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Editing for continuity – who cares? (part 4)

December 14, 2011 2 comments

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.

Editing for continuity – who cares? (part 1)

December 2, 2011 Comments off

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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