An Intro to Continuity Editing
If you watch any narrative movie or television show you are witnessing continuity editing. Continuity editing, also called three-dimensional continuity, is the way a film is put together that grounds the viewer in time and space. It is seamless and intended to be invisible. In order to understand, it might help to know that scenes in movies are often shot by shooting the scene several times, getting the dialog and action from different angles. It’s the Editor’s job to take these pieces and tell the story by stringing these shots into one continuous piece – hence the term “continuity.”
Continuity editing is not a style or technique. That would be like saying that a technique in photography is “focus photography.” Continuity editing is a part of filmmaking and editorial grammar; and just like any other grammatical rules, they can be thrown out the window. A Director or an Editor may want to break the rules for artistic intent and sometimes an Editor has to make a choice between a good performance and perfect continuity. But let’s just say, if people notice the editing, they may not be paying attention to the story. So, Editors pay attention to continuity!
Maintaining continuity in editing requires understanding several things, most of which are intended to orient the viewer, but sometimes can be used to distract the viewer so they don’t notice an error in continuity:
- Eye line
- Eye trace
- Matching action
- Continuity of objects, etc.
- 180 Rule – two dimensional plane of space
The eye line has to do with where the Actors are looking and must guide the audience’s eyes so they know either what the Actor is looking at or to create the illusion that two Actors are looking at each other during their singles (close-ups, etc.) Because singles are usually shot with the Actor speaking to a camera, Actors must know where to look – to the right or left of the camera – so it appears as though the two Actors are looking at each other. Imagine if they both looked to the right of the camera? How would it appear? Also, when an Editor is cutting between an Actor and what an Actor is looking at, the Editor must make sure that the eye line matches the object so the viewer’s eyes will know where to focus in the next shot.
Fun Fact: The next time you watch It’s a Wonderful Life, see if you can find the missing wreath. It’s quite obvious, but we are so emotionally invested by this point that we don’t even notice.
This brings us to eye trace. An Editor must make sure that the eyes of the viewer are guided to the important information on screen. After all, most of what we see in a movie is visual storytelling. For example, if a character comes into the scene and sits down at the bottom right of the screen, and in the next shot there is important information on the upper left side of the screen, the Editor has to bring attention to this and allot enough time for the viewer’s eyes to catch up. How does she do that? Well, hopefully, the Director thought this through, but an Editor must see where these points take place.
If you look at cuts in a movie, you might start to notice that a car door that slams shut in one shot, and the streetlamp we are supposed to see in the next shot, land exactly in the same part of the screen. If the Editor cuts in or out too soon or too late, she might not guide the audience’s eyes properly and they might miss this critical piece of information.
This is the most obvious of all the technical skills of an Editor. If a character reaches for a glass of water in one shot, it is natural to cut into the following shot at the same point you left the last shot. The term is often interchanged with cutting on action, but the two aren’t necessarily the same. Generally, you are always matching the action of the characters in a scene. If an Actor has her hands on her head in one shot, and if in the next shot her hands are on her hips, you are not matching the action and it’s jarring. Cutting on action, on the other hand, is a technique that helps the two shots flow together. This technique would involve cutting out of the shot as she moves her hands from her head and picking up the next shot mid-action as they land on her hips. Alternatively, you can have her bring her hands down in one shot and it will match the next shot in which her hands are on her hips. But the former, cutting on action, is an effective technique that simply makes things flow better. It can also mask if the Actor’s moves don’t match well.
Continuity of Objects, Etc.
An Editor must also pay attention to the objects in a scene. If in one shot someone is drinking from a glass that is full, but in the next shot the glass is almost empty, the audience might notice and could be taken out of the moment — and again, miss vital information. Usually there is a Script Supervisor on set to watch out for these things, making sure that hair and clothing matches from take to take, or to make sure that props are put back in place when they reset a scene, but by the time the footage makes it to the cutting room, there is always something that has been missed.
Fun Fact: Notice the cigarette in the infamous Basic Instinct scene? Notice it disappear? If you missed it like so many of us, I bet it had to do with your eye trace.
The 180 Rule is what helps the viewer know where the Actors are in the two-dimensional space of the screen. It helps clarify where the Actors are in relation to each other. Though the Editor must pay attention to this, it really needs to be shot this way. I’ve seen many people struggle with this concept but it’s less complicated than it seems. Let’s take a scene in which two Actors are facing each other. Imagine that a camera is placed at their profile so that each Actor takes either the right or the left of the screen in a two-shot. When it is put together, the scene might cut between the two Actors’ close-ups and maybe a medium or wide shot. If you move the camera to the exact opposite side of the Actors, in which their position appears to be switched, it could be disorienting to the viewer. However, that might be exactly what the Director wants to do.
How Important Is Continuity?
Very. However, you would be surprised at how many continuity errors are missed because the viewer is engaged in the story. In Walter Murch’s book In the Blink of an Eye (highly recommended reading for anyone who is interested in the craft of editing) he breaks down an Editor’s approach to making a cut into what he calls the “Rule of Six.” The “Rule of Six” prioritizes the things an Editor should consider when making a cut, and everything I mentioned above is toward the bottom of the list. Why? Because editing is about storytelling. It’s about engaging the audience and making them feel something, so his top two motivators for making a cut are emotion and story. If your audience is emotionally involved, I assure you that they will not notice minor continuity errors. But what distinguishes major versus minor? Take a look at the fun facts in this article and you judge!
Fun Fact: There are over 250 continuity errors in Star Wars. 
Breaking Continuity Rules
If the above examples are continuity editing, what is discontinuity editing? There are ways in which Directors and Editors break the rules and never lose the attention of their audience, the most popular being the montage and the jump cut.
A montage is a way to get story points across without worrying about seamless continuity. For example, a woman gets dressed for a party — we see her swipe lipstick across her lips, we see her zip up a sparkly dress and we see her slip on her glittery shoes. Each image tells a piece of the story, but none are a direct match. A montage can also take us over a period of time, like the famous Rocky montage, in which we see our hero train for his big fight.
The other technique is the jump cut. A jump cut is usually an edit within the same take (or same camera angle). Let’s use our gal getting ready for a party as an example. The camera catches her in one take at the mirror. The camera doesn’t move and runs while she combs her hair, ties it up, puts on a hat, etc. Rather than let the footage run in real-time, an Editor can use a jump cut – that is, cut out pieces in between each of these actions – to highlight the things we should pay attention to or create an emotion.
A movie is nothing more than an illusion and Editors are magicians. Continuity errors are unavoidable, so the job of the Editor is to get the viewer engrossed in the story so they aren’t bored enough to spot the errors. If an audience is emotionally engaged, they won’t even notice. It truly is sleight of hand.
- Murch, Walter (2001). In the Blink of an Eye. Silman-James Press.
- Murch, Walter (2001). In the Blink of an Eye. Silman-James Press.
- “Star Wars (1977)”. Movie Mistakes. Retrieved 30 August 2019.
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