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Why "Continuity" is No 1 Acting for Camera Learning Skill

Mira Nair directs an actor in a scene
Mira Nair directs an actor in a scene pointing a mismatch

Unlike in Theater Learning “Continuity” is Must in Acting for Camera 

When shooting on set, do you ever wonder what the editor needs to keep you in the film? Or if you are unintentionally causing problems for the director or for an editor? You’re not alone.

Who is an editor?

Film editing is part of the creative post-production process of filmmaking in which an editor selects shots and puts them in an orderly, logical, and aesthetically consistent sequence. Film editing is often referred to as the "invisible art" because when it is well-practiced by an editor, the viewer can become so engaged that he or she is not even aware of the editor's work. Thus an editor’s work becomes a key factor in a film’s success.

What’s the difference between a SHOT and a TAKE?

The section of unedited film from the time the camera starts to the time it stops.

In cinematography, a take refers to each filmed "version" of a particular shot. “Takes” of each shot are generally numbered starting with "take one" and the number of each successive take is increased (with the director calling for "take two" or "take eighteen") until the filming of the shot is completed
From an editor’s viewpoint, one of the most important technical skills for an actor to master is continuity.

Irrelevant in theater, but critical to on-camera acting, continuity means performing the same physical actions identically in every take. This may happen when multiple takes are taken (filmed) of the same shot. For example: It’s which point in the dialogue you turn around to face someone, which hand you use to pass your scene partner a folder, when you lean back in your chair or touch your face.
Continuity is when you move, how you move, when you stop moving, and matching that action in every take.

If you reached for your water before saying, Bahut pyas lagi hai (“I’m thirsty”) in “take one”, then you have to match this movement and action in every other take for a shot. You must always do it in the same order because an editor is editing the scene together using multiple angles and takes, and the action in all of them needs to match. You can’t change the sequence of events in “take three” by reaching for the water after saying, Bahut pyas lagi haiThat’s not going to cut together with your other "takes" or your scene partner’s "takes". The other actors are reacting to your actions, so if you move at the wrong time, their eyes will be looking in the wrong place. It’s extremely important to be consistent and doing the same and same, whether the camera is on you or on someone else. Then an editor always has the option to keep your good work in the scene.

Sometimes it’s human not to notice mismatching movements and actors are no different, so editors work hard to avoid them. The directors or editors don’t want the audience to become distracted by an actor’s wrong movement or looks. For the illusion of a film’s fictional world, you need to maintain continuity.

Here’s an example of bad continuity

Two characters are talking at a diner. The Drinker has a coffee cup in his left hand. In his coverage, he says his line and then drinks the coffee. But what if he doesn’t maintain continuity when the camera moves behind him to get coverage of the Listener?

Correct continuity:

The correct continuity by an actor while filming
 The correct continuity by an actor while filming. See the arrow on the right holding cup in his left hand in both the pictures (Picture courtesy http://www.backstage.com)

Incorrect continuity:

The incorrect continuity by an actor while filming
The incorrect continuity by an actor. On the left, holding  the cup in his left hand Now, see the arrow on the right where the man is holding the cup in his right hand (Picture courtesy http://www.backstage.com)

See how his coffee cup jumped his own hands? So did the audience.
The woman performed exceptionally well in this shot, but for a bungling of a mismatch by her co-star Therefore hoping that she would perform well again, the director had to go for another “take” to correct the mismatch in “continuity”. Unfortunately, the female actor in the next “take” didn’t do that well.

An editor speaks:

"I want to cut every scene for the best performances, but when there are continuity problems, I’ll have to use inferior takes just to hide the physical mismatch. So your worst performance might wind up on screen because that was the only "take" where continuity matched. Or I might have to cut away from you entirely until the mismatching action is over. That’s how you end up on the cutting room floor".

Now, is it clear to you how important is “continuity” for an actor?


Some actors complain that continuity is a too rigid thing; that it prevents them from being in a character’s moment and thus produces an unreal performance. “I can’t be in the character if I’m worrying about whether my glass is up or down!”

My answer

It is simply that you have to learn this skill and make it part of your acting craft. If you give the most incredible performance, but your continuity is a disaster, an editor probably can’t use it. So the performance will be useless after all. Keeping your continuity consistent lets the audience focus on the important things.
The greatest actors have the ability to portray rich emotional moments on demand, but even in the midst of those moments, there’s a still a part of their brain that can focus on technical things like continuity without diminishing their emotional performance. The examples of such Bollywood actors are many. I find that truly incredible.

How to learn continuity?

  1. Be aware of what you are doing in each “take”
  2. Keep a small diary with you and as you sit down (If possible), note down every movement, gestures, looks etc. If there is an immediate next take with no time to sit, run in your mind what you did earlier.
  3. However, remain in the character. Don’t chat with co-stars in between a take or a shot or till it’s a “ pack up” or “wrap up” call
  4. Practice continuously “switch on and off’’ between a “character” and ‘yourself” becoming aware of the technical requirements of an acting for camera. 
  5. Remember, it's a balance between your mind and imagination

I’m confident you can learn this too.
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