Continuity editing is pretty much the only way Hollywood and mainstream movies like to edit.
This style is designed purely to help the story move along, but also to get the audience quickly rooting for the characters and feeling what they feel, but without doing anything too weird.
Here are a few perks of continuity editing…
Everyone can see easily what’s supposed to be happening. Don’t confuse us. Give us the action, let us hear the talking, show us where we are, what time it is, whether it’s the past or the future and so on.
Moves the action along
That doesn’t just mean high action like car chases, but any part of the story at all. It has to keep moving forward, with few detours or diversions.
Doesn’t let viewers see the editing and ‘suspends disbelief’
Editing in this style is like a magic show—we get swept along and no one wants to see behind the scenes or get reminded it’s just all make-believe. So don’t do strange, gimmicky editing where you show off all your box of tricks. We don’t want to be reminded it’s just a movie.
Helps you identify with the characters
We need to see what they see, hear what they hear, feel what they feel—and that means using neat editing to keep us pegged next to the characters all the time so the story is from their point of view all the time.
Now and then you have to stray from this straight-down-the-line editing and know when to bring in the cavalry—to create real excitement and suspense. You’ll need a few other ways to edit, stealing a few ideas from montage editing but knowing when to rein it in too.
…And this is some of what you do to get it:
In editing, rhythm is about how fast each shot occurs. For instance, in an action scene you might have shot lengths of two seconds or less, making a quick, intense, and exciting sequence. But then you need to slow things down later, so you have longer shots of six or seven seconds each. It’s just like music, where you have quiet verses and louder choruses. If you are aware of rhythm you can use it to crank up the excitement and then calm it down again.
Pace keeps a check on the overall rhythm of the movie. You can pace the movie so that it gets steadily more exciting, or tense, or happy or whatever it needs to build to a finale. Often the first parts of the film are slower than the last, you get a middle where we take a breather, and then you can plot where the fastest or most intense part of the film is.
Same style all the time
However you came up with the style of the movie—it could have been through doing designs or you might have just stumbled across it while shooting—you need to stick to it. To keep it consistent, use one way to edit throughout, keeping shot lengths similar depending on what the script needs.
Control of time
You need to be able to show how much time is passing, either during a scene or between scenes. For a long passage of time, use slow dissolve transitions to black, dissolving from black again at the start of a new scene.
Within a scene, several lengthy and wide camera shots will suggest that time is stretching a little, and you can use quick dissolves to push it further.
This puts us in the point of view of a character. For instance, we see a person stop in a street and they notice something in a window. We then need to cut to a shot of what they see, as if the camera were their eyes.
Shot reverse shot
Usually used when two people are talking, you’ll show each face in the frame, but with part of the back of the head and shoulder of the other person also in shot, so we know who exactly they are talking to. When you get to edit you just need to cut these two together—called “shot and reverse shots.”
You can open a scene with a big wide shot showing the whole room, or location. This gives the audience all the information they need—who’s there, where they are and whether it is day or night. It sets the scene, or “establishes” it.
Cut in and cut away
In a short sequence, you can open with an establishing wide shot, then move in with a few close-ups of the action, then back out again with a similar wide shot, this time showing the action moving on, such as the car driving away, and fading to black again. This can create a rhythmic kind of sequence.
You took the time to shoot an establishing shot, so now you need to remind us now and then that we are still in the same place. To do this, include cuts where you showed the same objects repeatedly, or the same background.
Object matching/graphic match
This is a neat way to cut between two scenes—simply use shots that look visually similar, like cutting from a shot showing an eye in close-up to a shot of a round plug hole as water washes down it—as in Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Cut on action
Try to start and end shots with movement. If there’s action, start the shot a split second into the action so it is already happening.
Sounds to amplify action
Use sound layers to increase the sensation of what is happening. Don’t rely on the sounds you got while shooting—they just won’t seem real enough. In continuity editing you need sounds to be hyper-real. A car door goes clunk loud and clear, a fist makes a big thump and a footstep is a solid crunch.
Use of camera angles
Continuity editing uses camera angles in quite a predictable way—and that’s the way we like it as an audience. You need to work this into the way you shoot the movie, but providing you have the right shots, make sure you know how to use them. A wide shot opens the action, a medium shot brings us in a little, and a close-up is for emotional, high drama moments.