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continuity

Definition: Continuity is the seamless progression of a film’s visual narrative. Breaks in continuity distract the audience from the narrative and can occur in a single shot, between shots in a scene and between shots in different scenes.

bondBackground:  Charged with ensuring continuity on the set is the script or continuity supervisor. A member of the film crew, the script supervisor notes visual details that must be consistent in shots that compose a scene. The script supervisor’s observations assist both the director and film editor. Final responsibility for continuity falls to the film editor, who combines shots to make scenes and scenes to make a movie.

Examples: To further define continuity, it is best to examine what continuity is not. Below are areas with particular continuity mistakes and examples of those mistakes in actual films. Our discussion is far from exhaustive, but it does give a general idea of the issues that script supervisors and film editors are paid to avoid. The areas are:

  • Wardrobe
  • Props
  • Tattos & Scars
  • Hair
  • Exteriors
  • Ellipsis
  • Crew Members
  • Extras
  • Planes, Trains & Automobiles
  • Wardrobe

    Moviegoers are especially conscious of wardrobe, including style, color and the manner in which something is worn. Noticed are even small details, such as the first scene in the home of Malone (Sean Connery) in “The Untouchables” (1987), i.e., Malone's collar goes from buttoned to unbuttoned to buttoned. A more serious fashion faux pas occurs in “The Gift” (2000), in which Cate Blanchett stands in the doorway of her son’s room wearing a blue-striped dress, then enters the room wearing a floral-print dress.

    Mistakes are compounded when moviegoers think they were intended. In “Double Indemnity” (1944), for instance, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a bachelor who becomes involved with the married Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). MacMurray was a happily married man in real life who neglected to remove his wedding ring during filming. No doubt some moviegoers expected Neff to receive his comeuppance from the surprise appearance of an enraged wife.

    Some mistakes are occasioned to accommodate a star. In “Top Gun” (1985), Charlie (Kelly McGillis) is introduced to the class in high heels, but when the 5'10" Charlie follows Maverick (Tom Cruise) into the building, she is wearing flats to make her closer to Maverick’s 5’7” height. In “Encino Man” (1992), Link (Brendan Fraser) is in a convenience store when he drenches his shirt with a slurpee. He is ejected from the store, but immediately reappears in a dry shirt to announce that he’ll be back.

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    Props

    The most continuity mistakes are probably the result of characters setting down, dropping, tossing or knocking over a prop. Taking a prop in hand is rarely a problem because any shot used will be consistent with subsequent shots of the prop being in hand—unless, of course, the prop is not held or switches hands. But when a prop is set down, dropped, tossed or knocked over, its location and condition must be consistent in subsequent shots. Examples of mistakes include:

    • X-Men in “X-Men 2” (2003) set on the desk of the President a blue binder, which disappears and then reappears in subsequent shots;

    • In “Se7en” (1995), John Doe (Kevin Spacey) walks into a hallway carrying a bag of groceries, which he drops to pull a gun and shoot at detectives. In pursuit of John Doe, Mills (Brad Pitt) runs down the hallway where the bag’s spilled contents have vanished;

    • In “Cheaper by the Dozen” (2003), Mark (Forrest Landis) hugs Kate (Bonnie Hunt) causing her sunglasses to fall off. In the next shot, the sunglasses have returned to Kate’s head.

    • Reese (Michael Biehn) in “The Terminator” (1984) tosses a pipe bomb from a pickup at a motorcycle ridden by the Terminator as the vehicles approach the end of a tunnel. When Reese tosses another pipe bomb, the vehicles are far from the end of the tunnel. However, when that bomb explodes, the vehicles are through the tunnel.

    The more action in a film, the greater the likelihood that props will be set down, dropped, tossed or knocked over. It’s one reason why the action genre is the most prone to continuity mistakes. Another is that the visual narrative of action films--particularly with MTV-style editing--is so frenetic that people haven’t time to register mistakes.

    Of course, nothing in an action film diverts attention away from a mistake better than a smoking Catherine Tramel (Sharon Stone) in “Basic Instinct” (1992). As she is interrogated by police, Tramel holds a lit cigarette before she crosses her legs, holds nothing during the cross, and holds the cigarette again after the cross.

    Not so kind to script supervisors is Brad Pitt’s signature trait of eating while he acts. Tracking Brad includes noting what he eats or drinks, the amount consumed during a shot, and the kind of dishware used. In “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001), Linus (Matt Damon) and Rusty (Brad Pitt) stand in the Botanical Garden of the Bellagioon as Rusty shares his observations about the casino and its owner. One moment Rusty is holding a cocktail glass of shrimp, the next a plate, the next the cocktail glass again.

    Transparent drinkware and plates in general are problematic. Common mistakes include a glass that is full one shot and half empty the next, or worse still, the reverse, e.g., in “Notorious” (1946, Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) realizes she is drinking poison, but her cup is full when it reappears. Occasinally the drinkware itself is mixed up. In “American Pie” (1999), Steven Stifler (Seann William Scott) gives a girl a beer in a transparent plastic cup, which turns opaque blue, then becomes transparent again.

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    Tattooes & Scars

    Since its inception in the late 19th Century, modern arrest records have included descriptions and locations of tattoos and scars..Luckily real police never encounter someone like Seth Gecko (George Clooney), whose neck tattoo in “From Dusk Till Dawn” (1996) is constantly on the move and changing shape. Or someone like Fredo in “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003), whose scar moves from his right to left cheek and changes shape.

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    Hair

    continuityGiven the importance people attach to hair—good hair, bad hair, no hair—a film’s hairdresser must be concerned not only with style but presenting that style consistently. At loose ends in the “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) were Dorothy’s pigtails, whose length fluctuated five inches during the scene in which she meets the Scarecrow. And being awakened at 5 a.m. by Debbie (Demi Moore) in “About Last Night” (2014) did not begin a good hair day for the coiffeur of Joan (Elizabeth Perkins), whose hair went from being pinned back by a headband to being down and groomed to being pinned back again.

    Of course, final blame for these flubs falls to the script supervisors. Not so clear is who's to blame for Kate (Reese Witherspoon) having hair that flickers between medium and bright blonde at her mother’s house in “Four Christmases” (2008). Or the one ultimately responsible for the different shapes and hair patterns of the goatee and mustache of Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) in “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017).

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    Exteriors

    In an episode of the British TV series “Jonathan Creek,” a stranded female motorist sees a cottage across a field of high grass and looks away to alert her companion. When she looks back the cottage has disappeared. Jonathan Creek, a designer of magic tricks and part-time detective, later concludes that the cottage must have been a façade erected by a film company that fell flat. Only in filmmaking, he reasons, could such a break in continuity occur.

    film continuityIndeed, combining shots with certain things in them and then not is a danger when filming exteriors. For instance, the landscape outside the Elliott’s house in “E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) features changes to the design of lampposts, a vanishing lamppost, and vanishing and reappearing boulders. Even animated exteriors suffer from mistakes. In “Shrek” (2001), the front door opens outward and slams shut; the same door opens inward and slams shut.  A more common mistake is the thing that never should be there at all, e.g., palm trees and California license plates in shots of Haddonfield, Illinois, the supposed setting of “Halloween” (1978).

    Without doubt, the foremost continuity concern in shooting exteriors is lighting. To ensure the light is consistent in sequential shots, film crews will bide their time waiting for a cloud to uncover the sun. However, locale and budget sometimes make continuity impossible. Such was the case with “Dunkirk” (2017), in which shots of British soldiers on the beach and reverse shots of German Stukas attacking them fluctuate between bright daylight and dark overcast.

    Finally, there are some locations where script supervisors cannot tread--such as beneath the sea. Which explains the screwy love scene in “The Beach” (2000),where we see Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Francoise (Virginia Ledoyen) kiss underwater as they rise embraced from a depth to the ocean’s surface to stand in water only waste deep.

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    Ellipsis

    Named after the punctuation of three dots (. . .), ellipsis is the omission of action whose narrative significance is conveyed by the scenes preceding and following the action. For instance, a character enters the front door of a house and hears voices upstairs. The next shot is of characters talking in a bedroom upstairs. Seconds later the character who entered the house appears in the bedroom doorway.

    The key to ellipsis continuity is the time conveyed for the performance of the unseen action. For instance, characters in many horror films tend to accomplish very little before night falls. In “Halloween” (1978), it takes Annie (Nancy Kyes) and Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) from midday to dark to walk a few blocks from a hardware store to their babysitting jobs.

    Conversely, some characters accomplish far too much in the time allotted. In “Draft Day” (2014, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) is attending the NFL draft at Madison Square Garden when he is outraged by how his general manager (Kevin Costner) handles via telephone the draft’s overall first pick. Molina leaves Madison Square Garden, drives 12 miles from Midtown Manhattan to the Teterboro Airport, flies 450 miles to Cleveland, and drives 16 miles to the Brown’s HQ where he arrives just after the draft’s 5th pick is announced. Because the NFL’s time limit to make first round picks is ten minutes, Molina’s journey took 40 minutes. 

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    Planes, Trains & Automobiles

    Absent an interest in aircraft, goofs involving planes usually go over peoples’ heads. In “The Usual Suspects” (1995) we see a mistake arising probably from the film editor's assumption that if you’ve seen one Boeing, you’ve seen them all. First comes the front of a 4-engine Boeing 747 as it is about to land, followed by the rear of a 2-engine Boeing 767 as it lands. In "Airport" (1970), the Boeing 707 crippled by a bomb approaches Lincoln Airport with its landing gear down. Apparently this would have been news to its captain (Barry Nelson), who later calls for the landing gear to be lowered. In “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003), Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) and John Connor (Nick Stahl) escape in a plane that in the hangar bears the identification code N3035C, an ID that becomes N3973F when the plane is airborne.

    Perhaps the most esoteric mistake involves the Lockheed Jetstar In “Goldfinger” (1964), which transports James Bond (Sean Connery) from Geneva, Switzerland to Baltimore, Maryland, a distance of more than 4,000 miles. This is an impossibility given that the Jetstar had a maximum range of 2,500 miles. Even if we allow for hops, crossing the Atlantic from anywhere in Europe to the closest North American territory, Nova Scotia, is a journey of more than 2,500 miles.  At the end of the movie, Bond boards the same model jet, which does what the first should have—crashes into the sea.

    Train interiors are made to be replicated on studio sound stages. Not surprisingly moviegoers focus their attention on train interiors not exteriors. Devotees of “White Christmas” (1954), for instance,  clearly recall the club car in which Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby), Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) and the Haynes sisters (Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen) reunite, flirt and sing. Few ever recognize that the train which transports the foursome nonstop from Florida to Vermont belongs to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in one sequence, and to the Southern Pacific Railroad in another. Never mind that neither railroad company ran trains along the East Coast.

    It does seem that mistakes with trains are always outdoors. In “Silver Streak” (1976), we see two sets of train tracks through the engine door as Devereau (Patrick McGoohan) steps on the hands of a wounded Whiney (Ray Walston) to make him fall from the engine. When Whiney falls, the tracks are gone and Whiney rolls down an embankment.  In “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017), the number of passenger cars changes between scenes. Not even the benefit of the doubt works here—cars are not added and subtracted at stations when a train is an express.

    Mistakes involving cars are more noticed than mistakes involving other vehicles because moviegoers identify more with cars. Add the fact that cars are filmmakers’ favorite vehicle—and especially the favorite vehicle of action filmmakers—and moviegoers have plenty to notice.

    Arnold Schwarzenegger action films are particularly State Farm nightmares. For instance, in “Commando”(1985) we see a Porsche’s door caved in one moment, pristine the next, then caved in again; a van flip on its right side, then appear on its left side;  a truck head toward trees only to plummet off a treeless cliff; cars turn into different models; cars disappear; cars racing behind, beside and in front of one another simultaneously; a jeep pass by stacked army supplies and then, without turning, crash into the supplies; windows roll up and down one shot to the next; a Cadillac start in reverse gear; a license plate disappear and then reappear; a damaged  headlight and bumper repair themselves, etc.

    Still, as much as Arnold’s "Commando" excels in quantity, Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” (1995) makes up for with quality. In a shot of Scottish cavalry charging the British, we see in the background a 13th Century white minivan.

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    Crew Members

    Sometimes directors and film editors are so focused on the forest they fail to see a tree. Which is why a crew member caught in a shot is often lost among several of the film’s characters. However, blending into the cast becomes difficult in movies set in a fantasy/science fiction locale or in the distant past, such as “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl” (2003). Many moviegoers have wondered at a shot aboard ship of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), members of his pirate crew and a man wearing a white cowboy hat, sunglasses and a T-shirt with what appears to be a pack of cigarettes rolled up in one sleeve.

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    Extras

    Extras are to be seen by moviegoers, not observed. When observed, it’s usually because shots from different takes have been combined.  And more often than not, one shot is a medium shot of a partial group, and the other is a wide shot of the entire group.  In “Empire Records” (1995), for instance, a medium shot of dancing employees shows one removing his shirt, followed by a wide shot in which the same extra has his shirt on.

    A less common mistake is that of the repeating extra. In “Vertigo” (1958), Scottie (James Stewart) watches Judy (Kim Novak) talking to her friends outside a flower shop. Within seconds the same sailor walks past twice in the same direction, from right to left. Worse yet is the mistake in the final shootout of “Commando” (1985), when we see the same extra—distinctive because of his long beard—killed twice.

    Finally, there are mistakes that are one of a kind. In “North by Northwest” (1959), Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) confronts Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) in a cafeteria at Mount Rushmore and fires a gun loaded with blanks to fake Thornhill’s murder. Clearly this was not a first take for among those seated in the cafeteria is a boy who puts his fingers in his ears seconds before the gun is fired.

    Related Terms:  MTV-style editing   montage    ellipsis

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