continuity (film narrative) The methods and procedures to maintain mimetic realism in narrative film: ensuring temporal and spatial coherence. The aim of the continuity system is to enable a narrative drama to go from shot to shot and from scene to scene, narrating a story with a sense of realism created by its method of construction and the form this produces. However, in order to achieve this narrative clarity every aspect of production, story narration, has to be carefully and successfully controlled and a high level of consistency maintained. Continuity can be split into several distinct areas. There is continuity of: Action, Dialogue, Costume, Make Up, Set, Props, Special FX and Lighting. Continuity of lighting includes: Color balance, Color temperature, Contrast Range and Exposure. There is also continuity of Sound. For visual continuity, it is necessary to maintain continuity for editing and there are six aspects to this: Change of Image Size, 30 Degree Rule, 180 Degree Rule, Screen Sections, Eye Line Match, Change of Screen Direction, and Movement In and Out of frame. N.B. The blocking techniques for visual continuity are discussed in a separate lexicon entry: visual continuity.
Continuity of Action and Dialogue: In a scene, which represents continuous temporal action, the blocking for the action and dialogue by the actors needs to be consistent and repeated from take to take and from set up to set up. If it is not the continuity of dialogue and action is lost: lines of dialogue will change and changes in action, when they happen in relation to the dialogue will prevent shots being cut together in post-production: shots will not match, because the dialogue and action will be different for different shots.
The final and set continuity for the action and dialogue of a scene will be decided at the rehearsal stage just before filming and noted by the script supervisor. During the take, when the camera is run, the script supervisor checks that the dialogue and action is correctly performed by the actors and then confers with the director over any mistakes, indicating if there are any problems with continuity and if a new take is required. Trained actors will know how to perform their lines so that they can repeat them without mistakes and also how to repeat planned action on cue. The self-discipline of professionals makes keeping continuity of action and dialogue relatively easy, because mistakes and changes during shooting will be rare. If, however, a performer is erratic the blocking must be adapted to accommodate this.
To solve any difficulties where the actors cannot keep continuity of action and dialogue a director can simplify the action of the set ups, keeping the actors’ movements to a minimum or else filming the actors in singles, where they are individually framed and their actions are seen separately. If a set up isolates a performer and their continuity is erratic because they perform their part in different ways for each take, then this type of framing, individual set ups, creates the least problems, whereas cutting between wide shots and close ups with more than one actor in the frame in each set up will not support editing because the shots will not match. Similarly, with erratic performers, over the shoulder reversals cannot be used.
The blocking to control continuity must also be simplified if the performers are going to be allowed to improvise on camera, which may well be the case with comedy performers, where any improvised physical expression can never be performed in exactly the same way twice. If overlapping dialogue is to be used, because two or more characters are speaking at the same time there will be differences each time a take is made and line-by-line continuity with dialogue exactly matching the order in the script is not possible. The set ups for overlapping dialogue must accommodate this by offer shots by shot or single set ups. The guide for continuity is that the more intercutting there is in a scene, cutting back and forth between the characters in a scene, the more controlled the continuity of action and dialogue has to be. If a scene is filmed in a single set up and the plan is to use a single set up in the final film there is effectively no need to finalize continuity of dialogue and action as only one set up will be used: there won’t be any intercutting and so no chance of mismatches between different shots. When planning the blocking for a dialogue, a continuous action scene, the director should be aware how easy or difficult it will be to maintain continuity. If the continuity requirements are strict it will require a highly competent cast and production team, if the requirements are flexible this places far less demands on all concerned. The time available for filming and the skills of the cast and crew need to be borne in mind when planning for continuity and typically a low budget, quickly shot production will have far less set ups where this is not only quicker to shot, but has much simpler continuity.
Continuity of Costume and Props: The continuity of costume and props has to remain consistent within a scene: object and clothes cannot suddenly change or appear or disappear. Also, beyond the control of continuity for single scene costume and props have to be consistent over the course of a film, its narrative, and this needs to be planned in preproduction. This is especially important as films are not shot in narrative order. For instance, if the first and last scene of a film take place at the same location they might well be shot on the same day, but they might also have quite different continuity: actors will be wearing different clothes, the setting will look different. Costume and props and also hair and make-up will have changed, all because time has passed in the story. In pre-production for continuity purposes a scene by scene breakdown of the script is made which itemizes the costumes, hair and make up for every character in every scene. These various breakdowns also list props for specific scenes, the dressings for every scene and all special FX. Short films which have a plot that spans a short time period have the most simple continuity, as there will be only small changes to costume, props, hair and make up.
The continuity breakdowns based on the screenplay mean that in pre-production all the necessary items for the filming can be thought through and prepared and also these breakdowns put in place the continuity from scene to scene across the length of the script – what is needed for which scene. When the actual shooting is underway and all the scenes in one location are being shot, if these prop and costume breakdowns are properly done the gathering and preparing of items can be efficiently achieved and continuity can be maintained.
What the pre-production break down of the screenplay does not note is the continuity of costume and props being used within a scene. Continuity of costumes and props for a scene is finalized during the rehearsals on the set and like dialogue and action the decisions regarding continuity will be strictly adhered to if set ups need to be edited together. Anyone dealing with costume, set dressings, props, make-up or special FX will prepare the necessary items according to the script breakdown and on the set the script supervisor will note the continuity for the use of these items within the scene. For instance, when an actor picks up and puts down a glass during their dialogue is the glass full or empty. The simplest way to help performers keep continuity of costume is to itemize their appearance at the start of a scene. For example: Suit jacket undone. Tie on. Top button undone. Glass of wine in left hand.
The director will watch the scene as it is film to study performance and the script supervisor will watch for continuity. After a take has been made or the filming moves to a new set up the performers and the script supervisor can simply reset any costume and props as required for the start of the scene. The need to keep continuity of costume and props is a reason why with coverage set ups should run through filming as much of the scene as possible. Starting and stopping scenes haphazardly when filming a scene can soon lead to confusion and situations where mistakes soon arise. For instance, someone is wearing a jacket at the start of a take when for continuity reasons it should have already been taken off. Keeping the set ups clear helps the continuity of action, dialogue, costume, props, special FX and make up, and a good director will want to help maintain a high standard of continuity. A director who makes up their minds as they go and then shoots bits and pieces of the scene in no particular order or pattern will soon loose continuity and the resulting material will be hard to edit. Like costume and propose special effects which occur at a specific point in the scene will need to be planned as part of the filming so that the shots that cover this action can be edited into the film.
Continuity for Lighting and Camera: As with costume and props the continuity of the lighting has two stages. The first is a breakdown of the script, so that lighting can be planned and suitable equipment chosen. A lighting breakdown makes it possible to work out what lamps, camera filters, lighting gels and other equipment will be needed for a scene and also to identify the lights that needs to appear in the scene in terms of practicals: the lighting that can be seen in shot because it is place as one of the locations in the story. A lighting breakdown will identify when locations will be lit the same way and therefore these scenes can be grouped and shot together. N.B. The control of lighting for realism is discussed in a separate lexicon entry: light: continuity for narration, and light: realism and narrative.
The level of detail required by the planning of lighting depends upon the complexity of the production, the locations and scenes in the story and the different lighting they need to convey time and place, but the intention is always the same; the script breakdown allows the lighting to be planned and controlled so that the results are not erratic and uneven. If, for example a lounge scene was brightly lit for sunshine and the next interior scene in the bedroom was flat and dreary this would unacceptable as it would lose temporal continuity, but in filming such incongruities can pass unnoticed and mistakes occur during filming when scenes are shot out of order and no lighting breakdown is prepared. The script breakdown for lighting ensures that scenes will be lit to a prepared plan and this also ensures that the necessary equipment needed for each scene will be in place and ready for shooting. When filming begins the continuity of lighting concentrates on keeping continuity within a scene, from set up to set up and take to take and this includes: maintaining color balance, maintaining color temperature, maintaining contrast range, maintaining exposure
All the set ups and takes used to film a scene should have the same color temperature unless there is a deliberate lighting change, which causes a shift in color temperature. As an example of where a color temperature change would occur is when a deep blue moonlit room has a warm amber domestic table lamp switched on when someone wakes up. On a small crew the camera operator will ensure that the camera white balance is set and the correct filters and gels are used, but the script supervisor, or another person delegated needs to check and confirm that the right procedures have been followed by the camera operator. Maintaining continuity of lighting depends upon the quality and the consistency of the camera crew’s working practices and keeping continuity of lighting is an essential professional skill for a cinematographer.
Contrast range is the relationship between the brightest and the darkest part of a scene. During shooting when a scene is lit the cinematographer will note the relationship in terms of exposure readings between the characters in the scene and other elements of the set or location. Usually the cinematographer will draw a small picture of the scene for continuity purposes and note the light measurements in F stops.
In the illustration above the light readings for the window, wall, the table and the standing figure are noted. The scene has a contrast range of 4 stops going from F4 to F11. For the framing illustrated the camera exposure can be set for a high key exposure at F5.6 so that the window will be very bright in the frame, or the exposure could be set to F11 for a low-key lighting which would make figure darker and the wall, especially under the window barely visible, except as an area of black. It is often the case that the cinematographer will light a set for a wide shot then move in for the close ups.
It is easier to light an entire set or location and then photograph a smaller part for two reasons. Firstly, the lighting used for a wide shot may prove sufficient for the close ups and so the scene will only need the lighting to be put in place once, therefore saving a lot of time. Secondly, lighting small parts of a set in detail and then moving out for a wide shot means that the exposure and contrast range will need to be maintained for a small area closely lit and a wide area more broadly lit and keeping the contrast range consistent when moving from a small area to a large area can be a difficult task, especially if this means lighting anew for every set up. When the lighting is rigged for a wide shot of the location this can be left in place for several set ups and with the exposure and contrast range remaining constant and this is where continuity of lighting is easy to maintain. No lights are moved, but the scene is re-metered before each set up to ensure that nothing has changed. The camera is set to the same F stop and this is checked before and after each take.
When framing for close ups, or inserts the cinematographer will often make small adjustments to the lighting of characters in order to provide good modeling, high lights and eye lights, but when the cinematographer is doing this they will ensure that the contrast range remains the same. If there is a two-stop difference between the foreground and the background this will be maintained and if the actor has been given a high key or a low-key exposure this will also be maintained. If this practice of retaining contrast range and exposure is not done then characters and setting will become lighter and darker as the edited scene cuts from a wide shot to a close up and this is unacceptable. In post-production, slight changes can be made in the exposure of a shot in the image grading, but if the contrast range is altered between set ups there is nothing that can be done in post production to resolve this. What will happen in a poorly lit film is that shots will have to be discarded to keep continuity in the editing.
The best practice is to get the continuity of lighting and camera right on set, and this includes color balance, color temperature, contrast range and exposure. If continuity of lighting and camera is not maintained the result will be that whole set ups become unsatisfactory and often unusable and it is a great shame when well acted material is ruined due to poor continuity of lighting.
Continuity of Sound: Continuity of sound is easiest to maintain if all dialogue scenes are shot so that only the voice is recorded and all other sounds are lost. When this is achieved different takes and different set ups can be cut together with only minor adjustments to match the audio levels from shot to shot. Any atmosphere sounds or specific sound FX for the scene can be added in post production. N.B. The control sound for realism is discussed in a separate lexicon entry: sound: narration for perception.
To consider sound recording for continuity as production issue, how this is achieved during filming, the goal is that of recording for voice-only for dialogue scenes. This goal is easy to set, but is often not achieved on low budget productions for several reasons. The wrong location is chosen. Far too often the visual choice of location dominates and even though there is noise from traffic, machinery or crowds of people, and the location is still used for shooting. Trying to cut together shots where the relationship between the voice level and the background level changes is like going through a tunnel; in one shot the background roars away, in the next it is silent. Adjusting the sound levels in the editing suite won’t improve the situation. A second problem for continuity of sound is when the boom work is poor. During rehearsals, the boom operator fails to pay attention to a scene, doesn’t learn the basics of the action and dialogue and makes little effort to plan out the best way to record the performers. During the take the boom operator doesn’t keep the microphone close enough, so the recording levels are low, and the sound recordist doesn’t anticipate the performers’ moves so dialogue becomes inaudible. Lack of attention to boom work is not helped by a production team which as a whole offers the work involved to achieve good sound recording little or no attention. Carefully setting up the camera and lighting and putting in the boom in place, but not well placed at the final moment when everything else is ready will not produce satisfactory results. A boom operator needs time to get ready: to figure out the best place to capture the dialogue, to be positioned to anticipate performers movements and be ready to follow them. This quality of boom work will not be achieved if it is done at a rush at the last minute. The director has a responsibility to ensure that the sound recordist and the boom operator are given time and support to do their job well and the director should not allow the visual image to put sound in second place.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019