
Continuity of Look
The remaining three types of continuity involve screen direction. Maintaining screen direction involves orienting people (and objects like cars) in the same direction with respect to the edges of the frame (left or right) regardless of their orientation in the actual world.
When you establish a screen direction for your subject to look and/or move, you create an imaginary “action line” between subject and camera. As long as you keep the two on their respective sides of that line, you’ll maintain screen direction continuity. But if you move the camera across the magic line, the subject will instantly switch direction on the screen, though in the real world, that doesn’t actually happen.
Even when not moving, subjects should maintain a continuity of look. If the opening two-shot establishes that John is on the left facing right and Marsha’s on the right facing left, then John’s closeup should also face right and Marsha’s left.
Why bother? Because at the start of each sequence, the audience unconsciously finds its “position” with respect to John and Marsha like a third party in the discussion. If you reverse screen directions, you jump the audience to a new “position,” forcing it to re-orient itself (dropping out of the story while they do so).
Continuity of Movement
Start John and Marsha moving and screen direction continuity gets trickier. First, you must decide which direction to use for each:
If they start at different places and move in the same screen direction, they’re bound for the same destination.
If they start at different places and move in opposite screen directions, they’re operating independently of each other.
If they start at the same place and move in the same screen direction, then they’re racing or pursuing each other.
If they start at the same place and move in different screen directions, they’re explicitly moving away from each other.
Of course, you can’t maintain the same screen directions indefinitely. It’s easy to establish new directions with each new program sequence, but what if you must change directions within a single sequence? In that case, you have four different options.
The most obvious ploy is to have the subject change direction right on camera. The getaway car roars into the shot left to right, spins out in a 180-degree bootlegger’s turn, then roars off again right to left. Subsequent shots can continue the screen-left direction.
If you have the footage, you can insert a neutral shot between the reversed directions:
1 LONG SHOT: getaway car races left to right.
2. FULL SHOT: car roars straight toward camera.
3. LONG SHOT: car zooms right to left.
That way, the neutral shot acts as a buffer between the switched screen directions. The third method is to buffer the switch with a cutaway to something else, like an observer or perhaps the interior of the car. By the time you cut back to the moving shots, the audience’s memory of the previous screen direction has faded somewhat.
Finally, you can just let the moving person or object exit the screen entirely, before picking it up again in a different shot with a different screen direction. For maximum effectiveness, enhance the cut with two tricks:
End with an empty frame and then start with another empty frame before the subject enters moving in a new screen direction.
Allow an extra moment’s pause at the end, beginning or preferably both, before resuming the action.
Before leaving the topic of changing screen direction, we should add that sometimes you want no continuity at all. For example, if you have a succession of shots of a person spending the afternoon touring Paris, a constantly shifting screen direction will indicate a variety of activities in several places over a period of time.
But first you have to get your heroine to Paris, so you start with a shot of a passenger jet flying across the Atlantic.
And which way does it fly? Left to right, of course. Its screen direction could just as easily be right to left (if your chase plane were taping from the north of the airliner). However on a world map, North America is on the left of the Atlantic Ocean and Europe is on the right, so the plane “must” fly toward screen right. (A screen-left direction would have your heroine flying towards Tokyo.) That is a continuity of convention, meaning, there’s no logical reason for it but the audience expects it and gets confused if it’s ignored.
A different convention involves screen directions inside vehicles. Let’s say Bunny and Claude are rattling westward in their jalopy (to appropriate banjo music), so the car is moving toward screen left, where west is on a map. Cut to an interior of Bunny riding shotgun, and she’s facing left too, so far so good. But when you cut to Claude at the wheel, he’s facing left to right.
Does this violate screen direction? Technically yes, but conventionally no. You see, all shots of a passenger from the driver’s point of view face left, and all drivers face right, no matter which way the vehicle’s moving on the screen. By now, audiences have seen this conventional arrangement so many times that they accept it unquestioningly.
Before wrapping this shoot, we should return to The Stunt Man, a must video rental for any serious director or editor. In one sequence our hero runs along the outside second story balcony of a hotel while actors playing soldiers “shoot” at him from the lawn. The director cut the scene so the first shot was seen from the shooter’s point of view, the second shot from the hotel roof behind the hero and the third shot was back to the shooters side. Of course, the stunt man is running the same direction through all three angles.
To give the second shot the same screen direction as the ones from the shooter’s point of view, (shot from the other side of the action line) the director had to reverse our hero’s direction on the real-world balcony. Ninety-nine out of 100 viewers never spot this reversal because on the screen, the continuity is unbroken.
When it comes to creating continuity, what happens in the “real” world doesn’t mean much, only what is seen on the screen counts.