Ever watched a scene in a movie where a man answers a phone with his right hand, and after a cut, suddenly holds it to his ear in his left?
Maybe you’ve seen an actor wearing sunglasses in one shot, and not in the next; or an actress looking to one side of a room, and instantly looking the other way after a cut.
Whether or not you know the textbook definition of editing “continuity,” if you recognize moments like these, you know what continuity errors look like.
Television and movie audiences suffer breaks in visual, aural and story continuity every day. While a
compelling story or exciting action sequence may draw attention away from production flaws, the few continuity
glitches that get noticed strip away some of the program’s impact. Spare your video and your audience from the ill
effects of continuity breaks by learning to hide them and prevent them.
Consider this article continuity boot camp. In it, you’ll see how to classify common continuity errors, as
well as how to keep them from plaguing your future productions. For those times when you can’t prevent a
continuity problem, you’ll learn tricks to disguise them, and minimize their impact on your programs.
Open Your Books
Every video has three conceptual “threads:” an audio thread or soundtrack, a video thread or picture track, and
a subject thread, which is the content or story. In videomaking, you use these threads to creatively tell a story, or
communicate a message to an audience.
A continuity error disrupts the logical flow of action or ideas, effectively “cutting” one or more of these
threads. Audiences feel a jolt because they suddenly see something they didn’t expect.
Spotting a continuity error isn’t too tough. Anytime you sense that an edit doesn’t “feel right,” it probably
has some type of continuity problem. The trick is isolating exactly what went wrong and why, and then finding a
way to fix it.
If you do all of the shooting and editing in your videos, you can take a number of simple precautions on the
shoot to prevent continuity from biting you in the edit. If someone else shoots the footage you edit, or if you can’t
reshoot problematic footage, you’ll have to use clever editing to fix continuity errors.
In some cases you can eliminate them. In most, you’ll simply draw attention away from the error to
maintain a smooth flow from one shot to the next, and from one idea to the next.
To illustrate how editing can help preserve continuity, I’ll use a scene I recently edited as an example. It
took place in a small-town diner, and had three characters. Jim and Sherry, the scene’s main players, come to the
diner to talk and have coffee. A server appears in the scene to take their order and deliver drinks and food.
I’ll explain a number of the continuity problems I found while editing this scene, along with how I solved
each one. Where possible, I’ll include solutions that would’ve worked just as well as the one I ultimately chose. I’ll
also offer shooting suggestions to help prevent such problems in your work.
An Awkward Position
You’ve no doubt seen videos where actors or objects pop from one place to another in the blink of an eye.
Doors pop open and closed, people have coats or hats on and then off, or they face a different direction with each
cut. These are known as position continuity problems, and the diner scene had a few of them.
First, the cups on the table were never in the same place in any two shots. A common editing technique
called the cutaway helped keep the cups from dancing across the table in the final edited scene.
Cutaways, which are basically a short cut edit to a separate but related shot, work well when you want to
draw attention away from a continuity error. Cutaways usually last no more than two seconds. You can hide many
position continuity problems by putting a cutaway between shots with objects or actors that change position. That’s
what I did.
Between the medium shot of Sherry with her cup placed squarely in front of her, and the two-shot with her
cup off to the right, I put a reaction shot of Jim’s face. Technically, the cup still changes places in the scene. The
audience, however, will probably pay more attention to Jim’s reaction, and less to the cup’s position. When the
action returns to Sherry, they won’t see that the cup’s moved. I didn’t exactly eliminate the problem–I just hid it.
Cutaways won’t always work, unfortunately. If you try a cutaway and it doesn’t feel right, try cutting to a
different view of the scene where the jumping actors or objects aren’t visible, or aren’t as prominent.
In the diner scene, I could’ve cut to a much wider view of the table to solve the position problem instead of
the cutaway. In a wide shot, things like cup positions are harder to see. There are also many other things happening
in the shot to draw attention away from the cups.
On to the second position problem. Unfortunately, the videomaker didn’t get a good medium shot of
Sherry leaving the table at the end of the scene. He did get a shot of Jim’s face as she left, which he took from a
reverse angle behind her. He also got a good wide shot where Sherry gets up, stands at the table, waves good-bye
In the edit, I had to find a way to communicate that Sherry had left her seat at the table and was standing at
the table waving good-bye to Jim. One option was to use the wide shot where Sherry did exactly that. It was clean
and had no position continuity problems. Using just the wide shot, however, didn’t have the visual appeal I
To add more interest, I used sound to communicate the action instead of just video. First, I cut to Jim’s
reaction shot, and audio dubbed sounds of a chair moving and a coat rustling to indicate that Sherry was getting up.
Then I cut to the wide shot of her standing at the table to see her wave and then leave.
You can prevent position continuity problems from affecting future projects by giving actors and objects a
specific mark on the set. Use a small piece of tape to indicate where actors should sit or stand, or where they should
put items like pens and coffee cups.
These continuity problems involve an actor who starts a task with one hand and finishes it with the other.
While it’s a visual continuity error, it’s more accurately a content or subject problem. The audience expects the
actor to finish an action with the same hand, but suddenly sees them using the other instead.
I found a problem like this editing the diner scene. In a wide two-shot of the table, Jim pulled a sugar
packet from the dispenser with his right hand. He used his left hand, however, in a medium shot of the same
As with the position problem, I tried using cutaways between the two shots to distract the audience. First I
tried cutting to a quick medium shot of Sherry. Then I tried a close up of Jim’s face. Neither looked quite right.
I ended up eliminating the medium shot of him pouring the sugar into his coffee cup, and just used the
wide two-shot. Although this technique left one shot on the “cutting room floor,” the scene flowed more
You can prevent similar problems by giving actors in your videos specific directions regarding which hand
to use for action sequences. Make sure they perform the same motion with the same hand in repeated takes, and
you’ll avoid having to fix problems in the edit.
The videomaker shot most of the footage early in the morning, before the restaurant opened. Because only the
videomaker and actors were in the diner at that time, unwanted ambient noise didn’t present much of a problem in
most of the takes.
The videomaker did run short of time, however, and had to shoot some final shots after the doors had
opened. Those takes have the sound of plates clanging, people talking and general restaurant hubbub in the
background. Cutting these different takes back to back created some sound continuity problems. Specifically, the
sounds of the active restaurant popped in and out unexpectedly at certain edit points.
I fixed the problem by dubbing an ambient restaurant background track from a sound effects CD
underneath the entire scene. The extra ambient noise hid the sound continuity errors, and “welded” the scene
together. It felt more like it was actually shot on a busy day in the restaurant.
You can keep ambient sound smooth in your videos by closely monitoring all location audio through a set
of good headphones. Listen carefully for changes in background activity, or machines like refrigerators, drinking
fountains and air conditioners switching on and off.
Also, record a few minutes of ambient sound on the set. Ask everyone to be quiet, and then roll some tape.
In the edit, if you need to mask sound continuity errors, you can use this long stretch of ambient sound to do just
If you’ve ever used more than one mike to record a scene, or if you’ve combined audio from multiple-
generation source tapes onto one master, you probably know what fluctuating audio fidelity sounds like.
On source tapes that have been dubbed down a generation or two, the upper frequencies tend to disappear.
This deprives the sound of crispness and clarity. Tapes recorded with more than one mike may have varying tonal
characteristics. One mike may sound nasal and thin, another rich and dynamic.
Combining these different audio signals into a video often creates sound continuity problems.
Voices don’t sound the same from one shot to the next, and the overall sound quality varies throughout the
The videomaker on the diner shoot left me in such a situation. He used two lavalier mikes to record
dialogue at the table. He had someone holding a boom-mounted shotgun to record the server as she took the order.
Finally, he used the on-camera mike to record the couple entering the restaurant and approaching the table.
To make it all sound as similar as possible, I ran everything through a mixer and an equalizer. The lavalier
mikes became the sound “standard,” since they recorded most of the scene’s sound. I didn’t equalize them at all in
the final edit.
I boosted the low frequencies in scenes recorded with the boom mike and the on-camera mike, because
they weren’t as full sounding as the lavaliers. I reduced the higher frequencies on takes recorded with the boom
mike, to make it sound even more like the lavaliers.
Although not an exact match, the final audio mix hid enough of the differences between the mikes to avoid
bothering all but the most discerning ears. Adding the ambient background track also helped mask the microphone
If you must edit a scene using two or more different microphones, try to use one as an “ambient” mike to
record the sound of the overall scene. With a mixer, blend it underneath the other microphones you use. This will
help hide some of the differences before you start editing.
The diner scene had a directional or motion continuity problem as well. After the server took
Jim and Sherry’s order, she turned from the table and left the frame. Unfortunately, the videomaker didn’t specify
which direction she should walk out of frame.
In the medium shot of her taking the order, she turned to the right to leave the scene. In the wide view, she
turned to the left. That left me with a directional conflict between the two shots.
The medium shot of the server was flattering. In the wide view, as she turned to leave, Jim delivered his
line of dialogue especially well. For these reasons, I really wanted to use both of these shots in the final edited
The rule of thumb for editing action says to make cuts happen “on the action.” To cut these shots together,
the proper edit point would be when her body turns to leave. Because of the directional conflict, however, I couldn’t
Instead, I had to cut as the server delivered her line, before she turned to leave the table.
She said something like, “I’ll be right back with your drinks.” I chose to cut from her medium shot to the
wide shot on the word “back,” because it was an easy syllable to locate while shuttling the tape. Luckily, the
position of her head matched fairly well in both the wide shot and the medium shot, further smoothing the cut.
By cutting in the middle of her line, I was able to use both the medium shot of the server, as well as the
wide shot where Jim delivered his next line.
I also could’ve used an audio-lead-video split edit to solve this problem. Instead of cutting back to
the wide shot during the server’s line, I could have stayed with her medium shot until she left the frame. When she
finished delivering her line, I could have edited part of Jim’s next line underneath the image of her turning to leave.
Once she’d left the frame, I could then cut to the wide shot.
A savvy videomaker could have prevented both of these complex edits by telling the server which way to
turn as she left the shot. Save yourself hours of editing grief by giving your actors very detailed instructions about
how and where to move in a scene.
When you use an editing trick to disguise or repair a continuity error, be sure the trick you use to mask one
problem doesn’t create another in the process. For example, if you use a cutaway to mask an error, make sure you
cut to something related to the scene, or familiar to the audience. If you use an awkward or unfamiliar shot to cover
a continuity problem, you may confuse the audience, and simply trade one error for another.
Also, keep in mind that how slowly or quickly you pace the edits in a video can often be a fourth thread for
the audience to follow. Gradual variations in edit pace will keep the story moving and the audience motivated.
Sudden or unexpected changes in pace, however, can break continuity and disrupt audience attention.
Keep your continuity errors to a minimum, and you’ll keep your viewers entertained.