When your audience is distracted by even a small discrepancy in your story, they are no longer absorbed in the world onscreen.
You’ve broken their suspension of disbelief, and they’re thinking about their plans for the weekend or what’s for supper. You’ve lost them, and it’s entirely possible you will never get them back.
Script supervisors (SS) are the audience’s representative on set, preserving story continuity to look for anything that might distract them, and stopping it from happening. We are also the editor’s representative on set. Our job is to watch everything being shot, doing an assembly edit in our head as we go, and make sure that the film will cut. And, because every director will shoot a scene differently, the SS has to make sure the film will cut as his or her director intends.
The smaller your budget, the smaller your crew, and the fewer resources you have, the more you need the skills of a good SS. Continuity can seem like a black art, but there are a few things an independent director can do to head off problems at the gate.
Time your script
If your film is too short, you need to know now, so you can make it longer without on-the-fly rewrites that compromise story continuity. If it’s too long, make those cuts now, not on the shooting day.
Investors love script timings and breakdowns and other official paperwork that gives a film a veneer of respectability and enables them to pretend they’re making a real investment, not a donation. Maybe because such preparation makes it more likely that they will actually earn their money back.
Get your script supervisor early
Production will be intense, pressured and manic. Every minute counts. Shooting material you’ll never use and wasting time fixing problems that should have been picked up in pre-production is a waste of your resources.
Your SS needs time in pre-production to prepare. He or she needs to know the script inside-out and flag potential problems as far in advance as possible. In an epically convoluted time-travel saga like The Infinite Man, knowing where everyone was at any given time was a task in itself (“Dean 1 is in Bedroom A/ Dean 2 is watching Dean 1 from Bedroom B/ Dean 3 is watching Dean 2 from the Lab/ Dean 4 is creeping up the balcony…”). But even on a more straightforwardly linear movie, it’s your SS who knows where everyone is, what they’ve been doing, and where they’re going. Jed’s coming from the bakery; Raphael’s just found the body; Elspeth doesn’t know about the gun yet; it has been two hours since the crash.
All this takes a lot of time to work out and break down. How your SS breaks it down and what sort of information he or she provides will depend largely on how early this person is hired. I’ve done breakdowns and timelines on everything from horses in a western to background geopolitical events in a thriller. They helped cast and crew understand what’s going on, make better decisions, and save time and money. I repeat: save money.
Continuity is Relative
There’s always something that doesn’t match, from shot to shot, take to take, scene to scene. The SS decides how much these discrepancies matter. So if your SS brings something up, it’s because it’s significant enough that you need to know and do something about it. Listen, understand, then make your decision.
Also, whatever that decision is, once it’s made, it’s done. The smallest change reverberates through a film. Your SS makes sure that all knock-on effects are considered and adjusts their thinking accordingly.
Wear Your Editor’s hat on set
Your film is an illusion, constructed from a plethora of separate, distinct shots, all stitched together in a new sequence to tell your story. Plan these shots; plan how they’ll cut together.
The simple rule is that everything in the script should be covered by at least two shots, so there’s something to cut between. For every shot, know what you actually want from that shot. If you don’t know what you want, how can you know when you’ve shot it? If all you want is a key moment or single line of dialogue, then you don’t need to worry about problems in the rest of the shot. Once you’ve got what you want from it, move on. Or, if you have multiple takes, do you have what you need between them?
Sometimes you will have to just hope you’ve got it and move on, regardless—but your SS is the difference between hoping and knowing. That script they’re marking up with colored tramlines tells the editor what shots go where, and tells you right now, on set, what’s covered and what’s not.
Know when to stop
Yes, editors need options, but it’s called coverage, not smotherage. Don’t be afraid to call “cut” if something’s not working and the shot’s not usable. Just because you’re shooting digitally doesn’t mean you should keep rolling. If the back wall of the set is missing or the actor’s in the wrong shirt, there isn’t going to be any golden moment that you can use. The actors’ performance should be saved for when it can be used. In fact, the willingness to call “cut” is the single biggest difference I’ve encountered between first-time and established directors.
If you call “cut” early or go for another take for anything other than performance reasons, tell your actors. If you don’t, they’re liable to start giving you performance options or dialogue variations. Once you’re covered and you’ve got the performance you wanted in the can, then they can start giving you options.
If the performance just isn’t working, however, have some strategies up your sleeve. Can you splice dialogue together from two different takes, lay dialogue over the top of another shot, or shoot from behind and lay the dialogue over that? What usable moments do you have? How close is the performance to the script? How much does it matter? Discuss the last question with your SS.
Toe the line
Crossing the 180-degree line is fine only when it’s deliberate and you know what the effect will be. Crossing the line because you’re unaware of it or don’t think the audience will care will make your film sloppy—and possible unreleasable.
Audiences aren’t thinking about the line, so they don’t notice explicitly when it’s crossed. But they do notice that something is wrong. In a thriller or a horror movie this may be just what you want, and deliberate line crosses can be used to maximum effect. But otherwise it’s back to distracting the audience and taking them out of the story.
If you’re shooting with a narrow depth-of-field, then stop-start technical rehearsals will be vital for the camera just to be able to maintain focus. But rehearsal also enables you to think about eyelines, work out where your line is, where it changes, see if any shots are going to be problematic, and modify the action accordingly.
From a continuity aspect, it’s very hard to repeat and match unrehearsed action. So rehearse your action. And remember to rehearse with props. Check key props and key art in advance. If it’s not right on the day, you’re all out of options.
Protection shots and cutaways
Just in case that wonderful crane-down track-out zoom-in swing-around shot, taking us from the rooftop down to the street through the car windows and out to the close-up on the water bottle in the detective’s hand as the bullet passes through it, doesn’t quite work—shoot a static wide of the guy being shot, OK? Just in case.
And shoot cutaways. Something—anything—at the same time, with the same lighting setup. Cutaways are vital to enable the editor to alter the passage of time within a scene, to lengthen or shorten it, cover unseen action, or modify unnecessary dialogue. It might just save you in the edit.
Even when apparently tangential, if cutaways are short and seamless (with what seam there is covered over by sound), the audience doesn’t actually see them. If, in a beach scene, you cut away from your lead actor to a seagull overhead for six frames before cutting to another angle while the dialogue continues over the top, the audience won’t consciously notice. They’ll just see an apparently seamless cut, whereas without that cutaway they would notice that ugly cut that doesn’t match between the two angles.
So make sure you always have something to cut away to: a reaction shot from another actor, the sun, feet, a seagull.
Shots to avoid
Over-the-shoulder shots can lock you into a cut, which can be a real problem when action and dialogue doesn’t match from take to take or shot to shot. Clean singles give you much more freedom in the edit, so don’t rely on OTS shots unless they are necessary for the story.
As for inserts, sometimes you need them—to see the contents of that letter, the time on that watch, the silver bullet being loaded. But a lot of the time, you don’t. The close-up detail of what that briefcase looks like usually isn’t important—only that we see it being handed over.
If your scene is all playing tight from the chest up, you’ll have to go to an insert, because the handover is out-of-frame. If, however, you shoot the action in a mid-shot, you won’t need worry about matching action or background and you won’t need to go to another shot just to let the audience know what’s happening, because you’ll see the whole action in frame. (An added benefit: Your movie won’t look like bad daytime soap.)
Who is your audience?
Who you expect your audience to be makes a big difference to how the SS is watching and what he or she is watching out for. Decide in advance what level of detail is appropriate to be concerned with, given your tone, style, intended audience, and distribution platforms.
Are you making this movie for IMAX or iPhone? You’re probably hoping for a cinema release, and the audience will see a whole lot more up on that 20-foot-tall cinema screen than you do on your on-set monitor. Something that might be hard to notice on even a 17-inch HD monitor will leap out of the screen on the 60-inch plasma that most viewers now have at home.
I generally watch as a first-time cinema audience. With the puzzle-like nature of The Infinite Man, though, we expected that part of our audience will be repeat viewers. Details that a first-time audience misses will be picked up next time around, and we had to allow for that, and even drop in little clues here and there.
Of all the problems we encountered shooting a fiendishly complex time-travel comedy romance, the one which cost the most time and created the biggest continuity issue was our heroine’s hair being blown about by the wind. Keep the following hair rules in mind:
- Be wary of masking a performance. Curtain hairstyles may look beautiful from the front, but they may also mean that on profile shots, you can’t see your actor’s face.
- An elaborate hairstyle may take an extra minute to check and fix each take. Twenty shots on a given day with that actor, with an average of three takes each, is an hour gone from your schedule.
- Look for ease of matching. If you have an actor with shoulder-length locks, is her hair going to fall the same way each time? Or will you end up with one take where the hair falls down the back, another where it falls over the left shoulder, and another where it falls over the right, leaving you unable to cut between them?
Don’t make things harder for no reason. Me, I like pixie cuts and ponytails.
There are a thousand different things that can happen to a shirt/hat/scarf/cape over the course of a shoot to change its appearance. You don’t only need doubles of wardrobe items if your hero will be hurled like a javelin from a second floor window, as in The Infinite Man. Unless you want to be waiting around on set while a one-of-a-kind tracksuit gets stitched back together again, get doubles.
Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Your film is going to feel like a battle far too often. Nothing will quite go according to plan. But if you’ve done the right kind of planning, with the help of your script supervisor, you’ll be able to deal with it. MM
Benedict Paxton-Crick was script supervisor on the Australian time-travelling comedy romance, The Infinite Man (written and directed by Hugh Sullivan, slated for U..S release in 2015). For a more detailed discussion of continuity practices, visit his website, continuity101.com.
Photos courtesy of Hedone Productions