Home > JoeRants > Editing for continuity – who cares? (part 1)

Editing for continuity – who cares? (part 1)

December 2, 2011

So I wanna do some regular columns based on some stuff I deal with in class, and the first is about continuity in editing. If you don’t know what I mean, listen to anyone describe editing who isn’t an editor – “Editing is the process of matching the different shots and making them appear seamless” or something similar.

That simplistic description leads to a lot of people thinking that the job of the editor is to protect continuity at all costs. That if a character is smoking a cigarette in one shot, when we cut back, the cigarette had better be burning at roughly the same length, or else the scene is ruined. Same with the amount of beer in their mug, the hand with which they’re holding their hat, etc.

Whenever I think of people freaking out about continuity, I always remember back to film school, when a girl in my class was having a hysterical fit about a scene she’d brought into class from “Friends.” They’d obviously used footage from two different tapings and edited them together, and in a scene, a coffee cup behind Ross’ head appeared and disappeared depending on which version they used. The girl was so incensed about how wrong it was she leapt out of her seat to point it out – she was pissed! I just remember sitting thinking, “who cares? If Ross disappeared, I’d be upset, but it’s just a coffee cup.”

That’s my attitude towards continuity  – who cares? Film students do. But audiences don’t.

Yes, people sometimes notice continuity errors – and it’s almost always in one of two situations. People see all sorts of continuity issues in Star Wars. You know why? Because so many people have watched Star Wars so many times that they don’t watch the story anymore – they’re watching the small details. What a wonderful problem to have that so many people are watching your movie so many times that they catch the small problems that they didn’t see the first time. I’d suggest the best thing you can do as an editor is get your story in shape so people want to see it a second time, and maybe see a few continuity errors.

The other times people see continuity errors in films is because they’re bad films. When you’re watching a film that doesn’t engage you in the story, you start looking for other things to entertain you, and you’re not looking where your eye should be in the story (in the actors’ eyes, most often), and you start seeing continuity problems.

Here’s my rule of thumb – if you have a continuity problem, you don’t really have a continuity problem. You have a problem that people aren’t engaged in your story, and are looking at parts of the screen where they shouldn’t be focused. Again, if Ross disappears, then people should notice. That’s a continuity problem. But if they’re watching the coffee cup, you have a story problem, and that’s something you need to fix.  Don’t let the continuity stuff get in the way of telling your story – make that work and the other stuff just goes away.

In a couple of days, I’ll put up another post with some examples of what I’m talking about. I promise, your favorite movie has continuity errors. You know why you may not have noticed? Because you like it, that’s why.

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