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How To Use "Continuity Editing" To Tell Your Story

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 3/10/2010

Continuity Editing is an editing style that puts story clarity over style, and is great for home digital video producers.

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    Keeping An Eye on the Story

    When editing your digital video projects many new home producers have a tough time deciding what style they should implement when editing their films. Should they just put all the relevant clips together, or should they try and mix up the footage to give it more energy? The best way to keep story at the heart of your project is to use a method called Continuity Editing, which has been used in the studios of Hollywood since before sound graced the silver screen.

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    Continuity Editing

    Continuity Editing is exactly what it sounds like, a system that focuses on creating a clear continuity for your final video. The goal of this style is to create a very smooth flow between all of your clips so that the narrative story will be obvious without unnecessary interruptions, and to ensure that there is continuity in the space and aesthetics of your video. This means to make sure that there are no “jump cuts" - that people do not appear to jump around the room in different shots, and so that there is not different lighting or background sounds in different angles of the same scene. Essentially this type of editing is to be seamless, and make sure that their audience stays focused on the story instead of the techniques used.

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    Keep It Straight

    To maintain this type of non-obvious editing you need to be consistent with certain visual elements of your clips so you do not interrupt the narrative flow of your video. Make sure that when selecting clips, or choosing which ones should be paired up, that you do not violate the “180 degree rule." This rule states that everything should happen on a 180-degree strait line, and you should never jump to the other side of that line as a viewer. This means that if someone is on the left side of the screen watching a television that is on the right side, the next scene should not have him or her suddenly on the right side of the screen watching a television on the left side. It is great to have slight changes in angles when mixing the shots together, but nothing as dramatic as completely changing their position on the screen.

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    Establish and Reestablish

    There is a standard shot sequence that has been classically used in Continuity Editing, which uses an establishing shot, then a breakdown, and then a reestablishing shot. This sequence begins with a wide establishing shot that shows the location and the physical position of the characters in relation to this scene. This allows the viewer to understand the physical geography of the action on the screen. Then you select a series of “breakdown shots," which are all of the medium and close shots that add energy and focus to the scene that is happening. At the very end of all the action you go back to a similar shot as the establishing shot so the audience has the ability to reestablish the geography of the location and the relationships between all of the characters.

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    Eye Level

    There are a series of visual choices that the editor needs to make to play on the expectations of the audience. Viewers have an intuitive way of watching films based on the way the see in life and the films and television they grew up watching. If you want your editing to remain seamless and unnoticed then these principles should be respected in your Continuity Editing. When you have two people looking at each other, where each video clip is a close-up on their face, make sure that the position of the eyes on the screen are the same in both shots. This is the easiest way to communicate to the audience that the characters are looking at each other in the eyes.

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    Give a Pause

    If you are having the subject leave the location of a scene and then in the next scene having them enter into a new location make sure to leave space at the end and beginning of each scene. When they are leaving make sure to show the location a second after they leave a frame so the audience is clearly aware that they have left. In the next scene make sure to leave a second before they enter the location to make it clear to the audience that they are entering. Otherwise it can be confusing to the audience and will appear as if they simply transported locations.

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    Keep The Principles in Mind

    These are just a few of the elements that make a clear story edit. This kind of Continuity Editing is the best way that a home digital video editor can simply get their footage across to the audience without any confusion or disconnect. Remember to keep the continuity of the story primary, do not violate the 180 degree rule, use establishing and reestablishing shots at the beginning and end of each scene, keep eyes at the same screen position, and keep pauses in place when leaving or entering a location. Continuity Editing was developed in the early film industry, but its objectives are still relevant to the home digital video enthusiast.