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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

At a certain point during post-production, when whatever you’re working on is in the editing stage, you have to choose between making an edit that helps the pace, uses the best take, removes an element you no longer need — any number of useful and necessary things — and one that doesn’t show the coffee cup suddenly appearing in the star’s other hand.

This is called continuity, and the rule is, Continuity doesn’t matter.

It matters to some people, of course.  People watching a cut of a film or television show for the fourth or fifth time, people who are tasked with giving notes and suggestions to the editor and the team — people, in other words, who are looking for things that don’t match.  To them, spotting a fork on the table that wasn’t there half a second before, or noticing that the star’s head is in an entirely different position, these are things that generate phone calls and visits to the cutting room.

The answer to these kinds of questions is always the same, and it’s been delivered by writers and directors and editors to the continuity police since, I’m pretty sure, Los Angeles was mostly orange groves.

“If they’re noticing that,” we always say, “we’ve got bigger problems.”

Meaning: if the audience is watching your show and they notice the number of forks on the table or the coffee cup or the background actor who suddenly disappears — well, that’s not a great indicator that they’re deeply invested in the story.  If they’re obsessed with continuity errors, you’ve got a show in trouble.

That never seems like a winning argument to the continuity folks.  Their point — and it’s probably the correct one, when you get right down to it — is that the whole thing should be a seamless, solid piece of work.  It shouldn’t start to fall apart after a few viewings — the coffee cup, in other words, matters.  Good cabinetmaking means taking care with all of the joints and hinges and measurements, even the ones people don’t see. 

The counter argument is: sometimes in the entertainment business — and life, when you really think about it — you have to make choices between what’s good for the overall mission — in this case, making a show that’s funny and fast-paced — and the professional., best-practices way of doing the job — in this case, making sure all of the edits agree with each other.  Because the job here isn’t carpentry, it’s show business.  And in this business we’re judged on how well we make you forget your watch, the other things pressing on you, time itself.  In this business, our work product is time.

The trick is knowing when you’re making wise choices and when you’re just being lazy.  Knowing when it really doesn’t matter to the audience if the sandwich the hero is making suddenly looks half-eaten and when that kind of corner-cutting sends a subconscious message to the viewer that none of this is real.  “It takes me out of the story,” is something the continuity side often says — I saw this mistake and now I’m out, the spell is broken.  

My usual response to this is to say that I’ll sacrifice pretty much anything for the sake of a faster, funnier show.  Faster funnier, is what my side of the argument says.  Keep the pace up, keep things moving, and no one has time to notice the things that suddenly aren’t there. 

You’ll get letters, the continuity police say.   

No we won’t, is how I answer.  And we never do.  Because people don’t really care about that stuff.

But don’t you want them to care? Is the follow-up question, and it comes down to this: I want the audience — like people in my life — to pay enough attention and care enough to follow the story and stay involved.  But I don’t want them to pay so much attention and care so much that all they notice are my flaws, my mismatches, my lack of true continuity.  I’m better — shows and movies are better — when you don’t look too close.

And that’s it for this week.  Next week, we’ll put on the goggles.  For KCRW, this is Rob Long.


Rob Long

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