Continuity editing is the very foundation of filmmaking. But what is it?
We're getting so used to watching film and television that we rarely notice the very basic techniques used day in and out. Some of the very foundations of cinema and television have become so ingrained into our sense as viewers that they go unrecognized.
The epitome of that reality is continuity editing.
It's one of those things you know exists, but cannot quite define.
In actuality, it's the most important pillar of filmmaking!
Editor Walter Murch once said, “The invention of editing is the thing that allowed film to take off.” So I want to spend today going into continuity editing, adding the definition, examples, and talking about why we should be talking about it in the first place. We will also go over many editing techniques in cinema to make sure you understand how they come together to make up the generalized term of "continuity editing."
It All Starts with "Classical Hollywood Style"
Cinema became a full-fledged creative vehicle by the end of WWI. This "Golden Age" saw filmmakers pushing the medium past its limitations in form, function, and philosophy. Short, uninterrupted clips of trains arriving in stations and workers leaving factories in time became...stories. And not like the stories you'd see at a play, but stories you'd see if you were able to jump on stage and watch the play from different vantage points...and beyond.
And that leads us to perhaps cinema's most consequential development, other than maybe the introduction of sound (which occurred about a decade later): the advent of continuity editing.
Continuity editing definition
Continuity editing is the process in film and video creation where you combine related shots, or different components of a single shot, into a sequence which directs the audience's attention to the consistency of story across time and location.
That was wordy, but the general idea is that we ground the viewer in time and space.
This kind of editing needs to be invisible. It should feel seamless and allow an editor or director to keep the audience's attention.
Have you ever been inside a scene and wondered which character is standing where? Like, how close is the lightsaber to Luke Skywalker as he's hanging in the cage or where does Danny Ocean need to climb when he goes up into the rafters of the casino?
A spatial relation specifies where an object is located in space in relation to a reference object. In cinema and television, it is how the editor cuts a scene to tell you what's going on. These can be establishing shots where we then cut into the location, as well as shot-reverse-shots that let viewers know where each character is located within the scene.
Examples of Continuity Editing
Continuity is a general term that applies to lots of basic techniques. We should examine all of them to understand what makes up this kind of editing and what makes it so formative.
A match cut is a cut from one shot to another, often used as a transition, where the composition of the two shots are matched by the action or subject and subject matter.
There are many different types of match cuts, from the graphic match to match on action. Perhaps one of the most famous ones is the graphic match cut from 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the bone turns into a space ship, but match on action cuts, which are simply two shots cut together to depict one continuous action, is perhaps the most ubiquitous. An example would be someone reaching for a doorknob in one shot, and in the next shot, the door opens
Again, this editing technique helps orient the viewer by informing them where each character is located. To do this, an editor will transition between shots of one character, who is usually shown looking at an off-screen character, and shots of the off-screen character (now on screen) looking back at them. Since the characters are shown facing in opposite directions, the viewer assumes that they are looking at each other. This was a feature of the "Classical Hollywood Style" of continuity editing, which deemphasizes transitions between shots such that the spectator perceives one continuous action that develops linearly, chronologically, and logically.
When you block a scene, you often have actors interacting with the set. If you want to show them picking something up and looking at it, whether it's a phone or a newspaper, you need to cut from their face to an insert shot of the thing they're interacting with. This is where the eyeline match comes into play. An editor will edit together a shot of an actor looking in a certain direction and a shot of an object from a perspective that matches their eyeline.
If they aren't looking at the object...that cut will not work. Actors must guide the audience’s eyes so they know either what the character is looking at to create the illusion.
Cross-cutting in film
Cross-cutting is the technique of editing between two scenes that are going on simultaneously.
This has a few useful functions, from compressing time to increasing tension to revealing a meaningful juxtaposition that highlights the themes of the narrative.
Maybe the best example of cross-cutting comes from The Godfather during the baptism scene. We cut from the baby's baptism to Michael's nefarious deeds. This not only spits in the face of the holiness of the baptism but also shows the audience his descent into evil because the editing allows those two moments to exist within the same space and time.
The Origins of Soviet Montage Theory
If Continuity Editing's contribution to filmmaking is more or less practical, then Soviet Montage's contribution is emotional and psychological. I mean...I won't go so far as to say the goal of Soviet Montage is the antithesis of that of Classical Hollywood Style editing, but...it kind of is. While Hollywood filmmakers wanted to conceal their edits to maintain continuity of the images on screen, the Soviets wanted to make them visible and didn't give two hoots about continuity.
This movement took rise in the late-1910s and 20s after Lev Kuleshov performed a series of experiments to find out if meaning can be derived from two different shots when seen in sequence. Spoiler alert, it can be, and the phenomenon is called the "Kuleshov effect". Soviet Montage, whose notable contributors include Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Dziga Vertov, is rooted in the idea that understanding and creating film/TV relies heavily upon editing. That filmmaking occurs not in the filming of a movie but in the editing of one. That a film's meaning is a symbolic product derived from the "collision of images" that editing creates.
Eisenstein wrote extensively about this, describing several methods of montage that can be used to affect audiences: Attractions, Metric, Rythmic, Tonal, Overtonal/Associational, Intellectual, and Vertical.
Discontinuous editing is an editing style that is the opposite of classical editing. In a discontinuous sequence, the filmmaker will deliberately use an arrangement of shots that seem out of place or confusing relative to a traditional narrative. There's no smooth or logical flow to the shots as they are edited together. This can seem disorienting or ambiguous, but it is used to demand participation on the part of the audience to engage in the intention of the plot.
The most famous discontinuity scene is when Colonel Kurtz is stalked and killed in Apocalypse Now, and we intercut the native ritual at the same time.
An abrupt, disorienting transitional device in the middle of a continuous shot in which the action is noticeably advanced in time and/or cut between two similar scenes, either done accidentally (a technical flaw or the result of bad editing) or purposefully (to create discontinuity for artistic effect); also contrast with an ellipsis and match cut.
Continuity vs discontinuity
As a director, you'll work with your editor to choose discontinuity or continuity. Much of it has to do with the kind of film you want and the emotions you want the audience to feel as the action plays out.
Summing up continuity editing...
In many movies we watch, we like to point out continuity errors. They can be fun in bad movies but really take you out of the story in good movies. While no movie or TV show is perfect, continuity editing the very foundation of how they are created. While much of what we talked about in this post is so commonplace you might forget it, it's always good to remind yourself of the staples of the business we're in.
The next time you set out to make something, make sure you have the basics down pat. Then try to mix them up to keep the audience hooked.
Got more to add to the conversation?
Let us know in the comments.
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So click the link to learn more!