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What Is Continuity in Film?
Continuity is the principle of making sure that all details in a film or TV show are consistent from shot to shot and from scene to scene. If a scene upholds the standards of continuity, each shot feels as though it seamlessly flows from the previous shot, reinforcing a sense of realism in the story. In reality, however, each shot may have been taken at a different time and in a completely different order. For instance, if at the beginning of a scene an actor picks up a glass with their right hand, continuity dictates that they should be holding that glass with their right hand throughout the scene.
Continuity problems occur most often in scenes with both establishing shots (often called “master shots” or “long shots”) and medium shots or close-ups. Establishing shots are a wide view of the scene and can include a lot of props and furniture, while medium shots and close-ups focus just on the actor without a lot of background. During filming, set crews will often move all of the props and furniture into and out of the scene for various types of shots. This back-and-forth is an easy way for visual continuity errors to sneak in.
How to Identify Continuity Mistakes in Film
There are several categories of continuity in feature films and TV that filmmakers must be aware of during film production and post-production:
- Prop and costume continuity. Prop and costume inconsistencies are the most common continuity errors in film and TV. Examples of errors between takes include different color mugs being used throughout a scene, or different numbers of buttons being buttoned on an actor’s coat.
- Acting continuity. Filmmakers often shoot several takes of the same shot to give editors as many options as possible during post-production—and with so many takes, actors may do things slightly differently each time, introducing small continuity mistakes. Examples of errors in acting continuity include actors using a different hand when picking up a prop, or looking in a slightly different direction in each take when delivering lines to an off-camera character, creating a fluctuating point-of-view.
- Time continuity. When filming schedules require that shots in the same scene be filmed hours, days, or even months apart, there can be spatial continuity variations between shots that can be difficult to plan for. Examples of errors in time continuity include significant changes in weather or season, or different lengths of shadows between shots.
- Plot continuity. Perhaps the most significant consistency errors are errors in plot continuity. Often called “plot holes,” these errors aren’t about visual continuity—rather, they’re conceptual inconsistencies that can occur when a script hasn’t been written carefully, when a script has undergone significant revisions, or when actors improvise during scenes. For example, if a character says they’re an only child and then later tells a story about a sibling, that would be a plot continuity problem.
- Camera and audio continuity. Throughout a film or TV episode, picture settings and audio levels should be consistent, which means that filmmakers need to take special care to ensure they’re using the same equipment and correct settings for each shot in a scene. If not, there could be distracting variations in things like light levels, image sharpness, or volume.
Why Is Maintaining Continuity Important?
Continuity is vital to good storytelling because it helps keep viewers immersed in the film or TV show. Filmmakers want audiences to be able to pay attention to the action and dialogue during their story as if it’s happening in the real world, and when every detail of a set is consistent throughout a scene, the audience can pay full attention.
However, if little details are inconsistent, or if there are plot holes in the story, viewers will become distracted and won’t be able to focus on the storytelling; they’ll spend more time thinking about the fluctuating water levels in a character’s glass and less time listening to the dialogue or caring about the story. That’s why maintaining continuity is crucial—it keeps audiences engaged.
4 Tips for Maintaining Continuity During Production
With so many days of filming and so many details in every shot, it can become extremely difficult to maintain continuity on a set. Here are a few tips:
- Take photos. The best way to be sure of even the smallest details of a shoot stay consistent is to take photos. Photos help you track details you wouldn’t think to take note of otherwise, and they make it significantly easier to set up props the same way between takes. These shots don’t need to be taken on a DSLR camera—filmmakers have used simple digital cameras or even polaroids to keep track of continuity.
- Maintain detailed continuity reports. Continuity reports are detailed records of each day’s shoot, including camera settings, screen direction, weather, props, and any possible deviations from the script. Continuity reports are a great way to ensure that everything—even the sound quality—is consistent from shot to shot.
- Keep your shooting days close together. The more time that elapses between shoots, the more room there is for filmmakers to forget the details of each scene—or worse, the higher the possibility that shooting locations will undergo significant changes, like transitioning from summer to fall. Where possible, a short period of time between shots can help ensure that crew members remember each scene’s details and can minimize the possibility of weather changes or other location variations.
- Hire a script supervisor. Continuity is a huge responsibility on set, and with so much other work that needs to be done, maintaining continuity can quickly get overwhelming for crew members with other jobs. That’s why most film and TV crews include a script supervisor, whose sole responsibility is ensuring continuity between shots and scenes.
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