F-Up #33 Continuity Is Not as Important as Performance

Why if continuity doesnt match, performance doesnt matter:

The F-Up…

It’s your perfect take. The actors are perfect, the light is perfect, the camera work is perfect. Everything is perfect, except in this one take, your star was holding her drink in a different hand than in any of the other shots it will need to cut together with. Guess what? Your perfect take is useless; the continuity error would be too jarring to the audience to use it. Many people think dealing with continuity is monotonous and thus don’t want to bother with it. But without it, your movie will look amateurish or will simply appear to be a “bad movie.” Poor continuity is perhaps one of the more famous and more laughable first-timer mistakes.

How to Do It Right…

Continuity refers to making sure everything seen or heard is consistent: a cigarette doesn’t suddenly grow or shrink in size between shots; a briefcase doesn’t unexpectedly leap from one hand to another; daytime doesn’t abruptly become night. The cult movie The Room is famous for several bad continuity errors, including at one point having a completely different actor play the same part.

For actors, continuity means consistency in performance. Unfortunately, this is often the most neglected part of most acting classes’ curriculums. Many actors would rather focus on performance than consistency, but this reflects a naiveté on how filmmaking works. An actor may have an absolute Oscar-caliber, jaw-dropping, emotionally inspiring take that will forever change your audience’s lives. But guess what? If the actor gives that performance standing in a different spot than in the rest of the coverage, that amazing take simply will not cut together with the other footage and thus is useless because of a simple continuity error. Great performance or not, kiss that Oscar goodbye.

Continuity does not refer only to which hand an actor holds a prop in or where he stands. It also has a lot to do with timing, such as crossing the room on the same line take after take or folding his legs on the same beat. I’ve had to let go of great takes because the time at which one character put a comforting hand on another character’s shoulder was inconsistent, and you can’t cut between shots where hands are magically jumping around.

Some continuity errors may go largely unnoticed by the audience. However, many will kick an audience out of the movie completely, making their suspension of disbelief difficult. There is, of course, a significant difference between an actor suddenly holding a prop in a different hand versus inexplicably changing wardrobe in the middle of a scene. Nevertheless, any inconsistency runs the risk of limiting what can be used in the final edit.Thus, it is in your best interest to maintain as much continuity as possible.

For very experienced actors, continuity is so routine that most don’t even need to think about it to remain consistent. In addition, keeping track of continuity is primarily the responsibility of the script supervisor. And, although it should not be his primary concern, the director should also have a general awareness of continuity.

It is also the director’s responsibility to decide when to ignore continuity. As with any good rule, the need for consistency should be selectively ignored. Experimenting with variations can be one of the most phenomenal parts of the filmmaking process. Just be aware: it may limit what you’re able to use in the edit.

Excerpted from First-Time Filmmaker F*&^ Ups by Daryl Bob Goldberg ©2011 Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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