Filmmaking and Continuity

Maintaining Continuity

A Consistent Continuum in Storytelling

What is continuity and why does it matter so much in filmmaking and other mediums of entertainment? 

 Props and continuity issues - Image one

Props and continuity issues - Image one

The continuity system is a set of logical rules for ensuring everything you shoot works together.  It includes, framing, camera position, shot (image size) and ultimately editing.

This is a topic that I [Stephen] become most frustrated about when I see major studios missing the obvious continuity mistakes during the filmmaking process. I don't purposefully look for continuity errors, but some are so bad you just can't miss them, which doesn't always spoil a well-made film or TV show. However, it can distract to the point of looking for more issues instead of enjoying the production for its entertainment value.

Continuity covers more areas than is often considered during filmmaking. However, in this post we will only touch on a few.  You can add your findings and working examples in the comments. 

 Continuity and Time:

The following is a simple scene between two characters. From the perspective of our audience, one character has a static office backdrop with a typical New York skyline, and the other has a buzzing office behind them. We will keep the dialogue and setup relatively basic for this illustration.

Actors Dialogue:

Emma: I've put everything into this Business. What the hell has gone wrong Jack? As CFO I expected better from you! The numbers you walked me through yesterday just don't add up, and you sure as heck didn't indicate anything was wrong before I went to the press this morning and showcased everything across two CTN business broadcasts.

Jack: I am looking into it now Emma. I am as perplexed as you. It looks like we've been hacked from the inside.

Emma: OK, OK (frustration growing) Can you ensure we have answers for the conference call with the investors at 9 AM. I’ve got to go. Don’t let me down Jack. Our future is at stake. Find and fix the problem or we are both out of a job and facing jail time!

Jack: Leave it with me.  I have Hal checking the system, and Sara looking over the data in detail. [Said as Emma walks off and reaches for her phone]

Taking the short dialogue and basic notes we have we now need to build tension for the scene. Behind Emma, we have extras walking through the shot.  They represent the staff of Jack pulling together data for the crisis we have just learned is happening.  IT staff are looking at computers and there is a melee of other people who we know nothing about in this shot. These people are walking in and around the office space, some just out of frame.

The director wants to convey Emma’s frustration, as yesterday all was fine. The Director wants us to see Jack is equally frustrated and sincere in his concern. To achieve this, she {director] wants cutaways from Emma to Jack. This will require camera and lighting adjustments and the supporting cast to go back to first places for each setup. On the wall behind Jack is a series of world clocks in analogue format. 

Behind Emma there are one or two prominent characters walking through the scene.  

What, in these planned sequences, do we need to consider? What have most reading potentially already forgotten to include from a continuity perspective?

Before we answer the questions above, let's take a look at the wonderful film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller, 2013, 20th Century Fox), which had a similar scene (the at work scene where the three guys tease Walter, and the boss flicks a paperclip at him). 

An extra enters into the shot alone, behind the three main protagonists. Also, there is a guy on the phone behind the protagonists. Fine you say, what continuity issue could there be, as I didn’t see any clocks in this example and I recall the scene with no issues.

 Inanimate Objects and Continuity - Image two

Inanimate Objects and Continuity - Image two

The extra walking through the shot taken from the same time period is alone in the first shot, and then with someone in the cutback!  Somehow, he is suddenly talking with someone who was not even in that space time or frame previously and would not have been able to engage in the time span elapsed. The guy on the phone? The instant cut back shows him still on the phone, but magically he has changed ears, which could happen if time had passed, but not in the time reference we are working with.

Around 90/95% of people would have missed this and yet on a subliminal level the brain would have registered it. The movie is so stunning our subconscious forgives the issue, although once spotted it can never be forgotten. 

This is a type of time continuity issue that the editor can’t fix.  Now this might be nitpicking, as these characters are not focal points. Non the less, our brains do pick-up on these errors in continuity, although possibly not the guy on the phone, so I'd grant that one a pass.

 

If we look more closely at the extra, his character had walked in time past the protagonists. In the cut back, they would most likely have passed through the shot and no longer be in the same time and space! This is a time continuity issue. The clocks on the wall I mentioned for our scene were far too obvious. In our brief scene the clocks would need to be considered, although they would not have taken a great deal to keep reasonably accurate, and mostly likely would have been out of focus.

In our example the focus would be to ensure anything in frame behind Emma was not overlooked.  Props, extras and supporting cast who may well come into focus during the unfolding story would need to be considered, and the clocks changed accordingly if re-takes meant the clocks had significantly changed. For example, Emma mentioned a call at 09:00, which would not have worked if the time was just before 09:00 or her conversation with Jack was after 09:00.  Thus, we can reasonably assume the time was something like 08:30 or even 08:45 to build more tension.

 

Listen to me, mister. You’re my knight in shining armor. Don’t you forget it. You’re going to get back on that horse, and I’m going to be right behind you, holding on tight, and away we’re gonna go, go, go!
— Katharine Hepburn

 

Continuity is related to perspectives, time and the construct in which our characters or scenes are filmed. How many films have you watched where the clock is counting down, where its starts at 60 seconds and literally 1 minute later it is at 40 seconds? To a degree we exercise artistic licence in entertaining people to build dramatic impact, but the dramatic impact is greater if the spatial time is more realistic, which relates to number 9 in our list around engaging the audience via spatial awareness.  Sometimes we use these countdowns for a more comic effect, if the time count at 5 seconds is the same 30 seconds later, the music is ironic and there are corny jokes, it adds a level of irony - for some at least. 

Artistic Licence is for another blog post, and something that for me is more about enlightening the viewer than the creator.

So what should we consider when filmmaking and wanting to get continuity right?  

Try to keep the following points in mind for every project. Many have been learned the hard way by filmmakers, and some are perhaps more immediately obvious. A very brief example runs alongside each one listed.  Do you have any to add? Let us know with a comment.


 Continuity Changes with prop usage - Image three

Continuity Changes with prop usage - Image three

Continuity Points to Consider:

1 - Actors - Same movement or action when re-shooting a scene or hitting the same mark

2 - Wardrobe - Torn pocket on a coat, which is not torn in the next shot, would be a great example

3 - Props - Five cups on a table suddenly turn into three cups and a mug

4 - Set - Car lights smashed in one scene and fixed in a pull away shot or from another angle

5 - Camera - When multiple camera angles are used in a scene, positioning and shot size

6 - Sound - Police siren in the background, which comes and goes between shots

7 - Script - A date mentioned by a character at the start of a film should persist throughout any re-writes or dialogue

8 - Time - Consider the amount of time that is necessary for events to occur and be spatially aware with regards time too

9 - Spatial Reality - Cause and effect. An audience will suspend their disbelief and engage if this feels in sync with reality

10 - Visual Continuity - If a character is dressed in a certain way in one angle then they must be identical in all other angels for that scene or between adjoining scenes

11 - Continuity Editing - Cutting between shots with the purpose of maintaining a smooth sense of continuous space and time

The list is by no means a definitive one but focuses on key areas that make a huge difference to any film project. 

Did you spot the differences in our image examples?  The change between image one and image two is obvious, and would be spotted by most, however, the change between image two and three is subtler, and in a quick cut is unlikely to have been noted, with the exception of the eagle eyed viewer.


Post by Stephen B. Sinclair

Further research recommendations:

  • D.W. Griffith and Continuity Editing
  • Film Continuity
  • Maintaining Continuity - Pre and Post Production