As long as your film has more than one shot, continuity matters. If you’re just starting out to direct and edit, you’ll soon discover that continuity is everywhere! And as much as you might think that your script is based on a really original and creative concept, you’ll still need continuity to express that on the screen. Think of it like grammar and spelling – The Princess Bride is an amazing book, but would you read it if the story was the same but William Goldman had titled it by mistake The Princess Brie? (we actually would because we’re cheese lovers, but never mind us! The point is, good presentation matters). The problem is that with film, unlike with texts, continuity mistakes are harder to pin down – does Ellen Page’s bun really keep moving from the back of her head to the top of her head in Inception or did I just imagine that? And yet, chances are that even if you didn’t spot that specific mistake, someone else will. That’s very important when you submit your film to a festival, as glaring continuity mistakes will be noticed by the programmers and that might result in your film not being selected. As a comforting note, don’t forget that even highest-grossing films often end up having some continuity mistakes – according to IMDb, Inception has 34 of them! Just as published and carefully edited books do have typos, even great editors make continuity mistakes. Having a few of them is not the end of the world, but do try to minimise them.
To help you out to start navigate the very complicated world of continuity editing, we’ve compiled a list of 5 tips that you might find useful when starting out as a director and/or as an editor.
1) Learn how to spot mistakes
Avoiding continuity mistakes will be much easier if you start developing an eye for them by teaching yourself to spot them in the films you watch. A more serious approach is to write them down, and then to check the Goofs section in the film’s IMDb page to see how many of them you managed to spot. A less serious approach is to make a drinking game out of it!
2) Shoot chronologically
If your budget allows it, try to shoot chronologically, as that will help minimise mistakes between your sequences. If your film calls for your actors to undergo a physical transformation – whether that be as simple as growing a beard or as drastic as losing or gaining a significant amount – make sure you take this into account before filming. Can you imagine Tom Hanks having to re-shoot a scene from Castaway after shaving off the beard? The extra hassle of trying to match up their appearance with a specific stage of the film can cause a lot of issues, so plan your schedule accordingly.
3) Note down what you change between takes
This applies especially when you’re shooting multiple takes of the same action. Here’s an example from Inception: “Cobb and Ariadne are walking along the bridge and Cobb is explaining the importance of not building entire areas from memories. In the single shot of Cobb it’s clear he’s swinging both arms while walking. In the 2-shot he has his left hand in his pocket.” You need to give your actors freedom to make sure you get the best performance possible. For this example, it makes sense for Leonardo diCaprio to try out different ways to perform the scene, but then in the editing room they chose shots from different takes with him doing different things, resulting in a continuity mistake. If you do note these changes down, it will make the editing easier as you will know the differences between the takes. On larger productions, changes in wardrobe, props, set dressing, hair, makeup and the actions of the actors are noted down by a continuity supervisor, who then passes them on to the editor to help them cut the scene. While you probably won’t be able to have a specific person just for that role on an independent film, it would really help if someone already on set committed themselves to do that.
4) Have one person to help you spot any editing mistakes.
Just like even the best writers do need proof-readers, so the best editors need someone to help them spot the mistakes they might not be able to notice. This can be someone from your crew, your friends, or any fellow editor. They might be very excited about watching the editing draft for your film if they’re not too familiar with it, in which case, ask them to watch it again so that they can pay more attention to the actual editing.
5) You can break the rules!
Starting from avant-garde and Soviet films in the 20s, discontinuity editing has sought to create an alternative to continuity practices, privileging meaning over time/space. In contemporary narrative films, discontinuous sequences are sometimes added to emphasise key events, narrative shifts, emotions, etc.If you make something discontinuous, it needs to be justified and make sense in the overall film. Here’s an example from the Royal Tenenbaums – torn for his love for Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), Richie (Luke Wilson) slits his wrists while we see flashes from his memory in very short shots, following no apparent logic:
Want to learn more about editing? Check out Raindance’s Power of Editing course!