In a nutshell
- Continuity editing ensures consistency in a film’s storyline, location and time.
- Continuity errors can break viewers’ suspension of disbelief, but minor mistakes may go unnoticed.
- The 180-degree rule, proper perspective shifts and camera movement are all essential factors in continuity.
In classical music theory, there are rules for constructing a song’s melody, harmony and overall structure. Similarly, continuity rules for moving images provide a consistent structure in film and video. Keeping continuity in mind when editing ensures that things stay consistent from shot to shot, scene to scene and throughout action sequences.
In this article, we will define what continuity is and why it’s such an important concept in cinema.
What is continuity editing?
Continuity editing is the process of combining shots or components into a sequence that communicates a consistent storyline and is consistent in location and time. Continuity can be divided into two categories: style and position.
Continuity of style relates to production, such as placement of the camera, camera motion, mood and storytelling. For example, a sudden, unjustified shift in a scene’s mood would be a continuity style error.
Continuity of position deals with the physical location of objects and their relative location as the viewer perceives them. If an ordinary object suddenly changes locations from scene to scene, that is a continuity of position error.
A battle for consistency: Shooting and editing for continuity
Continuity mistakes can risk destroying viewers’ suspension of disbelief, although minor errors will often go unnoticed by the majority of viewers. Have you ever noticed that in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), Dorothy’s hair length changes in the scene where she meets the Scarecrow for the first time? Probably not. If a film can engross an audience, they are likely too distracted to notice something like that.
However, big mistakes can ruin an otherwise successful production. For example, the entire production team of “Game of Thrones” failed to notice that someone left a Starbucks cup in the shot. The cup stood out like a sore thumb in the medieval setting, and viewers noticed it as soon as the episode aired. The show scrambled to remove the cup digitally, but the damage was done, and mocking ensued.
Common causes for big errors include a lack of attention to detail, insufficient production planning, failure to capture comprehensive information, shooting in uncontrollable situations and last-minute tweaks. Some errors — like daylight and acting variation across takes — are inherent to the filmmaking process, and unfortunately, these can be quite hard to avoid. These issues often go unnoticed until the entire scene is put together.
Point of view
Your film should follow visual logic. For instance, if you’re following a character’s eyes, the frame should lead to where the character is looking. Imagine how confusing it would be if someone looks at a vase to their right and then the vase is on their left in the next shot.
This is a common error when dealing with over-the-shoulder shots. When handling point of view (POV) continuity, the 180-degree rule is paramount. Imagine a 360-degree circle around the action. Divide that circle in half, and we then have 180 degrees to work with. Observing the action from anywhere on your side of the line maintains proper perspective. Whatever is to the left will continue to appear on the left. If you moved the next shot to the other side of that line, everything would flip. What was once on the left side of the screen will now be on the right. In real life, our perception is constantly updating, and our brain compensates for the discrepancy. When watching a film, our perspective from chair to camera never changes. This prevents our brains from compensating for the 180-degree flip.
We’ve established that making camera changes larger than 180 degrees creates issues, but can small movements impact continuity? Proper perspective shifts allow the audience to absorb new information and comprehend the change in point of view. Unfortunately, making small shifts may make shots look too similar to the previous perspective. Ultimately, it may lead your audience to believe the change is a glitch. This is often called a jump cut.
The recommended guideline for proper continuity states that any shift in camera angle should be more than 30 degrees and less than 180 degrees. However, keep in mind: You’re working in three dimensions. Moving the perspective closer or further from the action will also shift perception and may allow pushing the limits of these values.
The final continuity to consider is camera movement. Great camera movement continuity creates smooth scene transitions. For instance, if a camera pans down out of one shot and then pans down from the top of the next shot, this creates a smooth transition between the scenes.
In contrast, if the camera were to pan in from the left side of the frame, this would make the transition disjointed.
Common causes for poor continuity
Continuity errors can happen anywhere. However, outdoor scenes often cause the most issues. Shifts in lighting, hairstyle changes, prop shifts, wardrobe manipulation and blocking are all common errors in outdoor settings. Other errors, like background changes and character positions, are common in all settings.
Continuity editing errors
Continuity issues can also arise in editing. Optimizing one edit inevitably changes variables that unknowingly impact another. It’s important to repeatedly step back from form and style and constantly review for continuity.
When cutting a scene, actions need to follow one another properly. For example, if a person exits the frame on the left of one shot, they likely shouldn’t enter from the left in the next scene. This is because it would look as if they reversed directions.
Solutions: Continuity editing
It’s always best to fix continuity errors on set. But, if you find yourself in the editing room with a major continuity error and no time for a reshoot, you can fix the error in post-production.
Your first option is to cut around the error or use another take that doesn’t contain the error. You might need to resize the shot to move the error off-screen. It might even be possible to composite two different takes into one, thus removing the error.
However, you may need to shift focus away from the error rather than remove it. You can do this by distracting viewers by emphasizing other parts of the screen or shortening the shot duration. You can use motion, color or cut points to redirect the viewer’s eye away from the issue.
It all depends on the image’s complexity and the error’s severity.
Rules are made to be broken
Like composing music, once you master the rules, you have the skills to break them. Continuity breaks can induce an uneasy or disorienting feeling in your audience. You can use this to your storytelling advantage. Continuity flaws can also represent jumps in time or moments of altered reality. They often convey a character’s radical state of emotion or thought. Maybe the character is only perceiving glimpses of what’s happening around them. The key to breaking continuity is doing it for the right reason and not out of error.
The importance of continuity will vary depending on the type of production being created. A corporate video may not require the same level of perfection as a mystery drama. Maintaining flow and proportion from one moment to the next is key, but sometimes sacrifices may be acceptable or even desired. However, editors should always be on the lookout for continuity errors and assess their impact should they appear.
At the end of the day, everyone involved in video production should be aware of and contribute to minimizing continuity errors. Don’t despise continuity; embrace it. If an error is found, approach it as a challenge to overcome and improve your skills. Learning the rules and then breaking them can help create a melodic flow in your editing and true harmony in your production.