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Take One - Continuity

Real-life is a continuous stream of events, from the moment we arrive in the World, until we drop off the perch! However, as we know, film-making is not like that. It is all one massive cheat which creates the illusion that our 20 minute fiction film actually took 20 minutes to shoot.

Of course, we know that this is not really true, but we're quite willing to be fooled and go along with the deception. We know for sure that the material on screen has been edited and re-arranged, things have been left out and images have been manipulated to create an illusion.

Even the humble holiday film is not an entirely true record of events, if it was, our two- week holiday in the sun would actually take two weeks to view! Imagine the scene.

I dial the number and the phone is picked up:
“Hello this is Ken here.”
“Oh hello. How are things? How was the holiday?”
“Well that's what I'm ringing about actually. I filmed absolutely every minute of it. If you have two weeks to spare you can come around and watch it?”

And thus God invented EDITING!

In reality, editing begins even before the film is actually shot. In any kind of film, not only a scripted (fictional) one, we are choosing what to film and what to leave out. Our brains are selecting what to record, be it a holiday film, a documentary or a fictional project.

This material is then arranged in such a manner that it will create an impression of continuity, that is, that there really is nothing missing at all; or at least, nothing of any importance.

As I hinted at earlier in this series and many film-makers will confirm it, continuity really is a nightmare. It's amazing for example how inanimate objects take on a life of their own when they feature in a film. Absolutely any ordinary everyday item can seemingly develop supernatural powers when a camera is pointed at them.

It is an unwritten rule on the shoots of my films, that the actors should be aware of their own props and costumes. This is not to say that the rest of us are not watching that continuity is maintained in regards to such things, but bearing in mind that there are a thousand and one things going on at once during shooting, I think that it is reasonable to expect that an actor should try and to keep an eye on their own area of responsibility.

If for example our actor is wearing glasses in the scene, it is in my view, not unreasonable to assume that he/ she will remember to put them on before each take. Sadly, this does not always happen. On many occasions we have found ourselves mid-way through shooting a scene when someone calls out:

“Where are the glasses?” (or coat / jumper / cup / pen / knife….etc. )

This often happens during a break in filming, when a prop has been put down, or for example alterations made to clothing due to the weather such as a shirt has been buttoned or unbuttoned and then forgotten about when filming restarts.

Reading this as a budding first time fiction film-maker, you may now be waiting for me to tell you what the answer is to these problems.
Using a continuity person certainly helps, if someone in the crew is free to do it. Making exhaustive notes and lists are helpful too .You can also take photographs on “set”, another very good idea, particularly now we have “instant” stills available to us in this digital age.

However, if there was one fool-proof answer which would solve these problems totally, rest assured that the professionals would have thought of it. The fact that so many multi-million dollar films have glaring continuity errors, would lead us to suppose that there is no perfect solution to it. So what to do?

The solutions are to patch, fudge, disguise the cut, in other words……Cheat!

Here I once again resort to using actual examples from my back catalogue, but this time omitting the film titles to protect the innocent (?)

In one film, a thriller, the heroine has to defend herself against the villain and therefore has hidden a knife on her person by sticking it to her leg with tape.

The mistake we made was that the leg was her left one, though she was actually right handed.

We filmed the close up of her retrieving the knife and naturally as this was her left leg, she used her left hand. In the next shot, she threatens the villain holding the knife (as she would) in her right hand. Some weeks later at the editing stage, this error became very apparent.

As this was in the celluloid days, a quick re-shoot was not possible (as it would be today) and “flopping” the close-up over not really an option (the magnetic sound stripe would not have adhered properly to the other side of the film) I was stuck!

After some deliberation my “cheat” was to cut the close up to just a few frames and in the following long shot to allow some “slack.” That is to say, the knife does not come into view immediately and allows time for the eye to be tricked.

In a much more recent film, the out-going shot had a couple in an embrace, arms-around-shoulder style, as they exit the scene on the right. At this point, the camera battery ran out and we had a couple of minutes' delay. Enough time for the continuity gremlin to strike. We continued shooting the next scene as the pair walk into shot on the left, still in the same embrace. Or so we thought!

At the editing bench when the two shots were cut together, something jarred. On careful examination I saw that their positions had reversed! The “hug-ee” had swapped sides!

On occasions such as these, an alternate take can come to the rescue. We had shot several, but it soon became clear that they were all the same.

What was to be the solution? I inched backwards and forwards through the available material. I could have “flipped” the shot over this time using Premiere, but this would have reversed other elements in the scene including the direction of travel of the actors. As is usual in these moments of crises, despair sets in which is really disproportionate to the situation.

After all, this is only a film and in any case, how many people will notice it or even care? However, such brief moments of rationality are quickly dispelled as panic returns. What am to do? A re-shoot??

A bit of floor pacing and frantic follicle scratching follows.

As I scrutinised the shots, I spotted a few frames when the actors briefly moved position as though they were about to cross in front of each other; though they never did. If I cut the out-going shot here and then brought the incoming shot in late, the error could be disguised.
One of the huge benefits of using computer- based editing, is the ability for such experimentation.

Trying a variety of cutting points can often be your saviour, as it was in this case. Leaving “empty frames” is usually a no-no in the laws of traditional film-making, (though many of these laws are now regularly broken in the modern cinema) but on this occasion, it worked beautifully. Playing the scene over this cut now worked well enough to once again “fool the eye.”

THE CASE OF THE MISSING HANDBAG

On another very recent film, a glaring error once more became very apparent at the editing bench.

We had been shooting a scene in the garden between two actors, a man and a woman. They were talking whilst sat at a garden table and at the end of the scene, they stood to go indoors. Naturally, the woman picked up her handbag to take it with her.

In the next shot, she arrived holding the bag and continued delivering dialogue.

After Take One, we discussed the shot and wondered what to do with the handbag. This was another thriller and the drama could not escalate and build correctly as the effect was being dissipated, by her holding the bag. I suggested that we “lose” the handbag in the scene, meaning during the scene and we went for a take two. This was quite good but we tried for a take three.

It was not noticed until the editing stage, that the actress misinterpreted my instructions to “lose” the bag as to mean before the scene started. Shots two and three had no bag at all and neither did any subsequent shot during the scene. The bag had literally vanished! (Director alert! Always be specific and clear when giving instructions!)

Take One (the only one with the bag) had to be used as the dialogue flowed from the exterior shot to the interior one. I had shot a variety of close-ups for this scene and my only get-out was to use these exclusively until I could cut to something else.

In this case, this was some parallel action, a scene with two other actors at another location who eventually converge with the actors in the first scene. By cutting away to another piece of action, I could then come back to the problem scene and conveniently forget about the handbag!

Such “work-arounds” and others such as inserting a close-up (when practical and possible) can often be a life-saver. I have developed a method of starting the camera early when shooting and allowing it to run on a while after the “cut”.

Such “off-camera” moments can occasionally save the day and provide a reaction shot or a turn of the head moment, which will smooth out a jump-cut. Sometimes though, a “patch” at the offending point can look worse than the mistake. In such cases you are better off letting it go and put up with having to wince every time the film is shown. Chances are though, unless the flaw is a bad one, most of the audience probably won't notice it anyway.

In part 10 we shall be looking at sound. Or should that be listening to sound?

- By Ken Wilson (first published in FVM)

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Page updated on 11 October 2011
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