Home > JoeRants > Editing for continuity – who cares? (part 4)

Editing for continuity – who cares? (part 4)

December 14, 2011

David Mamet has a book “On Directing Film,” which I find pretty fascinating. As with any of his “textbooks,” he puts his thoughts out there as the gospel – there’s his way or there’s wrong. But when he’s right, he’s right.

The book is primarily a transcript of a series of lectures and workshops that he did with a group of film students, and there’s a moment in it that I love. He’s discussing where to put the camera in a particular scene, and one of the students suggests “up high.” He asks why up high, and the response, simplified, is because shots from up high are cool. Mamet doesn’t take too kindly to that answer.

Trying to find shots that look good and are cool, according to him, is trying to be popular. It’s an attempt to get the people watching the film to like you, the filmmaker, instead of getting them engaged in the reality of your story. Find the shot that helps the audience to understand the plight of the protagonist and put that on the screen, and you’ll be serving your story.

Taking that a step further than Mamet did, it’s relatively easy to empirically be able to call a shot “beautiful.” I can create a shot and look at it and see that, yes, it is beautiful. But it’s really really hard and even courageous to make a shot that somehow deepens the audience’s embrace of your story. And how do you know if the shot did that? It’s a guess, really. And that’s the hard part, and that’s why it’s art.

That same thought applies to continuity editing.  Why won’t filmmakers allow continuity errors in their films? Because they want people to like them. In editing, so much of the work you do is really a guess. Should the shot be this long, or that long? Well, it depends. On what? On how long you think the audience needs to absorb the information and sit with it before they’re ready to move on. That’s the art of editing, and it can be really, really hard to make those decisions. If I put this reaction shot following this line, will the audience understand what this character’s thinking? Who knows, but I think so… Again, that’s the art.

But something that’s not hard—seeing a continuity error. The cigarette is lit in one shot and not in the next. I can have control over that. The performance may not be as strong when the shots match, but that’s an ethereal judgment and I can’t be certain of that. The cigarette not matching – that I can see. It’s a choice that I can make and see the correctness of it immediately.

Really, I think the instinct about continuity is the fear of being laughed at. “They’re going to think I’m a bad filmmaker if that cut doesn’t match.” The problem, as I keep saying, is that the audience will think you’re a bad filmmaker if your film is boring. They’ll find things about it to praise to your face, but when they’re done watching your film, they’ll go home and watch Star Wars, which has a billion continuity errors, and not care because they love the story. And they’ll forget about your film.

And again, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t worry about continuity errors – if you can fix them and nothing else gets weakened in the process, sure, so ahead and fix them. But so many people think of continuity as being the primary concern of editors when really, it should be one of the last concerns. Storytelling – pace, character, and structure are the first concerns. Any little rules that some other filmmaker taught you should be way down the list.  We only see that stuff when you give us nothing else to pay attention to.

Let me say it one last time – you can even say it with me – if you think your problem is continuity, your problem is not continuity. Your problem is that you have a crappy film and the audience’s eyes aren’t where they should be. They’re looking around the frame for something that might entertain them. The problem is that your film is boring. Fix that, and the the continuity problem goes away.

  1. December 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    I had a hard time deciding not to use a shot where someone was wearing glasses in one shot and not the next. It was the best trucking shot I ever acquired, so good I forgot to ask the actor to take his glasses off.

  2. December 18, 2011 at 12:29 am


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