Good film editors take individual shots and transform them into a narrative. This process, known as continuity editing, keeps films cohesive and ensures the viewer suspends their disbelief. Without it, the reality of a created world falls apart.
Continuity editing is the process of keeping the reality of a scene consistent from shot to shot. Poorly edited footage can leave viewers feeling untethered and confused. This makes continuity editing one of filmmaking’s most crucial elements; the goal is for the audience to forget they’re watching a movie.
The main objectives of continuity editing are to:
- Combine raw footage—often from several different takes—into a structured sequence that tells a cogent story
- Obscure the technical aspects of filmmaking and video editing such as cuts, transitions, the blocking of the actors (or the absence of an actor not scheduled to shoot that day), and the limitations of the set
- Maintain the same sense of space and time elapsed from shot to shot
- Keep the audience suspending their disbelief and engaged in the world of the film, not thinking about the reality outside of it
Effective continuity editing hides itself, so it’s easiest to explain by breaking down a straightforward scene. This clip from “No Country for Old Men” is an extended conversation that uses a simple shot-reverse shot to switch back and forth between two perspectives. Although actors Javier Bardem and Gene Jones are never fully framed in the same shot, it always appears as if they’re looking at each other in the same way. Their dialogue starts, stops, and overlaps naturally, and their distance from each other remains exactly the same.
“Avengers: Infinity War” behind the scenes Courtesy Marvel Studios
Video editors usually follow certain guidelines when conducting continuity editing on film projects. These include:
Correctly matching actor eyelines is one of the most important parts of continuity editing. Simply put: A character has to be looking in the right direction from shot to shot. If a conversation scene cuts between a short character and a tall character, for example, the taller character should be looking down when they’re talking. This has gotten trickier with the advent of extensive CGI. If a character isn’t physically with the actor on set, it’s up to the continuity editing to compile all the footage where that actor is looking in a consistent direction.
Josh Brolin had to perform with a cutout of Thanos’ head hovering above him on the set of “Avengers: Endgame,” as the finished VFX version of the character is several feet taller than him. If the film was poorly edited, it could have looked like his costars were speaking to his chest.
Eyelines can also put you directly in a character’s shoes. For instance, if a scene portrays a character gazing out of a window, like Ennis does in “Brokeback Mountain,” the next cut mimics his perspective, and we see what he sees—Jack emerging from his truck.
The 180-degree rule
This filmmaking mandate draws an invisible line between two (or more) characters. To maintain continuity, keep the camera on one side of the line so that the characters always have the same left-right orientation to each other.
The coffee shop scene from “Heat” faithfully follows the 180-degree rule. Criminal Neil McCauley always gazes camera left while detective Vincent Hanna’s eyeline remains camera right, keeping orientation and emphasizing the two men’s Janus coin relationship.
The 30-degree rule
Any time a scene cuts to a different angle of the same subject, the camera should move at least 30 degrees away from the first angle in relation to the subject. Anything less and it may appear as if the subject moved, not the camera, an effect closer to the purposefully jarring jump cut (or just a plain mistake). And mathletes rejoice: The 30-degree rule should also still follow the 180-degree rule, so the numbers game lives on.
This video demonstrates how the 30-degree rule can prevent jarring edits.
Match on action
This technique is a cut in the middle of an action, so that action continues from a different angle. For example, you might have one shot of a character swinging an ax toward a door, and then cut to the other side of the door to see the ax create a hole in the door. Matching on action is often used to make action and fight scenes feel more fluid and coherent.
The use of matching on action in this Buster Keaton skit creates a comedic sense of continuity as he performs several different physical feats.
L-cuts and J-cuts
These auditory editing techniques are often used to make dialogue feel more natural and seamlessly bridge between scenes. L-cuts are when the audio of one shot or scene extends over into the next shot or scene; J-cuts are when you can hear the audio from the next shot or scene before you can see it.
Watch this dialogue scene from “Juno” and pay attention to how often it cuts away from the speaker before they’re done talking. This makes for more natural dialogue flow, and it allows filmmakers to realistically show reactions and listening. Waiting to cut at the end of every dialogue line can read as awkward and distracting.
Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule. While continuity editing establishes orientation and sets storyworld logic, discontinuity editing purposely fractures those very elements to disturb or disrupt the audience. The difference between discontinuity editing and plain, old poorly edited work depends entirely on the context. The work of Baz Luhrmann often purposely does away with continuity as an artistic choice, as in this scene from “Romeo + Juliet” that uses disparate zooms, closeups, freeze frames, and other techniques all at once.
One of the most common forms of dramatically disregarding continuity is the jump cut, a sudden and blatant transition in the middle of a shot. The jump cut self-reflexively asks the audience to pay attention to that man behind the curtain.
“Trainspotting” uses jump cuts to emphasize the tension, agitation, and disassociation Spud feels as he goes through a job interview while high on speed.