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Continuity in Dialogue Scenes


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#1 Jonathan Kemp

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Posted 01 October 2014 - 06:36 AM

Hi all,

 

I was wondering if I could get the benefit of your collective experience on a subject that I'm wrestling with.

 

I've been shooting dialogue scenes for the past 5 or 6 years, where I've done a BA, MA and landed a job making corporate training videos etc. as well as writing/directing my own short films. 

 

The last film I've made involved lots of dialogue and people moving around within a scene fixing things and chatting as they go. Now I've started editing it I've come across a familiar problem, which is that there seems to be almost only one way to cut it together and keep the continuity correct. One take will have an actor with a pen in his hand, or his arm in the wrong place etc. and it's severely limiting my editing options. It seems like there is a problem with the directing/camera work that the options are so limited in post.

 

I wonder if they have this problem in bigger budget films?! can actors be expected to move the same every time?! Does it require a more on-the-ball director or even a dedicated continuity person on set. If that's the case, is the continuity person really saying to the director "the actor moved her hand to her mouth as she delivered that line, which is different from the wider shot".

If it's the directors job it seems like an insane amount of detail to have stored up in someone's head, especially when the director should be watching for performance. 

 

Any advice you have on this would be greatly appreciated.

 

Jonathan.


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#2 Dan Finlayson

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Posted 01 October 2014 - 06:53 AM

Continuity is the job of the script supervisor and yes, they will take notes of every single detail of every single take.  They'll usually also take photos, sometimes video, and time the length of each take.  Script sup. is a huge job - no way you could do that and direct at the same time, especially on a larger set!


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#3 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 01 October 2014 - 08:21 AM

If you and the script supervisor notice that an actor's hands are not matching take to take in terms of business/action, then you often have to design a coverage plan that allows you to cut to angles where the hands are not in the frame, like over their shoulders onto the reverse actor, etc.  Either that or the script supervisor has to nicely remind the actor on each take where their hands were on which lines.

 

The funny/sad thing is to see experienced directors who have been burned before by mismatching action to become overly aware of it, to the point where they can't concentrate on the shot, they are so afraid that the action won't cut - they keep elbowing the script supervisor and saying "it won't cut! it won't cut!" (as if the script supervisor can control the actor's actions using psychic super-powers) even on minor mismatches that are fairly negligible or easy to cut around.

 

For me, one of the most time-consuming things to deal with is dialogue among a group of actors who are playing a game, like a game of poker.  Seems easy until you realize that on every angle, the actor has to draw a card, place a bet, set down a card, etc. at the same point for each line of dialogue.  I had a card game scene in a show where the AD had to take the four actors involved away into another room and mark up a script so that he knew when each card play happened for each line of dialogue so that the game ended where the script said it should. Then during the takes, the AD would whisper things like "now you take a card"... "now you place a bet", etc. between the lines until everyone had the action down and could repeat it.

 

It's even worse if it is dialogue during a physical game like basketball and you have to cover it multiple times from multiple angles and somehow end up with the same result, game-wise.


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#4 Albion Hockney

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Posted 01 October 2014 - 09:28 AM

My personal feelings creativly and alot of the directors I work with as well. Shoot less coverage and no your cuts when you shoot ....obviously depends on the film your making but it gets rid of all the silly worrying of continutiy and allows actors to drop themselves in to the roles.

 

all of the "oh no you picked up that pen with your left hand" .... "oh no you ate the carrots first last take" ....

 

it is also worth mentioning vetern actors usually have this stuff pretty dialed though.


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#5 Nicolas Courdouan

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Posted 01 October 2014 - 05:05 PM

Hi Jonathan.

 

When I started as an assistant editor, those problems would always drive me nuts. I would focus so much on making sure that the actors' every moves could be matched that I would often suggest that a perfectly valid take should be left on the editing room floor because the actor's movements did not match from one shot to the next. After a while my chief editor would call me back and show me the "fixed" scene. And it would look terrible. He would then show me the first, "flawed" version of the scene again. And it would run like clockwork.

 

The truth is, if you watch any single film, low or high budget, you are bound to see these things: An actor will say a line and lift a glass up to their mouth, then on the next shot they are seen lifting it up again. Or a hand suddenly appears on the actor's chin because they were scratching it in that take and not on the previous shot. It happens all the time.

 

I'm sure you're already familiar with this scene: 

 

It does not matter in the grander scheme of things - you have to just pick the best take and find a way to make it work. A little trim here or an extension there will often make the mistake less noticeable or irrelevant. For example, in the case of an actor walking in one shot and being static but moving his arm in the next, matching the two movements together - one frame makes all the difference - can trick the audience into thinking they are watching a natural continuation of the same movement. The brain naturally copes with most continuity errors.

 

Do not be too clinical about it. If you hunt down all the little human imperfections in every take, you will be left with a stale scene that has no soul and does not work.

 

That being said, there are those cases mentioned by David Mullen where a scene has to be carefully choreographed to make sure it is usable during the editing process: games, fight scenes or scenes where what the actors are doing outside of delivering lines is the focus of the scene. In those cases, actors are expected to hit their marks like robots to make the scene work... But the impression I got from your message was that you were worried about a little pen showing up in one hand and disappearing in the next, or an actor's arm being bent at a different angle on two consecutive shots...

 

In truth, if you picked the right take, you will be the only one to notice.


Edited by Nicolas Courdouan, 01 October 2014 - 05:08 PM.

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#6 Gregg MacPherson

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Posted 01 October 2014 - 06:48 PM

She's a big eater.  She clearly doesn't care if its a croisant or a McPancake.


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#7 Chris Millar

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Posted 02 October 2014 - 12:39 AM

It wasn't an intentional comedic effect pointing at the new reality of her having both an abundance of food and also so many more food options than she would normally?

 

Humour in that she is managing to eat that much in that space of time and that we and perhaps him are saved from actually having to witness it.

 

I get the feeling my mother at least, would see it that way  :)


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#8 Gregg MacPherson

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Posted 02 October 2014 - 01:04 AM

It wasn't an intentional comedic effect pointing at the new reality of her having both an abundance of food and also so many more food options than she would normally?

 

 

Maybe it was.


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#9 Jonathan Kemp

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Posted 02 October 2014 - 05:58 AM

Thanks for your insightful answers guys. There's plenty for me to chew on there.


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#10 Richard Boddington

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Posted 07 October 2014 - 03:41 PM

Yeah speaking as one who both directs and edits his own work this is pretty much a major pain to deal with.  The worst is when you have to film a scene while actors both eat and talk at the same time, good grief what a nightmare.  Avoid setting dialogue scenes around the dinner table at all costs.  Next up would be water bottles, actors drinking and talking, good luck getting all that to line up.  My policy is to shoot acceptable cutaway coverage on the day.  Since my last two films starred dogs the easy out is to cut to a shot of the dog listening in.  When you go back to the actors, the audience can accept that food or a water bottle has changed position, or is no longer in the shot at all.

 

Trying to match a master back to tights when actors both eat and talk is an even bigger nightmare.  All you can do is shoot your master and then carefully watch the master each time you go in for individual coverage.

 

It's best to just have actors move their lips only while they talk and keep their heads locked and their hands at their sides  :D

 

R,


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#11 Michael LaVoie

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Posted 07 October 2014 - 06:00 PM

One workaround here is to add as many cameras as possible for those scenes that would be difficult to cut.  So you don't have to repeat actions endlessly .  Not necessarily an economic solution and it's certainly trickier to light but it might save you hair-pulling frustration in the editing room.   Or shoot higher resolution than you intend and crop in.  Shoot masters in 6K. 2 shots or mediums in 4K and you can always punch in and make them singles or CU's later if you have to.  Etc.  Just a thought.


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#12 John E Clark

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Posted 08 October 2014 - 11:50 AM

Yeah speaking as one who both directs and edits his own work this is pretty much a major pain to deal with.  The worst is when you have to film a scene while actors both eat and talk at the same time, good grief what a nightmare.  Avoid setting dialogue scenes around the dinner table at all costs.  Next up would be water bottles, actors drinking and talking, good luck getting all that to line up.  My policy is to shoot acceptable cutaway coverage on the day.  Since my last two films starred dogs the easy out is to cut to a shot of the dog listening in.  When you go back to the actors, the audience can accept that food or a water bottle has changed position, or is no longer in the shot at all.

 

Trying to match a master back to tights when actors both eat and talk is an even bigger nightmare.  All you can do is shoot your master and then carefully watch the master each time you go in for individual coverage.

 

It's best to just have actors move their lips only while they talk and keep their heads locked and their hands at their sides  :D

 

R,

 

Back in the days when everyone smoked... cigarette lenghts use to change dramatically, like they were in their own little time warp...

 

As for actor motion... since I don't have funds for Real™ actors, one of the things I have to watch for is major head bobbing while delivering lines... of course since for my projects I write my own scripts, I try to follow the Sergio Leone principle of much visual, minimal dialog...

 

The first comment I make when reviewing scripts that the groups I've participated in, is 'does this dialog need to be this long'... people look at me like I'm calling their baby ugly... and in many cases the baby is in fact ugly... few people can write long passages of snappy dialog ala Tarantino, or some of those Golden Age Studio productions... in most cases it is expository to the extreme, void of 'emotional' content, and the actors, even professionals, would stumble along like a 5th grader at a school Christmas performance...


Edited by John E Clark, 08 October 2014 - 11:55 AM.

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#13 George Ebersole

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Posted 08 October 2014 - 12:40 PM

One of the old B-movie tricks would be to cut to an extreme closeup, then go to the next shot to cover up the flub.  Of course, that all depends on what footage you have.  No, it's not something I've ever done, but I've known an editor or two to wrangle over a series of shots because of some small continuity detail, but again my experience is with industrial video, usually for silicon valleyh tech firms (some SF operations too).

 

If you're making an instructional video then, in my opinion, pickups are the only way to solve something like that.  You don't always need to call in the same talent, just examine the shot that's at issue, and think of a series of closer shots that can make a transition from one master to the next.

 

The Pretty woman example might be a pickup, using a stand-in with similar hands and dressed the same way, with close shots of her hands swapping out the breakfast burrito for the pancake, and then go back to your medium closeup of your onscreen talent.  But you have to consider whether it's necessary or not, because the Pretty Woman scene, to me at least, is focusing not on the actress's food or handling thereof, but of her nervous exchange her client.

 

Your attention should be focused on her fidgeting action, and not so much what she's toying with.  The dialogue is the attention getter, the fact that she's playing with her food is secondary.  Unless its something extremely glaring, say she was eating a giant Sub-sandwhich (a two footer or something), and then suddenly has a danish in the next shot, you're okay.  The first item looked reasonably similar to the second, such that even if the item is different, it will probably register with the audience that she at some point put down one item and then picked up another.

 

For a game, like Dave Mullen said, you need to be meticulous.  Unless the drama hinges on a plot device, it's not a big deal.  If it's instructional video, then you need to make sure the lesson is clear and reshoot.

 

Just my experience.


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