What is continuity editing in film?
Continuity is defined as an uninterrupted connection, succession, or union. When applied to the world of film, it refers to consistency in plot elements, like characters, location, props, and costuming.
Have you ever watched a movie and noticed that the level of liquid in the actor’s glass changes in every scene? Or that in one shot someone is wearing a baseball cap, but in the next one they aren’t? These are continuity errors that most productions aim to avoid.
From writing the script and making a shot list in pre-production, through filming, and in the post-production process, many things can go wrong that might cause these continuity errors.
Careful planning is required to avoid confusing or distracting the viewers from the storytelling.
Continuity editing is the practice of consciously combining closely related shots into a sequence that helps the audience follow the story. It focuses on highlighting important plot points, cause and causation, and consistencies.
It plays an essential role in directing the viewer’s attention to the intended consistency of a story, across time and settings. Most feature films would utilize this editing style.
The script supervisor acts as a “continuity person” and is responsible for maintaining logical consistencies throughout the film, down to the smallest details. They take extensive notes when filming, take pictures of scenes and try their best to get each take to come together into a coherent flow of footage.
How does continuity editing work in practice?
There are two distinct categories to keep in mind: temporal and spatial continuity. These work together to give the viewer a specific timeline and physical narration to follow.
Temporal continuity helps the viewers place the action in time. Continuous sound, even if off-screen, can signal that no time passes between cuts. If a shot ends with a loud explosion, and the next one starts with the characters reacting to it, the audience can follow.
The same result can be achieved by “match on action”, meaning unrepeated, continuous physical motion between cuts. A character standing up and walking towards the door, even if there are cuts in-between, ensures the uninterrupted passage of time and space.
Continuity in space can also be tricky. Establishing shots help the viewer identify and envision the setting and notice a change of location.
The 180 rule dictates that the camera must always stay on one side of the axis of action. If a subject is facing left in a shot, the film can’t transition to a different shot of the same person shown from the right. This is especially important in dialogue scenes. Logic and custom dictate that the two characters talking “face each other” by looking in separate directions, left and right.
The eye-line match technique helps spatial continuity as well. Here the actors look towards the next subject or object to be cut to, helping the audience use them as a reference point.
There are specific techniques to cause discontinuity as well, to hide relevant information or cause tension in the viewers.
Fades and dissolves usually signal a time jump. They can also be used to cause intentional temporal discontinuity, which confuses the audience.
Cross-cutting conveys undeniable spatial discontinuity. However, they are usually so clear and intentional that they don’t confuse the viewer.
Jump cuts can be jarring or disorienting as well. Filmmakers tend to avoid cutting between shots that are too similar. Instead, they usually differ by at least 30 degrees, and often by focal length. This means that the angle and the point of view change naturally for the viewers.
Continuity ensures a sense of realism and the seamless flow of the storyline. Editing is only one element to keep in mind when planning a production. Read more about how to maintain continuity with Masterclass to elevate your storytelling to the next level!