For film trailers and the three-minute openings to television programmes, too many students record lots of footage on their phones and hope they can piece together a meaningful montage. You could get a decent mark for creating this sort of narrative, but you will not achieve the top grades because you need to demonstrate a deeper understanding of storytelling and editing beyond the random combination of shots.
Knowledge and application of continuity editing is essential if you want full marks.
The audience’s attention should remain focused on your characters or presenters and their stories. Therefore, you need to make sure your editing of a sequence does not distract from their performance. Only your teacher should notice how one shot moves into the next. Before you point and shoot, read through this guide on the six of the most important aspects of continuity editing and learn how you can improve the quality your media product.
1 Establishing shot
Pick your favourite television programme and watch an episode. If you pay attention to the opening of each scene, before the audience sees the conversation between several of the characters, you might notice the director will try to establish when and where the scene takes place. For example, in science-fiction, the external shot of the spaceship or space station indicates the following scene will be set inside.
This is known as the establishing shot.
You might not be filming in outer space, but you will need to take an exterior shot of a house to establish your scene will take place within those walls. An exterior shot of a school or any other public building will convince your audience the characters are inside.
The following image comes from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”. The director used external shots of the hotel, which is in Colorado, to establish the main location of his psychological horror film, so the audience will believe all terrifying action takes place inside. Interestingly, however, the interior shots were actually filmed in a studio in England.
Get the right establishing shot and you will help orientate the audience within the geography of story. Put simply, let the audience know where the characters are located.
2 Spatial Relationships
After you establish the scene’s location, your next shot should inform the audience about the spatial relationship between the characters. In other words, where are the characters standing, sitting or walking. A simple two-shot can create this sense of space and distance. In the following example from Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, however, the medium shot manages to let the audience know where the whole crew of the spaceship Nostromo are sitting in relation to each other around the table.
Look at the left of the frame. Notice how one character, Ash, is sitting slightly apart from the others. What does that suggest about his role in the story? When you are directing your actors, never miss a chance to reinforce their characters and their emotional connections. Apparently, the actors in this scene had very little idea about what was going to happen next. Perhaps that is why John Hurt is smiling so much in this shot.
In conclusion, try to ensure the audience knows what is going on. If they do not know where each character is located, the scene can become very confusing.
This editing technique is very common in television and cinema. After the medium or long shot clarifies the space between characters, the camera can be positioned a little closer to the actors, so the audience get a better sense of their thoughts and feelings from their facial expressions. For example, consider this over the shoulder shot from “Get Out” and how it successfully defines the spatial relationship between the four characters:
It is made obvious to the audience that the older couple are on one side of room, with the wife sitting on the seat and the husband standing beside her. Notice how their eyes are also directing the audience’s attention towards the younger couple who are on the right of the frame. There is a clear gap between them. Interestingly, the hard and brilliant-white door frame seems to divide the space, suggesting an emotional or psychological difference between the couples. Also, the younger couple are pushed awkwardly to the edge of the screen. This could indicate their lack of power in the scene compared to the more dominant couple.
The scene soon cuts to a two-shot of the younger couple:
This is the reverse shot.
Despite the fact the other two characters are no longer on the screen, the audience are still aware of their presence. Positioning the young couple on the right-hand side of the screen in both shots creates consistency and, therefore, helps with this continuity. The eye contact is also maintained.
Finally, in the next shot, the cut to a close-up of the older man remains a natural part of this linear sequence because the eyeline and his position on the left-hand side of the frame are both maintained. The audience will be in no doubt that these three shots are part of the same moment. Most viewers will not even notice the editing.
All television programmes and blockbuster films use this rhythm of moving from one shot to its reverse perspective and back again. If you watch any scripted reality television show, you might notice they stick rigidly to this shot-reverse-shot pattern. Every. Single. Time.
4 180 Degree Rule
If you want to have this natural rhythm to your own media product and avoid confusing your audience, you cannot simply reposition your camera anywhere around the room. You MUST follow the 180o rule.
Consider again the three shots from “Get Out”. The older couple are on the left-hand side of the frame and the younger couple stick to the right. If the camera is relocated to the hallway, it would switch around their positions in the frame, disrupting the audience’s engagement with the narrative because the characters are no longer occupying the same space or staring in the right direction.
The 180o rule is an imaginary line running from one side of the room to the other:
When the camera passes over this invisible axis connecting two subjects, the spatial relationship between the characters will be broken and the audience might become disorientated. It is actually quite an unpleasant cut. Therefore, once you have established the axis with your initial angle, do not cross the line unless you have a very good reason.
In the diagram above, camera one is a medium-long shot which defines the characters’ position in the scene. When we cut to the second camera, the pair of characters remain on the right-hand side of the frame. The reverse shot, or camera three, places the single character on the left-hand side. Notice the negative space in frames two and three. Not only is this aesthetically pleasing, but audiences also like shifting their eyes left and right during the conversation; perhaps, it makes us feel like we are in the room.
5 Eyeline Match
When a scene is spliced together from a variety of shots and angles, each character must still appear to be looking in the right direction during the conversation. Of course, the 180o rule will help maintain this eyeline match, but make sure the characters appear on appropriate sides of the frame. Leave a little bit of negative space in the first shot for the other characters to appear in the next shot.
The angle of the shots is also important. In the following example from “Get Out”, look at how the high angle helps support the idea that the protagonist is looking down at his girlfriend on the bed:
It should be extremely obvious she is looking at her boyfriend. When the scene cuts to a reverse shot of the boyfriend, his eyes are looking back down at her.
Maintaining this natural eye contact is crucial in continuity editing, especially if one of the characters is no longer on the screen.
In this sequence, the over the shoulder shots maintain the spatial relationship, but that dynamic is reinforced by the eyeline match.
6 Diegetic Sound
Diegetic sound refers to any sound that occurs in the film’s setting. It could be the howling wind in a horror film or the clacking footsteps in a spy thriller. When you are recording a shot, the background noise will be specific to that moment. The background noise in your next shot will be very different. If you splice these shots together, the change in audio might break the continuity.
Unless you have specialist audio equipment and your friend is operating the boom mic, diegetic sound will be your worst enemy. Recording dialogue outside is not recommended.
If you must, try to film the entire scene without any interruptions or bloopers. This can provide you with all the audio you need for the sequence. Use the visual part of other shots but keep this original audio.
Try to use non-diegetic sound to give the illusion of continuity. A decent soundtrack can save your grade.
Show off your editing skills by making a sequence of shots seem natural and continuous. Let the audience enjoy the story while you construct the narrative. Hopefully, this guide has increased your understanding of the classical Hollywood style of continuity editing and you will take a more confident approach to directing your actors and where to position the camera.