Shot by Shot

“Shot by shot it looks great,” Avakian [film editor] reported to Evans [head of production, Paramount Pictures]. “Kubrick couldn’t get better performances, but it cuts together like a Chinese jigsaw puzzle. We spent two days in the restaurant with Pacino, Sterling Hayden, and Al Lettieri. Each take was great, but nothing matches. The [expletive deleted] [Coppola, the movie’s director] doesn’t know what continuity means.” [emphasis added]
Fifty Years of The Godfather

Ooh, Mr. Kah-tuh, Mr. Kah-tuh!  *I* know what continuity means, but I’m lousy at definitions so let’s go with Merriam Webster again.

con•ti•nu•i•ty (noun)

1a : uninterrupted connection, succession, or union
its disregard of the continuity between means and ends

b : uninterrupted duration or continuation especially without essential change
the continuity of the company’s management

2 : something that has, exhibits, or provides continuity: such as

a : a script or scenario in the performing arts
: transitional spoken or musical matter especially for a radio or television program
: the story and dialogue of a comic strip

3 : the property of being mathematically continuous

I still have a twitch from two years of calculus 35 years ago, so let’s let continuity 3 just lie there, shall we? Besides, the quote makes it clear that the cranky/profane film editor is talking about continuity 2a:

something that has, exhibits, or provides continuity,
such as a script or scenario in the performing arts

As for the crankiness, you can imagine the joy of trying to create visual continuity after the fact, while splicing together scenes filmed without attention to it. Where, in fact, NOTHING MATCHES.

Sidenote: Continuity errors in movies is a genre of movie appreciation/discourse. My favourite error is John McClane’s undershirt in “Die Hard”, which from one scene to the next goes from white (required under his white dress shirt) to green (appropriate as he fights the terrorists like an urban jungle fighter). Strictly speaking, I don’t suppose it was an error. Likely the producers just changed it because green looked better and they figured that watchers wouldn’t notice or care.

Anyway. Having suffered professionally from a lack of continuity 2a — in my case, trying to make one coherent and lovely document from disparate inputs where NOTHING MATCHED (often not content; usually not structure; always not writing styles) — this quote caught my attention. But since I’ve retired from this endeavour/craziness, all that is left now with respect to continuity (beyond a certain twitchiness) is empathy for any editor’s challenges, whether in text or in film, and a degree of curiosity. To wit . . .

Does continuity matter in life?

Not the visual sort, of course: As the skin wrinkles and the hair colour fades, any hopes of my own visual continuity have been set aside on a mental shelf beside those old calculus textbooks, never to be considered again.

Not the textual or verbal sort either, of course: As the days pass, the old stories and memories seem to evolve, somehow. Some get new wrinkles; others fade.

No, what I’m wondering about is, I think, continuity of something else. A continuity of purpose, perhaps, or principle. Something that splices together my life — which might look great (or not), shot by shot — into an uninterrupted connection, succession, or union.

Of course, as Søren Kierkegaard is reported to have said:

Life can only be understood backwards;
but it must be lived forwards.

Although I’d put some money on Kierkegaard’s original not being this pithy, I can see (or imagine?) a measure of continuity when I look *back* on my life. But continuity in a set of movie scenes or in a document with multiple writers comes most easily if it’s planned, not reverse engineered. Is life much different? If I want the important things in my life to endure, if I want the whole to be a coherent story, then maybe I need to live each day with one eye on how it matches what’s come before and what will come after.

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25 Responses to Shot by Shot

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    When I was editing, it was continuity of thought (or lack thereof) that bothered me. The writer assumed these two paragraphs were connected, but if they were, it was some kind of labyrinthine connection in his mind that wasn’t obvious to the reader. My job was often to find that connection and make it clear.

    At the same time, the visual media may be changing that. Old movies dissolved from one scene to another. Or they inserted a transition clip of some kind. Now they go for a quick cut. Music videos and commercials especially. A scene used to last a given number of seconds. Now it goes bing-bing-bing-bing — multiple images within a single second. Where’s the continuity? Or is it about bombardment into submission?

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Yes, it’s amazing what a mess our unedited writing can be (mine, too) – jumping and jumping around. As for movies, I assume they’ve followed the lead of music videos. Unfortunately, that bam/bam style might work when there’s only a few minutes of material and no narrative structure, but it doesn’t translate well into a 90-120 minute movie. On the other hand, I find some dramatic old movies (1940s) craaazy slow. Comedies seem to keep up better.

      • barbara carlson says:

        You find some dramatic old movies (1940s) craaazy slow….

        It’s the rambling dialogue — it needed editing!

        Or one actor says something, then there would be a blank gap, then the other person would answer. Talking slightly over each other is more natural.

        Frankly, most old movies bore me silly. Even the 1970s ones with “unattached” sound. And so slow. John likes the pace of them so I “get” to watch a lot of TCM movies; they put me to sleep.

        It’s the continuity of 1940s hairs styles in a film — not a hair out of place – ever. (And nobody ever goes to the bathroom….)

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – 🙂 Yeah, their hair must have been sprayed with glue. In general, dialogue in movies (and in stage plays even more so) is too coherent. When I read an actual transcript of people talking, it’s all half-sentences and filler words. Most screenplays have people talking more “properly” (and certainly more cleverly) than actual people do.

          • barbara carlson says:

            The best movies sound like there is no script. And the best actors are thinking up the words on the spot. (Christopher Guest’s movies come to find — Best in Show as pretty much ad lib with Eugene Levy and & Catherine O’Hara — I wonder how much of Schitt’s Creek is ad lib?

            Very funny show — can recommend it.

          • Isabel Gibson says:

            Barbara – 🙂 Agreed – either sounding ad libbed, or gone the other way and embracing the staginess of it. Different effects, but both can be good. Stilted, on the other hand, is never good.

  2. Ken from Kenora says:

    It is distracting and dims your perception of the overall movie, but I like it when a lack of continuity leaps off of the screen at me. It make me feel smarter than I am.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ken – Hahaha. Yeah, and that’s a good thing, right? I’m at the movie-watching stage where I really appreciate those screen titles that let me know they’ve changed location and/or time period.

      • barbara carlson says:

        I usually nod off through those… or go to sleep at the exact moment the killer is revealed. Then I wake up at the end of the show — I have stopped asking who did it. So I can watch the thing again (as we often do a year or so later). Sometimes I nod off at the end of one show and wake up in the middle of another…

        There is, according to sleep science, no better sleep than in front of the TV. I win.

  3. Ah, continuity! Is it good or is it bad? Or is it how we tell our stories. I am fond of disruptions, but only occasionally and when I am ready. Hmm, guess I like continuity quite a bit.

    Plus, I am as smart as Ken when watching movies, a pass-time not available to Kierkegaard.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – 🙂 Planned surprises are the best kind, eh? There’s something to that. I expect we all have our own “relevant range” of change that we accommodate happily, and some that we just accommodate, when there’s no option. I expect that the agency aspect figures into this also – if I initiate a change, it’s usually fine. If others do, maybe not so much. Or not always.

  4. Mary Gibson says:

    For sure one can see it in retrospect. I came to realise I moved from organisational ‘start-up never-been-done-before’ for probably 90% of my 43-year working life. Therein lies some insight into my psyche.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Mary – Interesting. Start-ups and projects do seem to require a different skill set, or focus, or attitude than stable organizations with established processes and structures (although there is some overlap, of course). Maybe we tend to gravitate to our happy place on that continuum, again and again, if we can.

  5. One of the problems in life that should not occur in films is that the narrative point of view can change dramatically. We look for coherence in art, generally, because we are seeking to affirm our own sense of self and coherence. A man who became a proficient thief in childhood turns into a huge star rapper in the music business (Ice-T’s confession to Stephen Colbert) that spills into a book. The big music star nearly drowns, takes up a new religion (Cat Stevens aka Yusuf in Islam), and drops out of show business (until a recent come-back). We study those changes partly to protect our own narratives. My family never recovered from the deep change in narrative in my life when I discovered new explanations for human behaviour. My belief system could accommodate to those shocking changes because it was operative in discovering them. The others wished there had been signposts and foreshadowing: the connective tissue of most film narratives.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Yes, the introduction/appearance of a “discontinuity” can see us placed on a new path – and again, that “agency thing” comes up. It’s likely easier to feel OK about even a dramatic change if you’re driving the bus.

  6. Tom Watson says:

    A good friend taught calculus. He claims we use it every day.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Well, I wouldn’t argue with him. I learned how to learn it — or how to prepare for exams, at least — but it was never my happy place.

  7. barbara carlson says:

    Discontinuity shows me just how hard it is to film any one scene — take after take. Have you have ever seen a documentary on how a movie is actually filmed (in tiny clips) not to mention filming a scene from the end of the movie first?

    I have great respect for actors, not just for learning all those lines, but for the emotions that must seem authentic — they seem unaware of the camera, so we do, too. Kenneth Branagh is one of these actors — watching him in Wallander TV Series these days.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Yes, that filming order (disorder) helps to explain why the actors themselves don’t realize something is out of whack. It might be days or weeks ago that they filmed the adjacent scene. Who would remember whether there even was something on the table, never mind how it was positioned? I wonder if cellphone cameras have helped with this, offering an easy and at-hand way to record a scene for later reference and recreation. (All the places we rent have photos online. One included a directive to return everything to where it had started, based on those photos. That saved the cleaner from having to move furniture, as well as offering a quick way to check if there were any small items missing.)

      • barbara carlson says:

        Actors don’t have to remember – that’s the Continuity Girl’s — real job — is for. I’m talking about emotional continuity. I’m sure the CGs now use cellphones not clipboards!

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – Yes, fair enough – emoting out of context/order would be even tougher. As to Continuity Person and their job, my guess is it’s tough enough that every helping hand is welcome. Or, if not welcome exactly, at least useful.

  8. barbara carlson says:

    Actors don’t have to remember – that’s the Continuity Girl’s — real job — is for. I’m talking about emotional continuity. I’m sure the CGs now use cellphones not clipboards!

  9. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – many thanks to Barbara for her,”There is, according to sleep science, no better sleep than in front of the TV. I win.”

    I feel so much better now, knowing that I too am a winner.

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