Written by Brenden Bell.
As an independent filmmaker, continuity isn’t something you really think about as relevant or important to a film. Especially when you’ve never made one. If you’ve made one, then you know how crucial it can be.
When you’re watching a film, the filmmakers create the illusion of continuous action on a linear time line (unless you’re watching something like Memento or Arrival), and it’s the continuity department’s job on a film set to ensure this illusion is maintained.
While the film often plays out in a linear format, it’s almost never shot that way. You may shoot a scene with your character standing outside a building and walking into it a month before you film her walking through her office and to her desk.
It’s continuity’s job to make sure these scenes can be edited together continuously.
The continuity head has many official titles: continuity, script supervisor, or script girl (if this was the 1950’s). For the sake of continuity (see what I did there?), from here on out we’ll call this person the script supervisor.
This has been my role on two feature films and countless short films at this point, and I have a love hate relationship with this job. Mostly, I enjoy it because I get to be bossy and anal, which is always a great time for everyone involved.
I’ve learned quite a few things on how to do this job both from mentors and the school of hard knocks.
1. Create Your Own Script Breakdown
This is CRUCIAL in maintaining continuity. This can be a document or a spreadsheet, but it needs to be something you can quickly and easily reference that breaks down scene by scene which costume a character should be in, which props need to be on set, what makeup and effects are needed and so on.
This was especially crucial for me on my last feature film, Out of the Woods. Half of the film takes place in the woods with our lead character wearing the same basic costume the entire time. In my breakdown, I had tracked the amount of distress his costume needed to be in for each scene. Using this method I would know which version of his one costume he needed to be in for each scene.
Something else important to include in your breakdown is both the literal day and script day. Literal day is the actual date each scene is supposed to take place on, tracking the passage of time throughout the script.
Script days are only the days that will appear on screen. So Scene 1 can take place a week before scene 2, but scene 1 would be Day 1 (D1) and scene 2 would be D2. While they wouldn’t be back to back to each other in literal date in the world of the story, there is no scene on the dates between those script days.
2. Take Pictures of Literally Everything
Since everything needs to stay consistent, it’s important to keep a photo log of everything: sets, props, costumes, makeup, hair, etc. This is done for several reasons:
- There could be re-shoots down the road, and the script supervisor’s photos would be vital to reconstituting the set to exactly what it looked like. This is the same with the hair, makeup, and costumes of the actors. If it’s not consistent with what was previously shot, then the reshoots will not be able to edit into the original shots seamlessly.
- There may be a great deal of action within a scene that requires the destruction, movement, or removal of set pieces, props, costumes, or makeup. There will not only be several takes attempted of one shot within a scene, but several shots of the same scene from different angles. All of this will require the script supervisor to know how everything was originally set in order for the scene to be reset between takes and shots.
- If two scenes take place on the same script day and feature the same characters, generally they will be in similar wardrobe, similar makeup, and may even be carrying the same props. Photos will ensure consistency, as these will often be shot out of sequence.
3. Take Notes About Literally Everything
The majority of your job as a script supervisor will be sitting behind a variety of monitors and watching the action. You’ll be taking notes like a madman. I tend to write down every physical choice the actors make and when they make those choices within the scene.
It’s your job during takes to be sure that the scene is playing out in the same way every time. If an actor takes a sip from their glass in a scene at a different place every shot, it will be impossible to edit that sequence together in a way that feels continuous. You’re job is to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Now before you alert your superiors to every little thing, wait till a take has been printed before you say anything. The director and actors are still finding their rhythm and how they want the scene to go. I would then use the printed take as a template for the actor’s physical choices and politely notify the nearest A.D. or your Director of any errors that could cause an edit to lack continuity.
There’s so much to say about being a script supervisor. I hope this helps in your journey as independent filmmakers toward having the best continuity in your film ever.