Sunday, March 23, 2008

Continuity in non-narrative films

Non-narrative movies demand a very different approach to narrative. They require that you embed continuity as a part of the whole structure of the film, not as an afterthought during filming.

Non-narrative movies such as music videos, abstract movies and multimedia projections used in live concerts are particularly susceptible to looking fragmented. At their most out of control, they look like you are channel surfing, looking at a number of clips of movies by different people. Of the following ideas, the more effective ones are those that are part of the planning and shooting stages rather than those placed over the film in post-production.

Methods of ensuring continuity in non-narrative film
Single filter effect (edit software filters, not camera filters)
If your editing software has special effects that you can use to alter the look of clips – for instance, to make them change colour, stretch or change contrast and tone – you could apply one of these to the whole film, or at regular points. Restrict yourself to one filter only.

A tracking shot – where the camera moves while it shoots, tracking the action – can make a good way of connecting shots. Decide on a constant speed of tracking and stick with it throughout the film. To enhance the effect, keep to one direction in the screen – for example, left to right. For example, you could show a slow, left-to-right movement of the camera along a beach, cutting then to a similar constant shot along a busy street.

360-degree movement
This device is particularly effective in linking shots. Decide on the height of the camera and the speed of the camera as it moves, then shoot everything while moving 360 degrees around the subject, at every location, throughout the film.

Common space
This involves including an object or space in the background that is present in each shot, and could be as simple as a fireside with picture frame. This is commonly used in scenes with dialogue where it is useful to be able to locate two actors within the same space by showing some common space or object in each actor’s frame. In a non-narrative film you could choose a single prop that is present throughout.

At the editing stage, you will need to decide how you cut between scenes. The most common – the straight cut and the cross dissolve – could be developed by trying something a little more noticeable. An example could be to fade fast to white as the picture cuts, suggesting flash photography.

The length of the shot
A style of editing that uses short cuts, with a high turnover of clips, will encourage the viewer to see these clips as linked in some way, even if the subject matter is not. Therefore, we tend to see a montage sequence consisting of a lot of quick images because the diversity of images needs to be balanced by speed of perception. But what is a ‘long cut’ or a ‘short cut’? In this case you could think of a quick cut as half a second or less and a slow cut as anything from three to five seconds, but your subject matter will dictate how fast your cuts will be.


In non-narrative films, a motif can be used with some thought to what kinds of objects or colours add to the overall theme of the movie. For example, in an interpretation of the word ‘anger’, we could justifiably use the colour red as a motif in the film. To stand as a motif you would have to see the object or colour recur often enough to be noticed. Alternatively, you could use images of a clenched fist or a brick hurtling towards a window, letting us see more and more of it as the film proceeds.

Linked imagery
For this idea we could take a look at Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). After a lengthy start where we see ancient pre-human apes, Kubrick needed a way of jumping tens of thousands of years into the future without disrupting the flow of the movie. If ever there was a time to use a continuity device, this was it. His response was to have the camera follow a bone thrown high into the air, and immediately cut to a similar-shaped, bone-like spacecraft, occupying the same space in the frame. This is a daring way of connecting two shots that could not be more dissimilar, visually. While shooting, you could look for parts of the scene that visually resemble a part of another, with the aim of linking the two later.

This is a last resort method of connecting shots and is not the most effective way. A single piece of music is dubbed over the whole film as with a music video. If you want to use sound in this way, try to use a particularly noticeable home-made soundtrack of sounds, rather than music, and one where you have altered the sounds or looped them, producing a repetitive, rhythmic effect.

The Crunch
 In narrative, continuity is crucial
 In non-narrative, broken continuity can be a useful tool
 Get to know the rules of keeping continuity and break them wisely
 Continuity is developed both in the script stage and also while shooting
 In non-narrative movies, beware that the movie doesn’t look fragmented – use continuity devices in editing or shooting.
 Get to know the action line and the 30-degree rule
 Use good quality sound and take care of ambient sound.

Recommended Reading - Narrative in Fiction and Film: An Introduction (links below)
US and North America
UK and Europe


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