Computer Editing: Go with the Flow -- Editing for Continuity

…in conclusion, the term "continuity" implies that your story unfolds in the order your audience expects. Events follow each other in a natural sequence – beginning, middle and end. And anything that appears to put things out of order or breaks the natural flow of a story is said to be a break in continuity. (The introduction to this article is a good example.)

Go with the Flow

In my younger days, there was a period when the popular phrase was, "Hey man, just go with the flow!" In the years since, I’ve learned that "go with the flow" is more than just a lovely turn of phrase – it’s a pretty good editing philosophy. Provided, of course, that you can identify the flow.

Simply put, continuity is maintaining the flow of your program. Anything that distracts your viewers, causing them to mentally leave your show, is a break in continuity. And unless you want your audience confused for a specific creative or storytelling purpose, continuity breaks are bad.

When a program is well edited, it seems to seamlessly flow from one shot to the next, and from scene to scene, capturing the imaginations of viewers and guiding them to an understanding of the material being presented. An editor needs to remove, or re-edit, anything that stops or slows that flow until the program again plays smoothly.

Feeling a Bit Jumpy?

Jump cuts are a common cause of continuity break. The talking-head CEO made her point on camera, but in the middle – umm, uhh – stumbled over her words. You’d like to take out the stumble, but it isn’t as easy as a cut: one second, her head is tilted right, then in the next instant, her head’s tilted to the left.

The audience gets confused for a second while trying to make sense of what they’ve just seen. Or worse, they are distracted by the obvious edit: what did they edit out and why? For the duration of their confusion you’ve diverted them from the program flow. Whoops, continuity break.

Kiss Your Audience Goodbye

Another typical cause of continuity problems stems from the common and extremely pragmatic practice of shooting scenes out of order. Here’s a fun example: a simple series of scenes that tell a story of young love. The goal of the sequence is to show a girl kissing her boyfriend goodnight on the veranda, and then coming inside the house to face her disapproving father.

In the afternoon, you can shoot the interior scene and then shoot the exterior nighttime shots after the sun goes down. If the door is open, sunlight will spoil the scene, so you cleverly decide to edit around the issue. The interior scene will start with the sound of a closing door, while the camera stays focused on a shot of the father reacting to her arrival. That way, the next shot we see of the girl is her standing inside the closed door.

That night, you go to shoot the exterior scenes that actually will precede her entrance to the house in the movie. But it’s cold outside, so the actress dons her leather jacket for the exterior shots.

When you sit down and cut those scenes together, you realize that you have a continuity disaster. Her leather jacket seems to magically disappear just as she enters the house. You want your audience wondering how the girl and her father will interact, not wondering "Hey, what happened to her jacket?" So if you already have these two scenes in the can you have a big-time continuity problem. What can you do about this? Quite a bit, actually.

The Language of the Edit

Part of what’s happening is that audiences have been conditioned over years to expect that a cut implies that little or no time has passed between scenes. It’s part of the traditional language of editing that everybody instinctively understands after years of watching movies and TV. The cross-dissolve (also called a dissolve or crossfade) originally implied that some time had passed between scenes. One way to solve the problem of the disappearing leather jacket is to hold the shot of the kiss until the girl makes a move toward the door. Then dissolve to a shot of Dad pacing and checking his watch. Then use another dissolve, this time to a shot of the girl already inside without her jacket. The implied passage of time signaled by the dissolves allows the time necessary for the girl to remove her jacket at some point. Understanding and properly using the viewer’s expectations about transition types is one way your editing capabilities can help you solve continuity issues.

Beyond Dissolves

Today’s software editors are overflowing with cool transition types. It’s tempting to toss them into your programs like a handful of crunchy croutons in an otherwise soggy salad – merely to keep things interesting.

If you choose to sprinkle transitions throughout your programs without a plan, you risk missing a chance to let the transitions provide real meaning by contributing to your program’s continuity. Let’s say you’ve been hired to do a training video for a local company. You’ve broken down the overall program into six major sections. Inside each section, there will be multiple topics. The program will introduce each topic, give an example and finally a short review. You can use transitions to subtly increase your audience’s understanding of the program’s structure. Before editing a single frame, an experienced editor or program designer might sit down and draw up a transition language list like this:

  • Transition: PAGE PEEL

    This will signal the audience that a SECTION change is taking place.

  • Transition: SCREEN SLIDE RIGHT

    This will reveal a new LESSON within a section.

  • Transition: SCREEN SLIDE RIGHT

    A second SLIDE within a lesson will signal to the audience that an EXAMPLE is taking place.

  • Transition: SCREEN SLIDE LEFT

    A SLIDE to the left from within an EXAMPLE signals the audience that an Example is complete and we’re returning to the same LESSON as before.

    The effect of this kind of program design list is that the consistency it creates allows the audience to intuitively understand the visual language of the program. The second or third time they see a page peel, they’ll already understand that they’re entering a new program section. This should happen without needing to explicitly explain it. If you do feel the need to explain it, go back and change the design. In other words, paying attention to the continuity of the visual language of your program can help you achieve clear and consistent communication with your audience. And isn’t that the whole point of editing your program in the first place?

    Well, we’ve covered just about everything. All we need now is a good way to close the article…

    [Sidebar: The Magic Six Gun]
    Continuity is important, but sometimes telling the best story you can is more important than the getting all the details just right.

    In the early days of black & white TV, the airwaves were full of six-gun wielding cowboys like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger. Most episodes had a shootout during a horseback chase, or a standoff in the boulder-strewn badlands outside of town. The editors who cut those shows together knew that their job was to sustain audience excitement – not necessarily to worry too much about continuity. On the screen, you’d get a shootout where the bad guys would snap off a few rounds, followed by an answering volley from the hero. To keep the pace up, the editor would quickly cut back to the still-firing outlaws, followed by more shots from the hero.

    Only as we got older did we realize that in the interest of keeping the editing pace of the gunfights as rapid as possible, those cowboy "six-shooters" were somehow magically capable of firing dozens and dozens of rounds without reloading. The point is that sometimes storytelling requires the sacrifice of a little continuity.