Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Richard Massingham on Continuity

A piece written for Sight and Sound in 1939

Main image of Richard Massingham on Continuity

Continuity is made too much of, according to Richard Massingham. The author, of course, made that cheerful film "Tell Me if it Hurts"

When, recently, a director of long experience politely suggested to me that I ought to pay a little more attention to continuity, I listened attentively and even politely. Although conscious of an extremely limited knowledge of film making, I was unconvinced.

Any story, whether in a novel, play or film must have, of course, some continuity. That is a commonsense principle. When people always insist on continuity of detail in the entertainment film, I become puzzled. Why is it invariably necessary to reproduce, with absolute exactness, the position of an actor and his background in consecutive shots of a sequence? In the commercial film, continuity of detail is considered so important that a specially trained staff watches every item. It is unthinkable that a man should have his hand in his pocket at the end of one shot and out of it at the start of the next. If he wants to take it out, he must go through the action however unnecessary the movement may be. Nothing must be left to the imagination. This attention to detail has become so rigid as to constitute a law. And like so many laws the letter is more important than the spirit. It is the old story of man is made for the Sabbath, and a film for the Continuity staff.

This inelastic convention is a legacy of the stage. In the theatre there has to be absolute continuity because the audience has a fixed point of view. The film, with its rapidly changing angles, can dispense with this close observance of detail. It can select the important and discard the unessential. Unnecessary action only clogs the development of a film.

The main objections to a break in the tradition is that lack of detailed continuity would interfere with smoothness of production and possibly destroy the illusion of reality. It is said that even slight changes in the positions of the actors or their surroundings would appear jerky and be unpleasant to the eye. But is the technique of film production with its quick changes of angle, so smooth in itself that slight alteration of the bend of an elbow or the position of a leg would upset its rhythm or balance? If an actor changed his attitude slightly during consecutive shots, would that be more disturbing than an altered camera angle or the sudden insertion of a close-up? Moreover it is doubtful whether people think they are seeing real people on the screen. They have come to accept Mickey with a male voice and a host of fantastic impossibilities, so that there can be little chance of a slight break of detailed continuity destroying their illusions. Discontinuity must be used as carefully and intelligently as continuity.

It has been suggested that the stage is a superior medium of expression to the film because of the many restrictions that control it. That may or may not be true but it is quite impossible to apply the rules of one form of art to another. It is difficult enough to formulate any binding rules for the film which is still in the embryonic stage of development. It is quite impossible, at the moment, to estimate its possibilities. It may need some control but to apply the rules of the theatre to a medium which transcends the ordinary limitations of time and space is ridiculous. We recognise the immense possibilities of the screen, and yet we are asked to believe that a medium that can transport you to the ends of the earth in the fraction of a second is unable to stand the strain of an altered position of a limb or a chair.

Even the most orthodox disciple of strict continuity is constantly searching for an excuse to break the law. He uses fades, mixes or wiped dissolves to cover up his tracks. A close-up, one constantly hears, will hide a multitude of sins - as if a close-up is not in itself a jump as disturbing as the so-called discontinuity which it is meant to conceal. And when it is all over and the continuity staff has watched every niggling detail, there must be a few pictures in which an expert could not discover some slight fall from grace. I remember noticing, quite by chance, in a slick American film, the single breasted coat of the hero miraculously becoming double breasted in the following shot. A technical expert sitting beside me never even noticed the change. We can be certain that the great public rarely, if ever, sees these mistakes and certainly never appreciates the care the studios take to spare its powers of observation. And here I believe they are seriously underestimating the intelligence of their audiences. The time may have already arrived when the public will welcome some relief from the banalities of the average production.

In any form of art simple direct expression is always the most successful. Any additional ornamentation must have definite purpose. There should be a ruthless exclusion of all unnecessary trimmings. Over elaboration and unimportant detail only spoils the result. Films are no exception. Yet continuity has become such a fetish that the studios insist on a slavish inclusion of every kind of detail irrespective of whether they are significant or not. This must result in a slowing up of essential movement. Even in the American film - the fastest moving thing on the screen - some at least of the speed is an illusion. There is too much unimportant action - action that is included because the producer is obsessed with detailed continuity.

The law of detailed continuity seems inescapable and has to be applied to all sorts and varieties of films. This universal application has robbed the law of all intelligence. In most sequences it is plainly advisable to have an actor standing on his feet in consecutive shots. But in phantasy it would be perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the film to have him standing on his feet in one shot and on his head in the next. It is impossible to apply the same exacting rules to every film.

This is not a plea for the abolition of all detailed continuity in film making but rather against a too rigid acceptance of what is, after all, only a convention. We should recognise that this attention to detail, while necessary in some sequences, is definitely harmful in others.

It is impossible to lay down any rules about the use of discontinuity. It clearly must serve a definite artistic purpose. Indiscriminate use would be as meaningless as is the present slavish observance of continuity. Discontinuity, if intelligently interpreted, need neither destroy the illusion of reality nor interfere with the smoothness of a production. The film is still in the experimental stage, and must be elastic and not too tied down by over rigid conventions. This is a plea, not for wild unrestraint but for more imagination and freedom for development.

Richard Massingham, Sight & Sound, Summer 1939, page 64

Related Films and TV programmes

Related Collections

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Massingham, Richard (1898-1953)Massingham, Richard (1898-1953)

Director, Producer, Writer, Actor