Continuity as a film concept is more complex than you might think. It’s not just about making sure that characters look the same from one shot to the next, one scene to the next, etc. Events can move forward or backward and time can speed up or slow down– or stop altogether– based on how you play with the continuity of your shots.
While creating a film, filmmakers will take care to ensure continuity is logical and the audience doesn’t have trouble following the story.
Although you won’t be editing any films as a storyboard artist, the information you’ll document will have to reflect the continuity needs of the story. The shots have to be ordered in a certain way to make it work in the editing room. This also becomes important when creating animatics.
Screen Direction and the 180-degree Rule
For every shot, you decide the direction from which the camera is viewing the scene (camera position). Where the characters are placed in a composition is defined as being on the left of the frame or on the right of the frame. We talk about this in terms of the final projected image being “screen right” or “screen left.”
If you establish a character on “screen right,” you should maintain that character on the right side of the screen throughout the scene, unless you have a reason to switch positions. This will help your audience identify the character according to their screen position.
When you begin a scene, the decision to place a character on the left or the right can be arbitrary. You might begin the scene with a wide establishing shot where character A is placed on the left and character B on the right. As the scene continues, for the purposes of clarity, it’s important to maintain the established screen positions of the characters.
The 180-degree Rule
The 180-degree rule or “line of action” is a cinematic convention that helps orient the viewer by maintaining a consistent screen direction between shots throughout a scene. “The line” is an imaginary line drawn from one character to the character he or she is interacting with. If the character is moving, the line is drawn along the direction the character is traveling or facing. All successive shots in a scene should only be viewed from one side of this imaginary line within a 180-degree radius to avoid confusing the viewer.
As with all guidelines in filmmaking, there are exceptions to this rule, but leaving the camera within this 180-degree safe zone basically keeps each subject moving or facing a consistent direction with each successive shot. You can place the camera anywhere within the 180-degree area and your character positions and screen direction will be the same for your audience.
Selecting a new shot from the opposite side of the line without showing any kind of transition is called “jumping the line” and results in the jarring and confusing effect that the characters have suddenly traded places. If the character is in motion, then they appear to suddenly flop direction. To avoid confusion, the camera should stay on one side of the 180-degree line.
180-degree Rule with Three Characters
Three characters create three imaginary axis lines. The 180-degree rule applies to all three axis lines. To avoid confusion, you don’t want to cross any of the three lines from one frame to the next. Here, you can combine screen direction with the 180-degree rule.
What helps in this situation is to group one set of characters favored to one side of the screen. This essentially removes one of the axis lines and character A on screen left will be talking to characters B and C positioned on screen right. The axis line in this case is drawn between character A and a combination of characters B and C. This type of grouping also works well with multiple characters or large masses of people. Favor different groups on different sides of the screen and treat groups or masses of people as if they are one collective object.
In dealing with multiple characters, you can also use geographic clues to associate one character with a particular background. A famous example is the Mexican standoff in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, where three characters face off in a gun duel for the final climactic scene. Leone intercuts between all three characters using successively tighter shots, maintaining clear screen direction. Also behind each character are different geographic landmarks to maintain clarity for the audience.
An interesting thing to note is that screen direction is more important than physical geography. It may be the case on a physical movie set that, because of location limitations, a character’s position may physically have to change in order to maintain proper screen direction. From shot to shot, characters may have to move closer or further away from the background, for example. In most cases, as long as you maintain your characters on the correct side of the screen, the viewer won’t notice minor shifts in the geographic location where the characters are standing.
When and How to Break Screen Direction
Above all, clarity is key. Don’t break the 180-degree rule unless you have a good reason. The reason for flopping screen direction should support the emotional beat in your story. The history of filmmaking is full of examples of stories where screen direction is constantly flopped, disregarding the 180-degree rule. Most of the time, this decision is not arbitrary. The filmmakers have intentionally chosen to cross the 180-degree line because of an emotional beat within the story. So, there may be times when it’s necessary to place the camera on the other side of the 180-degree axis.
You can cross the line by following these guidelines:
Cut Away to a Neutral Shot
A neutral shot is a shot that doesn’t include any of your subjects, or a shot that has a centered object in a neutral position relative to the screen direction. A neutral shot between two characters in conversation might be a dead-center close‐up of one character’s face. In this close‐up, the character is looking straight ahead, not favoring one side of the screen or the other.
Another example of a neutral shot would be to cut away to a close‐up of an object in the scene and then cut back to the conversation where the screen direction has changed.
Be careful using neutral shots as a way to change the screen direction. It might still look jarring to the viewer if you cut away to a single neutral shot and then cut back to the conversation and the character positions have changed. The more neutral shots you show in between a change in screen direction, the less jarring the change will be.
Move the Characters
You can physically move the characters from one side of the screen to the other in the same shot to change the screen direction– if the viewer sees this change of character positions on screen, they won’t be confused.
Move the Camera
By moving the camera across the 180-degree line in the same shot, you can change the character positions. Because the audience sees the movement around the characters, the audience is not confused by the change in character positions.
Move Both the Characters and the Camera
You can also move both the characters and the camera to create a new screen direction and 180-degree line. This type of screen-direction change is trickier to handle, but adds visual richness to the scene by showing both the characters and the camera move within the set.
Time Manipulation for Dramatic Effect
The order in which your shots appear matters a lot, as far as the effect you have on your audience and whether your story is clear and entertaining. There are times when a more traditional representation of continuity is best and other times when flashbacks and time manipulations will create greater excitement for your story. This all starts at the concept stage, when you begin your storyboard drawings. You should have an idea of what type of story you will tell.
The type of story you want to tell could include flashbacks or big reveals at certain spots, for instance.
A popular example of this is the film Pulp Fiction, where we follow multiple subplots, out of sequence, throughout the movie. Part of the viewing experience is mentally piecing together the action as we watch the scenes unfold. Pulp Fiction begins at the end, in effect, by opening the movie with the final climax scene, and then going on to revisit that same scene at the end of the movie, after the audience has connected with the characters.
Cliffhangers and Open and Closed Loops
Another technique of scene construction is to leave a scene open-ended and revisit the conclusion later on in the story. This is a common literary technique for novels, but it can also be very effective within cinematic work.
A scene should absolutely have a beginning, middle, and end, but you can reveal new information at whatever place and pace makes the most sense for the story. You can push a major plot forward, but have the payoff not come until a few scenes later. You don’t always have to end a scene on a cliffhanger– you can choose to close the loop, depending on what you want your audience to feel.
How you construct your storyboard images will depend on how you want to affect your audience, and on what type of story you’re trying to tell. Learning continuity as an additional film technique will help you create better visual stories.