Hollywood Style Continuity Editing

Film editors, then and now, strive to make one scene flow easily into the next. To do that, it helps to match the details of one shot with the next. When the details don’t match, the viewer can lose his way. Consider a woman smoking a cigarette in one shot, and in the next shot that cigarette is half the length. This is a continuity error, although a small one. One website is devoted entirely to spotting these errors. Below are some examples from that site. There are many other kinds of continuity errors.

Here’s one in “Terminator 3” ”“ When John and Catherine are in the hangar at the runway, the Cessna’s tail number is N3035C. When the plane is shown in the air, the number is N3973F. When they land, the tail number has changed back to N3035C.

In “Rocky Horror Picture Show” an error occurs when Eddie escapes the deep freeze. He’s wearing three rings on his left hand (his middle and ring fingers and his pinky). The pinky ring disappears in quite a few shots subsequent shots, including when Eddie plays the sax and when he lifts Columbia, just before they mess around on the floor.

The Art of Film & Video Editing
Part 1

Introduction & The Genesis of Editing Styles 

Part 2

Hollywood Style Continuity Editing & Characteristics of Continuity Editing

Part 3

Soviet Filmmakers Advance Editing & Eisenstein

Part 4

Talking Pictures & Hollywood Style Editing – Who is really in charge?

Part 5

Documentary Editing – Where Is the Truth?

Part 6

Emerging Alternatives to Continuity Editing: The Director Becomes Editor & The French New Wave

Part 7

In Editing, Sometimes Less Is More & Characteristics Of Discontinuity or Montage Style Editing

Part 8

Does Non-Linear Editing Change Style and Art? & The Cuts Get Faster

Part 9

Influence of Music Videos & Non-traditional Editing Comes to Television and the Internet

In the 1985 “Commando,” the error occurs at the very end of the film. When the three helicopters and the seaplane come in to land, it is a very wide shot, with no boats visible. A few minutes later, when the seaplane takes off again, a big white boat is near the coast. Even if that boat were off camera during the landing scene, a few minutes was surely not enough time for it to get that far, and that close to the shore.

Technically, the script supervisor and the director are responsible for continuity in a film. The editor, after all, has no control over what happened on the film set. The editor can sometimes edit around those errors. For instance in the case of the cigarette length not matching, the editor might cut away to a reaction shot. This may distract the audience from seeing the continuity error, but it could also change the meaning of the scene. Getting these details right helps the editor to sell the story to the audience.

Most continuity errors are small enough that only a filmmaker would notice them and then only if the story were less than compelling. For example “Goodfellas” (1998) directed by Martin Scorcese is full of continuity errors. You won’t see them because the story and characters are so compelling. The Academy nominated the film for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing and more.

Characteristics of Continuity Editing

Continuity editing is the style of editing that is used in nearly all Hollywood movies, TV shows, documentaries and information videos where scenes advance the storyline or develop the characters. The goal of continuity editing is to make the editing invisible so a series of shots flow together into one and tell a story. Continuity editing focuses on character, plot, conflict and change. This classic style is driven by story which is also called narrative.

Continuity editing has a number of conventions, or rules, that viewers have come to expect. Departures from these rules may make the film visually confusing. Here are some of the rules:

• Linear narratives in the classic Hollywood style call for “invisible editing.” Transitions are smooth and practically unnoticeable, without jarring cuts like jump cuts.

• 180-degree rule is a basic film guideline that states that two characters or other elements in the same scene should always have the same left/right relationship to each other so the audience never gets confused about the positions of the characters. If you were to diagram a scene and drew a line between the two characters, the camera would always be on one side of the line. All shots of the people must be taken from the same side of the line. To move the camera to the other side is to “cross the line” which creates a jarring shot and can confuse the audience about the geography of the scene.

• Face-to-face and dialogue scenes are shot over the shoulder, in a “shot ”“ reverse shot” format. Shot ”“ reverse shot is a film technique where one character is shown looking at another character and then the other character is shown looking back at the first character. Since the characters are shown facing in opposite directions, the viewer assumes that they are looking at each other.

• Eyeline match: When a character looks off-screen at an object, another character or simply the view, the audience wants to see what the character sees. The next shot usually shows the audience what the character is looking at. This helps create order and meaning in cinema space. Shot A shows the character “look” at the action happening in Shot B. The eyeline match makes cuts smoother since the viewer expects the cut to happen and is eager to see what’s next.

• Match on action: When some action is happening in a shot, the same piece of action must be going on in the next shot. The editor can play with the timing, to match exactly or only approximately but matching actions help the audience continually understand what is happening.

A gazillion films and videos adhere to these rules with great success. There are also many examples of successful films in the classic style that departed from these rules in some way (“The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Memento”), but the editing style was still driven by the narrative.