The Importance of Continuity

If you’ve ever been on a film set, you might have seen a slightly twitchy, harassed looking individual scrutinizing actors, sets and props with beady eyes, checking a clipboard, and muttering furiously. If you have, then you have seen a script supervisor in action! These unsung heroes keep track of everything from the shape and colour of fake bruises to the level of Frisco in your coffee mug, and if you’ve ever made a film and freaked out during the editing stage because your actors hat changed colour as he walked through a doorway, you’ll know how important keeping track of continuity is!

For the viewer, a sudden change in an actor’s mood, appearance, or the prop he is holding, throws them out of the moment and makes it hard for them to suspend their disbelief. This is the opposite experience to the gripping, spellbinding journey passionate film makers are trying to send their audiences on! An audience wants to feel touched. They want to care about the characters. They want to feel as though their story is actually taking place and truly means something. One way to create this sense of realism is to make sure that your film is completely continuous. It should flow completely naturally, as real life events would.

What To Focus On

There are 5 major areas to focus on when keeping track of continuity in your film:
1. Costume
2. Make up
3. Props
4. Set
5. Lighting

1. COSTUME

People rarely shoot films chronologically. This means that the actors could be changing into three or four different costumes, sometimes just in one day! The more complex the costume and look, the more careful attention you must pay to its continuity. Small things, like jewelry or spectacles, can be easy to miss. An actor may remove his spectacles over lunch break and forget about them, or wear his watch on the opposite wrist. He may forget to put on his tie, or wear the wrong pair of shoes. The director may also be too busy to notice these details while shooting. You can avoid these continuity errors by creating a reference file for each actor with photographs of each costume, including jewelry and accessories. It’s also important to have photographs for each stage of the same costume. For example, the actor’s hat may be stolen halfway through the film, or his cloak may get torn. 

2. MAKE UP

It’s very easy to pick up errors in special effects make up. Errors in scars, cuts, scratches and wounds, especially those on the face or head, can be very noticeable. If you have different make up artists scheduled for different days, or they are in a hurry, it’s easy to get this wrong. Just look at these extremely obvious examples below!
Special effects make up tends to be slightly messy. Bloody wounds can smudge and cuts can run if the actor is sweating too much. Sometimes, bruises fade during the course of a scene. The script supervisor needs to pay special attention here, making sure that the make up lasts from start to finish and calling in the make up artist to do touch ups if necessary.
To keep your make up accurate and avoid mishaps, you need reference photos as well. It speeds up the prep session before the shoot if the artist doesn’t have to do any guesswork! It also prevents inconvenient delays when someone realizes halfway through a scene that the actor’s scar was supposed to be on the other side of his face!

3. PROPS

When actors are concentrating on their performance, they often don’t pay attention to their actions. An actress could be sipping a margerita from her right hand in the wide, and then switch, without thinking, to the left in the close up. The director will often be too focused on her overall performance to notice something like this. There are usually multiple takes of each scene, so her actions could change multiple times and need to be kept track of! It would also be easy to forget to keep topping up the margerita to the same level it was at the beginning. In the final edit, if the glass is half full in the wide and almost empty in the close up, the audience will notice! Similarly, if the woman smiles, says “Thank you,” and then takes a sip from her glass in one shot, but performs those actions in a different order in the next, (e.g., she smiles, takes a sip and then says “Thank you,”) the overall scene will not flow. This is the nitty gritty job a script supervisor must do, and do very well, in order to keep continuity!

4. SETS

There are usually so many people running around a film set that it’s easy for coffee cups or pens or scripts to be left lying around and forgotten even after the camera is rolling. Often, VFX artists have to remove these objects later in post production! Having a script supervisor means you have someone dedicated to monitoring this and preventing lots of unnecessary extra work later on! Sometimes, these type of errors are small enough to go unnoticed, but others can be extremely distracting, e.g. if the curtains in the bedroom behind the actor are open in one shot and closed in another, or if the clock on the wall goes from 4:15pm to 8:30am in the space of two minutes.

5. LIGHTING

Not only is it important to pay attention to the layout of a set, but also to the lighting used on that set. Often, shots from the same scene are shot not only on different days but at different times of day. If part of an outdoor scene is shot at golden hour one day, and the rest at noon the following day, the change in light will be obvious. Similarly, indoor sets should be lit exactly the same way for each take, or the audience begin to feel disoriented. The lighting technician should check the footage from previous shots in that scene so he can be sure to replicate the lighting correctly.

If you’re reading this, you are probably striving for excellence in your work, and aiming to match the production values of Hollywood. The importance of continuity is not to be overlooked in this endeavour! Indie filmmakers are often on tight budgets and even tighter schedules! Paying someone just to monitor continuity seems like a tall order. However, getting this right is what will set your film apart from other sloppily made films, and is well worth the sacrifice in time and money!

Have you made continuity errors in any of your projects? How did you fix them up? Did anyone notice?

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