Some say that when the editor does their job well, the audience is not supposed to notice. This does not mean that the editor’s job is unimportant. In fact, the complete opposite is the case. Editor’s are responsible for maintaining the illusion of a film and story by hiding the mechanisms at work. The main tool they have to do this is continuity editing.
What is continuity editing in film? What are the techniques used to achieve continuity in film? Is there a place for discontinuity editing? We’ll answer all of these questions and more while highlighting some key examples in this article.
What is continuity editing in film?
First, let’s define continuity editing
The mechanisms and cogs of filmmaking can get messy. Organizing the different components of a film to tell a cohesive story is an integral part of post-production. A key tool to creating a cohesive story out of many moving parts is continuity editing. What is the ultimate goal of continuity editing. Let’s get a solid understanding of the continuity editing definition.
CONTINUITY EDITING DEFINITION
What is continuity editing in film?
Continuity editing is an editing system used to maintain consistency of both time and space in the film. Continuity editing helps ground audiences in the reality of the film while establishing a clear and structured narrative.
The goal of continuity editing is to make the mechanisms of filmmaking invisible as to help the audience dismiss disbelief more easily.
Continuity editing, also referred to as three-dimensional continuity, is the predominant editing style among commercial Hollywood films.
Techniques of continuity editing in film
- Eye line
- Eye trace
- 180 degree rule
- Matching action
Continuity in film follows a few fundamental rules. Here are a few rules and techniques of continuity editing. While these rules are occasionally and intentionally broken in filmmaking, understanding these rules are important for every filmmaker.
Continuity in film techniques
The eyeline match is one of the most fundamental tools in continuity editing. It aims to fulfill the expectation of an audience to see what a character is looking at when they are looking off screen.
When the scene is a dialogue between multiple people, one character often looks screen left while the other character looks screen right to maintain the consistency that these characters are looking at each other. This is fundamental when shooting over the shoulder, shot reverse shot scenes. This is demonstrated visually in this video example below.
The importance of eye line match occurs when sequential shots may not have been shot chronologically. In fact, the actors may have been on set at different times. Maintaining the eyeline match creates the illusion that they are both present in the same room at the same time in the film.
Eyeline match does not solely pertain to left or right, but can be more precise such as matching the height of another character or object vertically. If there are a group of characters, like in a dinner scene, it is important to be precise with the eye lines so that the audience will understand who each character is looking at.
What is continuity in film?
If you have taken a class on editing or cinematography, one of the first rules you will learn about is the 180-degree rule. The 180-degree rule is meant to orient the audience and help them understand where characters are in relation to each other and their environment.
To do this, you filmmakers create an imaginary line between two subjects in a scene. Then they keep every camera setup on the same side of this line, within the same 180 degrees. We’ve broken down this concept visually in our video lesson below.
As shown in the video, the 180-degree rule is important when cutting between characters in the same space. But what happens when you want to cut to the same character from a different angle in the same space? This is where the 30-degree rule comes into play.
Techniques for continuity in film
Sometimes filmmakers cut from one shot of a character to a different shot of the same character either to change the shot angle or cut to different shot sizes. To avoid jarring discontinuity editing or a jump cut the two different shots must be taken from at least 30-degrees apart. This rule is explained in the video tutorial below.
The 30-degree rule is incredibly important when shooting with multiple cameras which many cinematographers often do. It is an important rule that allows filmmakers to change the perspective of the camera while maintaining the consistency and logic of the scene.
Some filmmakers purposely break the 30-degree rule and use a jump cut and discontinuity editing. We’ll touch on why filmmakers do that in a bit.
What is a match on action cut?
Editing to match the action of characters is one of if not the most basic tool to continuity editing. What is a match on action cut? It is a staple to what some editors refer to as invisible editing. Matching action simply aims to cut on the same frame of a character’s action between two shots. In this action scene from Mad Max: Fury Road, pay attention to every cut and notice how many cut on the action of a character to make the scene smooth in consistent shot to shot.
This will maintain the continuity of motion between two takes, otherwise known as invisible editing. Cutting on action is just one example of a match cut — some match cut techniques are designed to maintain continuity while others are meant to disrupt that flow. To better understand this technique, check out the video tutorial below.
Cutting on action is important. Looking for small actions to cut on like a character standing up or picking up an object will help when cutting to continuity.
Continuity of Motion
All of the rules of continuity editing above help maintain the illusion of a scene’s time and space. Eye trace, on the other hand, is more of a storytelling editing technique to keep in mind when cutting to continuity.
Eye trace is a technique and part of Walter Murch's Rule of Six that allows an editor and director to direct the audience's eyes and attention toward a specific detail on screen through a cut. For example, if the first shot has a subject in the bottom left of the screen, the next shot may have an important plot detail in the same position to ensure the audience will see it.
We break down the eye trace technique in our video lesson below.
The eye trace is an editing technique that will immediately elevate the level of your editing. While it isn’t necessarily a rule of continuity editing, it is an important technique to keep in mind. It will help you be a more effective editor and storyteller in the long run.
Why Continuity Editing?
The importance of continuity
How important is continuity editing? Well, it depends on who you’re asking. The goal of continuity editing is to keep the illusion of time and space in the film intact. If it is broken, it can be distracting to an audience, removing them further from the film.
Yet, continuity errors can be found in many major pictures. Is this due to negligence of editors and filmmakers? Or rather a decision? This video by This Guy Edits that analyzes the importance of continuity editing in film.
As you can see, some of the most prestigious editors prioritize other elements, such as performance, over continuity. While this may be the case, it is important to note that no editors are saying to push continuity editing to the wayside, but rather understand that it is one element of the editors job among many other things.
So what are the reasons editors would abandon continuity in film for discontinuity editing? Let’s take a look at a few examples of discontinuity editing in film and work backwards to the editors' decisions.
Why break continuity editing?
Why would an editor break for continuity editing and opt for discontinuity editing? To answer that we must recap. What is continuity editing in film used for? It is primarily used to maintain logic, structure, and to ground audiences into the reality of a film.
Discontinuity editing, therefore, fractures logic and structure. Why would an editor want to do this? To better tell the story of the film. This is often the case in indie films, psychological thrillers, non-linear films, and experimental films. In fact, in early Soviet Montage Theory, discontinuity editing was highly-valued and utilized to construct more expressive and political films.
Editors of these films may need to disorient or disturb the audience to effectively tell the story. This is the case in one of Stanley Kubrick’s best films The Shining. Take a look at how Stanley Kubrick completely breaks the 180-degree rule in this scene from The Shining.
Kubrick matches the oddity of the dialogue with the decision to break the 180-degree rule. This is a perfect example of how breaking the rules of continuity in film can actually help the story of a film.
The fundamental techniques of continuity editing are extremely important for every filmmaker and editor to understand. Whether you plan on abiding by the rules or break them, understanding why and how they work will help you make editing decisions based on what will serve your story.
Walter Murch’s Rules of Editing
The fundamental techniques of continuity editing are a great start for any aspiring editor. To elevate your skills and storytelling as an editor, it is important to also learn from the best in the business. We’ve broken down the techniques of award winning editor Walter Murch in our next article so you can learn from the best and level up your editing skills.