What is continuity editing in film?
Learn about continuity editing and apply it to your next project.
Spotting continuity errors in bad movies may be a favorite sport for film geeks — the hair style or tie that changes inexplicably in the middle of a scene, the wristwatch on a Roman gladiator — but continuity is actually the invisible glue that holds every successful film together. Continuity helps create and maintain the illusion the filmmaker is trying to present, and helps the viewer believe in the story that is being told.
What is continuity editing?
Continuity editing uses a variety of classic film editing techniques to blend multiple camera shots — some taken at different times or even different locations — into a seamless, consistent narrative. This continuous stream helps viewers suspend disbelief so they can fully immerse themselves in a story without needless distractions.
Naturally, continuity editing includes making sure that items like props or costumes stay consistent from scene to scene. But the more important work lies in editing shots together in a way that leaves viewers thoroughly grounded in both time and space.
Film editing techniques designed to provide this grounding include eyeline matching, the 180-degree rule, and match cuts. An additional technique, eye trace, can also help guide viewers from one camera shot to another.
Directors and film editors use eyeline matching in several different ways. In a complex scene with various shots of multiple characters interacting, it can mean clearly defining where each person is looking. The way the characters looked at each other in the original wide shot must be consistently maintained in any close-ups that are later cut into the scene, even if the shots are filmed at different times.
Eyeline matching also comes into play when a character is interacting with the set. If someone is about to bend down and pick up a ball from a field, for example, the first shot should establish their line of sight in that direction. This perspective helps the audience follow through when the next shot goes to a close-up of the ball itself.
Finally, eyeline matching can be used as a form of transition, where a character looks toward the person or subject that will appear in the next sequence. This helps establish the viewer’s frame of reference for the following shot.
The 180-degree rule.
The 180-degree rule is a primary continuity principle, designed to maintain consistent spatial geography. It helps orient viewers by defining where the characters are located in space — in relation to each other, and to their environment. Basically, this guideline imagines an invisible, 180-degree axis between characters that establishes who is to the left and who is to the right in a given scene. This determines their relative points of view, which in turn makes it possible to maintain the spatial relationship consistently as they interact in subsequent shots.
Match cuts are often used as transitions, cutting from one scene to another. They differ from regular cuts by providing a thematic element that connects the two scenes. This connection helps move the viewer along as well. These edits can be audio, visual, or both, but they all match some specific element of a scene — action or subject matter — to a corresponding element in the following scene.
Graphic match cuts use shapes, colors, or other compositional elements to create visual metaphors or add other symbolic meaning. (One of the most famous graphic matches in cinema occurs at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the bone club hurled into the sky by a prehistoric ape transitions seamlessly into a futuristic satellite.)
Another useful type of match cut is the sound bridge, where some form of audio (voice-over, sound effects, dialog, or music) is used to guide the viewer from one scene to the next. For example, a director might use recurring theme music to provide continuity whenever a main character appears or a certain type of event occurs. (Just think of Ennio Morricone’s unforgettable scores for the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns, especially The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.) In Star Wars — often described as a “space opera” — John Williams literally borrowed from opera to compose Wagnerian-style leitmotifs like the “Imperial March” that propels Darth Vader into his scenes.
The match on action cut is one of the most useful tools in continuity editing. Sometimes called “invisible editing” because it is so basic and universal, the match on action cut maintains the flow of action between two shots. The second shot, from a different view, matches or continues the action of the first shot. This can be within the same scene, or in adjacent scenes. It can be the literal continuation of a movement carried over into the next frame, or the logical conclusion of an action, as when the shot of someone’s hand on a doorknob is immediately followed by a shot of the door opening.
That’s just basic physical continuity. Now consider the “action” scene. Clearly, no coherent action sequence could be assembled without dozens of continuity edits to sync up the punches thrown and landed, the car wheels careening around the curve, or the dramatic fall from a plane. These are all match on action cuts. By helping generate narrative momentum, they also play a vital role intensifying the action itself.
The eye trace technique is primarily a storytelling device in continuity editing. It focuses the viewer’s attention — their eye — to the desired area of a frame through blocking, camera use, color, lighting, or cuts. For example, a director might repeat a certain color in the following frame to subtly guide the viewer’s gaze in that direction.
Eye trace controls what the audience sees by making strategic choices that will influence the way they view consecutive edits. Where was the viewer’s eye focused on the last frame? Where will that lead them to look first in the next frame? How would a potential cut affect that focal path? This can be a powerful technique when the filmmaker wants to emphasize — or hide — specific details.
What about discontinuity?
Continuity errors aren’t always a mistake. Sometimes even great directors and film editors choose to keep a flawed take because it was the best performance of a given scene.
And sometimes discontinuity is just what the filmmaker was after. If continuity means the logical presentation of a rational universe in a way that feels realistic to viewers, discontinuity may be the best way to present an irrational, completely alien world. Science fiction movies, horror flicks, psychological thrillers, indie features, and experimental films have all benefited from disorienting and even disturbing the audience in order to tell their stories in the most effective way.
Jagged jump cuts, jumbled chronology, fractured logic, and warped perspectives — these are all legitimate editing techniques when used deliberately, for the right reasons. To take just one example, The Shining (Kubrick again) is famous for its many discontinuities, even breaking the supposedly sacred 180-degree rule.
Keep your audience immersed in the story.
Learn the rules of good continuity editing before you decide to break them. Like Agent Mulder in The X-Files, your audience wants to believe. Help them by paying careful attention to continuity in your editing process. You’ll know you have a seamless final edit when it looks like multiple cameras all captured the same events unfolding in real time.
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