In the real world, we don’t have to worry about cOntinuity. Each action follows another, in perfect sync, adhering to a pattern we’ve come to expect from a lifetime of experience.
But what if the pattern shattered?
Say I’m standing in the mall one summer with my cousin Jenny. She has short blonde hair and wears a plaid minidress. Now I close my eyes, move back a few feet, take another look. Jenny’s a longhaired brunette in a jumpsuit, and Christmas carols are booming from the mall sound system.
That would qualify as a pretty intense continuity error, one not likely to occur to those who don’t hang around with HG. Wells or Michael J. Fox. Sights and sounds just do not alter that dramatically and instantly in the real world. But they do in editing.
As a videomaker, continuity errors probably will not haunt you unless you set out to mess around with reality. And if you’ve ever watched, without a break, two hours of unedited reality, you know why messing with it is not a bad thing.
For the purposes of this piece, I’ll divide reality meddling into two parts:
dramatic reality and real reality.
The last shall be first.
Keep it Real
Real reality sounds redundantly redundant, doesn’t it?
What I’m talking about is documentary style shooting and editing, where the action happens and you capture it. At a basketball game, say, the home team runs up and down the court, making sensational layups and performing outstanding defense. If you want to cut this footage down to a watchable length, you’ll have to get rid of some of the unnecessary action.
But what happens when you have a shot of Number 23, Tommy Steele, making a jump shot, and you edit it together with another shot of Steele taped from the same angle and focal length? You get a jump cut-not because Tommy sank a jump shot, but because he appears to jump from one part of the frame to another.
Jump cuts often occur when something is removed from a scene, If you’re compiling footage of crazy Aunt Margo and she suddenly says something mean about Uncle Will, well, you know you’ll have to edit that part out. But Aunt Margo moves around a lot, and when you excise the bad uncle comment, Aunt Margo’s head faces left one instant and right the next. That’s a jump cut.
You can avoid the embarrassment of jump cuts with the judicious use of cutaways, or, as some producers call it, B-roll. This simple solution involves looking around for extra shots during lulls in the main action. Get the cheerleaders jumping around, the crowd going wild, the coach pacing the sidelines, the team mascot being cute-anything else that might be useful.
Later, in editing, these scenes can be placed between two similar shots. Lacking a cutaway, players can move from immobility to a fast break without taking a step. By eliminating jarring visuals, your finished piece will flow like it happened in real time, with the boring parts eliminated.
Attention to Detail
In dramatic reality, bad continuity can cause some pretty bizarre flip-flops.
Because thamatic works are most often shot out of sequence, props, costumes and actions can differ radically from one shot to the next. Major films employ a continuity manager, whose sole job is to watch for slips. Those on a budget substantiaily less than studio millions must become their own continuity specialists.
In a dramatic shoot, continuity is all about details. Say your scene is set in a kitchen. Joe and Mary are arguing over money. Joe is wearing a white shirt and tie, Mary is clad in a business suit. Joe sits at the table drinking a glass of milk. Mary stands at the counter, making a list.
It’s been a very long day. You’ve put all your wide shots in the can, then decide to shoot the closeups in the morning.
Days later, during editing, you begin to get a queasy feeling in your gut. Then you start to see them… the continuity bugaboos. As you cut from wide shot to closeup and back again, the level of the milk in Joe’s glass goes up and down, up and down. His tie is loose in the closeup, and tight in the wide. Worst of all, Mary wears a blue suit in the wide shot and a bathrobe in the closeup. How could you have missed that? Well, you did shoot the closeups very early in the morning.
How could you have avoided this state of affairs? By paying attention to the details. Let me warn you: sweating the details is no fun. It isn’t glamorous, and can even be boring. But if you are serious about making your video look professional, it’s necessary.
A slow method of avoiding continuity gaffes is the taking of copious notes. Write down what everyone’s wearing, where they’re sitting or standing, the position of their hands, the time of day, any and all details that should remain the same from shot to shot.
A more expensive way is taking photographs of each setup. I suggest photos instead of rewinding your videotape to check continuity. The latter takes time and you run the risk of shooting over important footage.
Another safeguard is rehearsal. Long before shooting begins, take the actors through the scene. By giving them specific places to perch as they speak certain lines, you stand an improved chance of folks doing the same thing every time.
Say Joe is angry. He drinks the last of his milk and slams the glass down on the table. Then he says his line. The drinking and slamming of the glass set up the line. And because it happens the same way each time you shoot, you can edit it together any way you like.
Other continuity headaches: cigarettes and drinks. If someone’s smoking, the cigarette may go from long to short to long in different shots. So take a pack of cigarettes and cut them all to the same length. Whenever the cigarette burns for more than a minute, replace it. It should stay about the same length all the time.
Before Joe drinks his milk, the level is halfway up the glass. Get a grease pencil and make a tiny mark on the side of the glass away from the camera. Whenever there’s liquid in the glass make sure it’s level with that mark.
Ever wonder why Hollywood types shoot in those big studios? To keep riffraff like you and I from watching them work? That may be part of it, but the real reason is lighting control. If they’re working late at night and want the set to look like four o’clock in the afternoon, that’s the way it’s lit. If they come back in the morning at six to finish up, it still looks like four o’clock on the set.
Sound and Cutaways
Another way to destroy the illusion of reality is through sound.
First there’s a closeup of Joe saying his milk is sour. Birds are chirping just outside the window. Then you cut to a closeup of Mary telling Joe he’s a weenie. But now you can hear a train going by. That’s not right.
To protect yourself against this audio outrage, get enough background noise on location to cover your scene. If the scene lasts three minutes, secure three minutes of uninterrupted sound. Back in the editing suite, let the actors watch and listen to the scene for voice inflection and emotion. Then have the actors rerecord their dialogue as they watch themselves on the screen. This can be tricky, and the results can look like old Italian horror movies, but with patience and practice you should be able to get it. After your actors’ voices are on tape, add location background noise to the other audio channel.
For whopping visual continuity errors, there’s always a last resort: the cutaway. In wide shot Joe is at the table, Mary’s at the sink. You cut to the medium shot and Mary’s sitting next to Joe. Whoops. How did that happen?
You’re no dummy, you read Videomaker. That means you were smart enough to shoot a closeup of a butcher’s knife on the kitchen cutting block. Because Joe and Mary are nowhere near the cutting block, you can insert this shot between the wide shot and the medium, letting it run long enough for Mary to get from the sink to the table. Continuity is saved.
However, since every scene should have a reason, the audience will assume the knife has something’to do with the story. Is Mary going to stab Joe? Will a psycho killer come through the window and grab the knife? Will Mary and Joe have pork chops for dinner?
These are dramatic questions, and should be answered. Your audience has a right to know if pork is on the menu. On the other hand, in the TV series Twin Peaks director David Lynch often cut away to a shot of a traffic light and he never explained that.
So the answer must be: if you want your continuity to look real, sweat the details. If you want to be hailed as a genius, throw in a shot of a traffic light and maybe a dancing midget or two. Either way, the results should be pretty interesting.
William Ronat‘s directorial career has taken him from the relative safety of an aircraft carrier at sea to the intense and dangerous world of network soaps.