Even in blockbuster movies, continuity errors happen, and eagle-eyed viewers love to find the mistakes. Shooting a movie over a period of days, weeks or even months can be a very difficult task - especially when it comes to maintaining continuity. When everything in the shot, scene and movie is consistent, then you've succeeded in maintaining continuity. If an actor picks up a cup with her right hand, the cup has to be in her right hand in the next shot, to stay consistent and maintain fluidness and continuity. In this column, we will look at continuity, cite some examples and explain how you can prevent continuity errors in your next project.
Why, Oh, Why?
When a feature film is shot, there is usually only one camera and the scene is done many times. The director will usually want to shoot the scene a variety of ways. Shooting a scene from various angles and shot sizes is known as coverage. The more coverage, the more options the editor and director have during the editing process. However, the more you shoot a scene, the greater the risk is that you will have lapses in continuity. Think about it. Actors have to do the same movements, wear the same costumes and move the same places, all over many hours and usually days of shooting. How can you possibly maintain continuity?
The person in charge of continuity on a film set is the script supervisor, who must maintain a record of scenes shot and how they may have deviated from the original script. The script supervisor also creates a continuity report and works with an assistant to make sure continuity is maintained.
The continuity report provides a detailed record of the day's shoot, including crew list, camera settings, weather and the acting, audio and picture quality of each shot. The continuity report also describes in detail the action that occurs and any possible continuity problem areas. The assistant will take pictures of costumes, hair and makeup, set dressings, actor positions and props to compare when setting up later takes of the scene. This report helps cut down on the continuity errors, which, if caught early enough, can be fixed, but only through an expensive reshoot. Yes, today filmmakers can fix some errors through digital touch-ups, but that too is very expensive and usually beyond the financial and technical abilities of the typical video producer.
Costumes, Makeup and Jewelry
To illustrate how difficult it is to maintain continuity, let's look at some movie examples and talk about how to prevent continuity problems. Keep in mind, movies are shot over a series of days, weeks and even months. Maintaining continuity is very difficult when working on a massive project, and sometimes things get missed.
Let's start with a classic, The Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy and the Scarecrow are fighting the trees, the Scarecrow taunts the trees and gets hit with a lot of apples. The very next shot, Dorothy is wearing black shoes instead of her Ruby slippers. This very quick but obvious continuity error is easily explained and prevented. When making the film, Judy Garland would have worn comfortable shoes except when her feet would be seen. Obviously, in this shot, the frame was a little larger than anticipated or, in the fury of the shoot schedule; someone forgot to look at her shoes. Always check your actors' costumes to make sure they are correct and in the same position. Watch for straps, buttons, zipper placement and other parts of the costume that may change.
Makeup and hair can also be a very big problem. In the original Batman, Jack Nicholson's Joker character rubs a bit of skin-toned makeup off his forehead revealing his dead white skin beneath. This small patch of white skin changes shape and location throughout the remaining series of shots.
In Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Frodo has a wound on his lower right cheek near his chin. Later in the film, it flips to his left cheek. When Sam cradles his head while sitting on the slopes of Mount Doom, the scar has obviously changed positions (or the film was flipped). When working with makeup and hair, make sure you take Polaroid or digital pictures, so that you can duplicate the look days later. Watch for pieces of hair getting into the actor's face or the style falling or slightly changing between takes. If the hair is wet, makes sure it is wet in all subsequent scenes until given a chance to dry. Don't let an actor go underwater without having his hair wet in the remaining close-ups!
Jewelry can also be a bit of a hassle. Sometimes it is so small or insignificant that it is easily forgotten. In Rocky Balboa, Marie's necklace disappears and reappears several times during her conversation with Rocky outside of her home. As with makeup, maintain a series of photos of the actor's jewelry to make sure it is consistent.
Settings and Action
A director will often shoot a wide or cover shot of an action and then shoot closer shots to bring the audience into the action. This can create continuity headaches. In Batman, the Joker's henchmen are throwing colored paint all over invaluable masterpieces. At one point, there is a medium shot of paint being thrown all over a large painting. In the next wide shot, the painting is pristine without a drop of the damaging paint.
If your script calls for a wide shot after pieces of the set or props have been altered, and if you are unable to supply numerous copies of various set pieces for your actions, shoot the close-up actions first and then match them with a cover shot. This way, you can avoid using a clean master shot after a portion of your set has been destroyed.
Always look at the sequence of events and draw up storyboards, so that you can prevent possible continuity errors. (See Paul Clatworthy’s article on storyboarding)
In Spiderman, the web-slinger comes to the rescue of Mary Jane, who is being mugged by four men. Spiderman throws two of the men through two windows behind Mary Jane. When we next see Mary Jane, the windows behind her are unbroken. This continuity problem can be eliminated by carefully maintaining a photographic record of the set. This will help you make sure that, when you shoot out of sequence or are doing singles of your main characters, the setting matches the look for that part in the sequence. Obviously the two shots of Mary Jane were shot at the same time. Someone forgot that Spiderman throws the guys through the window behind her.
Blocking action is often a difficult continuity problem, because the shots have to match so precisely. Moving from an interior to an exterior can be especially problematic. In Night at the Museum, when Larry asks her to go so he can lock up, Rebecca leaves through the middle, rotating door. Yet in the exterior shot, she is leaving through the door on the right. These shots were probably shot days, if not weeks, apart, and the correct door was forgotten. To prevent this, write out blocking notes and be as specific as possible. Use diagrams or photos to maintain the proper screen direction, as well as entrances and exits.
Props are perhaps the most difficult pieces of the continuity puzzle. Carefully work with your actors to make sure they handle the props exactly the same way every time. Make sure the props department records which props are used during which scenes. Again, in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Gandalf and company enter King Theoden's chamber. As Gandalf walks toward the camera, he holds his wizard's staff vertically. In the rear angle shot, however, he is holding it horizontally. At the next cut, the staff is now upright, and at the following cut, the staff is horizontal again.
During every take, the action must be the same. Make sure your actors know what movements they are making during the lines they are speaking. They must maintain these movements for every shot. This can be difficult because the cover shot - or wide shot - might have been taken hours, if not days, before the closer shots. A continuity note should be made, so that the actions can be duplicated.
In Ocean's Eleven, Linus and Rusty are talking in the Botanical Gardens of the Bellagio. Rusty is eating a shrimp cocktail that changes from a cocktail glass to a plate and back again. In American Pie, during one bedroom scene, a girl is holding a clear cup of beer. In the next few shots, the cup goes from clear to blue and then back to clear. These are unusual mistakes, because props people always have very specific props for each scene. Maintain a strict props list, and always refer to it when setting up each shot.
In Dick Tracy, when Tracy is talking to the boy over a glass of milk in the restaurant, the level of the milk constantly changes. Using props that the actor drinks, smokes or eats can be a continuity nightmare. The only way to prevent this kind of continuity problem is to try to shoot in sequence and keep track through photos of consumable props for each step of the sequence. If the actors take a drink, note it and the level of the liquid. If they are smoking, keep track of the length of the cigarette or cigar and, if they are eating, maintain the correct remaining portion throughout the sequence.
Maintaining continuity can be a difficult task. However, if you maintain a detailed record of every scene, with supporting pictures and script notes, you should be able to avoid family, friends and clients pointing out the little continuity problems that can creep into your production. Just keep your eyes open for the little things.
Dr. Robert G. Nulph teaches video and film production at the college level and is an independent video/film director.