- The continuity system is a set of rules for making sure your shots work together
- It includes framing, camera position, shot size and editing
Film-making is a bit like a magic trick. You can film a lot of different shots, add some sounds and music, and put it together so everything seems to flow naturally. You can shoot with one camera and make it look as if you have ten. You can persuade the audience that they’re watching a real story with real people.
Here are some of the tricks and rules that make this work. You should follow these rules while you’re filming, and use them while you’re editing.
Step between shot sizes
Whether you’re showing a place, people, or action, your film will look more interesting if you shoot things with different shot sizes (above).
But don’t jump straight from, say, an extreme long shot to a big closeup unless you really want to confuse people. You need to put something like a long shot or mid shot between them so the viewer can see the connection.
Change position as well as shot size
When you change shot size, you should move the camera to a different position around the subject. If you don’t, it may seem to ‘jump’ forwards or backwards (above).
The 30 degree rule says that you should move the camera at least 30 degrees between shots. So these two will edit together better.
Shoot in opposite directions
You should normally shoot shot reverse shot. You film in one direction, then more or less the opposite direction. This lets you show a person and what they’re looking at – or two people together – using closeups for more impact.
Two characters but only one camera? No problem. Shoot the scene several times: once with both characters in the shot, then with mid shots and closeups of one character, then with mid shots or closeups of the other person. Then alternate between the characters when you edit.
If you’re filming someone moving, shoot some of the shots from in front and some from behind.
Stay on one side of an imaginary line
You could film shot-reverse shot by shooting exactly head-on (above). That’s OK for subjective shots that show the scene from each character’s point of view.
But it’s more normal for the camera to be slightly to one side of each character (above). The crucial thing is that it has to stay on the same side.
Imagine there’s a line between the two characters (above). Keep your camera on one side of that line. If you’re filming someone moving, stay on the same side of the direction they’re moving.
If you cross the line then the shots may not fit together. Your two characters will look as if they’re facing the same way, rather than facing each other.
Or your moving person will look as if they’ve changed direction.
This is called the 180 degree rule.
Put more space in the direction people are looking
If a person is looking to one side of the screen, make sure there is looking space or ‘nose room’, as I did with the closeups in the dialogue scene. This looks more natural, and it makes it obvious that the characters are facing each other.
Make sure they’re looking in the right place
Each person’s ‘gaze’ should lines up with what they’re looking at, on the opposite side of the screen. This is called eyeline match.
Try not to join two similar shots of the same thing together
Editing between two closeups of the same person (above) will give an obvious jump. Sometimes this is unavoidable if you’re editing dialogue or an interview.
You can avoid this by cutting to a master shot and then back.
Or you can use a cutaway like the reaction shot (centre), which maintains shot reverse shot.
Alternatively you could use a detail of the scene (an insert).
To see these rules in action, watch the video on this page.
My education package Editshots will help you learn the rules of shot selection, coverage and continuity. It includes a short film (55 shots) for you to edit, and a step-by-step guide. It’s only $15/£15 for individual use.
I teach all kinds of people to make films. I provide training for businesses, arts organisations, nonprofits and education. I’ve worked on film education projects with Apple Education, the British Film Institute, Film Education, Film: 21st Century Literacy and many more. My publications include Making Movies Make Sense and Editshots.