In video and film, "continuity" refers to the many strategies utilized by the director and editor to create the illusion of, yes, a continuous program out of a bunch of separate shots. Continuity consists of all the techniques employed to arrange those pieces into a mosaic picture in which the individual stones are invisible to the viewer.
Reduced to the bare essentials, making a movie is a three step process:
- First you take a continuous narrative (whether a story or a nonfiction subject) and break it down into separate pieces small enough to record as individual shots.
- Then you shoot those shots, duplicating (or overlapping) action from one shot to the next.
- Finally, you reassemble the narrative by placing the shots end-to-end in order, while trimming the overlaps and discarding the unwanted duplicates.
As you can see, two out of three parts of the process are the responsibility of the director and the editor performs only the re-assembly (even if that editor is simply the director modeling a different hat).
But since this is Edit Suite, we’ll focus mainly on how the editor takes whatever footage he or she gets and imposes a smooth continuity upon it. We’ll look at making invisible edits and adding transitions. And let’s start with a quick reprise of screen direction.
Screen direction is a major contributor to smooth continuity. Basically, it involves keeping performers (and things like cars) facing or moving in the same direction on the screen from shot to shot, throughout any continuous action. In the actual world, they may be moving every which way from Tuesday; but if the camera’s positioned properly for each shot, their video images will always cross the plane of the screen in a consistent direction.
Establishing screen direction is the director’s job. Your job in the editing suite is to maintain it, change it as needed, and (all too often) fix it when it’s broke.
As long as a character maintains screen direction from shot to shot, you have nothing to worry about. Often, however, the direction will reverse in the middle of a sequence because of restrictions on camera placement, just for variety or because the director messed up.
Without adroit smoothing on your part, the switch can have a cartoonish look, like Wile E. Coyote zipping back and forth between cacti. If the director doesn’t change an actor’s direction right in the middle of a shot so that the audience can see and follow the change, you have two options for easing the reversal: the empty frame and the cutaway.
If the raw footage permits it, allow the person or object to exit the frame at the end of the first shot; then start the next shot a beat before the character enters (now in a different screen direction.) This smooths continuity in two ways. First, it allows time off-screen for the character to plausibly change direction and second, it permits the viewer’s visual memory of the first direction to fade before you present the second direction.
You can still use the empty frame ploy even if only one of the two shots has space at its foot or head. The smoothing effect just won’t be quite as strong.
The other technique for softening a screen direction change is a cutaway: a shot that shows something other than the moving subject. "Cut to the birds; cut to the clouds," as movie editors joke–and when you cut back to the main subject, the cutaway will have distracted the audience from the change in apparent motion.
In fact, cutaways are chicken soup for many continuity ailments. They are so useful that we’ll encounter them as remedies for several more continuity problems.
But what happens if you don’t have an on-screen reversal, an actor exiting the frame or a cutaway? What do you do if mismatched screen directions makes an edit look completely wrong? Hey, just flop the shot. Many switchers and computer editing applications allow you to reverse apparent direction by flipping the image horizontally. The audience will seldom notice, as long as you observe a few rules:
- Watch out for giveaways like reversed lettering and cars that suddenly start driving on the British side of the road or a single driver suddenly transported to the passenger’s side of the vehicle.
- Avoid the technique when the light is highly directional. The resulting switch isn’t as obvious as flopped letters, but the audience will sense that something’s wrong.
- Keep the flopped shot brief, to prevent viewers from inspecting it too carefully. In sum, maintaining screen direction adds greatly to the smoothness of the overall continuity.
Good Cuts, Bad Cuts
Another way to strengthen continuity is through invisible edits: shot-to-shot transitions that go unnoticed by the audience. To make invisible edits, you need to select varied camera angles and match action across the cut.
Every camera setup has three characteristics: vertical angle (high, neutral, low), horizontal angle (front, 3/4, profile), and image size (long shot, medium shot, closeup). Over many decades, editors have learned to change any two out of three setup characteristics at each edit. Failure to do so results in what’s called a jump cut, because the image appears to jump.
So if shot A is a neutral, 3/4 view full shot, cutting to a neutral 3/4 closeup will result in an obvious visual jump. By changing the horizontal angle as well as the image size, you can create a smoother edit.
What if the director has not supplied you with consecutive shots that vary two setup traits? Then do the best you can, observing the following hierarchy:
- No change at all is totally unacceptable (except when you actively want to create a jump cut for effect). The scene remains identical while the actor seems to teleport from one place in it to another.
- Changing only the image size results in an obvious jump cut, though it is occasionally useful for shock purposes.
- Changing only the horizontal angle is permissible enough that you will often see it in professional productions.
- Changing only the vertical angle is the least objectionable jump cut, perhaps because the difference in perspective is substantial, all by itself.
If possible, however, feed the program a nice soothing cutaway, the chicken soup for sick edits. With a cutaway or insert in the middle, you can successfully use two identical shots or different parts of two takes of the same shot.
Transitions are another tool for smooth continuity, especially in narrative (story) videos.
A straight cut (no transition) means the incoming shot just continues the action of the outgoing one. A dissolve (also called a mix or cross-fade) makes a progressive change from A to B. A dissolve signals a change in time and/or place within the same "act" of the drama. Fade in and Fade out signal the start and end of a program or major segment of the show.
Though these rules of visual grammar are now as relaxed as those for verbal grammar, transitions are still useful in signaling different types of changes in a program.
DVEs (digital video effects) can perform the same functions as the more common transitions, but where fades and dissolves usually go unnoticed, flips, wipes, fly-ins, and what-have-you purposely call attention to themselves. In moderation, DVEs add style to your program; overused, they add distraction instead.
Some DVEs also have special significance for continuity. For instance, a ripple dissolve typically signals a flashback or perhaps a daydream. News and documentary editors will use a wipe or flip to tell the audience that two very similar shots are not continuous. For example, a one-setup interview might use internal wipes to indicate portions eliminated from the edited program.
When All Else Fails
Finally, there are times when the editor just seems stuck. Shots don’t want to match or transitions still leave the viewers confused about what’s happening. When program continuity displays such obvious ruptures, you have two classic weapons for clueing in the audience: titles and narration.
Titles go back to the silent era, of course. Unless you want to be corny on purpose, you’ll avoid intertitles (stand-alone effusions on plain backgrounds), like:
How could she know
As she woke the next morning
That her young life
Had altered forever??!!
But a simple Tombstone 1887 supered over a desert townscape can tell the reader a lot in an unobtrusive way. And if you want to experiment, use titles as a motif and give your production a poetic quality.
Narration, of course, is a staple of non-fiction video, and you can also use it as voice-over to add continuity to stories (Shot of woman wandering along a city street. MARY VO: Now how am I going to find a locksmith in this strange city?)
The trouble with narration is that you have to establish narration as a convention of your program and then use it fairly regularly throughout the entire production.
Again, you have to rely on the director to deliver the basic material. Even so, you can do a lot in the edit suite to smooth the viewer’s way through your final program.