Visual Continuity And The Mental Map


Every time a cut is made between two shots, the viewer will need a certain amount of time to understand the new image. How long this takes depends on the difference between the shots, and if the viewer needs too much time to understand every new image, he will become distracted and loose his attention. Continuity means every shot carries over to the next.

The shots in a documentary are rarely filmed in the order in which they are presented, and usually there is some lost time between the shots. When cutting from one shot to another, a lot can have changed in the picture, for example, people have walked around in the background, or light conditions may have changed.

Mental map

When viewers watch a program, they form a mental map as they try to understand where objects and people are, and in which way they are moving. The mental map refers to a person's personal perception of the world in which the program takes place. Because of this mental map, when viewers watch a program, most shot changes go unnoticed. When different camera angles are shown, they remember where people are located, even when they are off screen.

This is what's in your head when you're watching a television program.
(Image by apecut79)

If you want to change the position of people and objects, you should show this in a shot, otherwise people will get confused and distracted when what they see does not match with their memory map.

Visual continuity

When you're filming with one camera there are small jumps in time between every shot. This can cause strange events to happen, varying from people wearing different clothes in every shot to objects jumping around.

When a person is working with an object, or moving it around, you should be very careful when readjusting the camera to create shot size variation. When the world changes in between shots, the viewer will need a while to understand what happened.

For example, you are filming a total shot of a mechanic who is hanging up a light. You want to create a close-up shot of his hand and his screwdriver, but in between the two shots he has put the lampshade in place. Now the two shots cannot be cut any more, because a lampshade would magically appear.

It is now probably a good idea to do a retake of your total shot, otherwise neither of the shots can be used and you'll probably frustrate your editor.

Learn to spot the differences between your shots, always keep an eye open to see what's happening in front of you when you are busy with the camera.

Consistent lighting

Lighting inconsistencies can be very distracting for the audience, so make sure your subject is equally lighted when you're filming it in multiple angles and shot sizes.

Keep in mind that a lens looses about 1 stop of light when zooming in to the tele end of the focal range, so you will have to correct that for example by opening up the aperture a bit. If necessary, you can check continuity by using the 'RET' button (if your camcorder has one) to review the last couple of seconds of the last shot.

Also check for sudden weather changes, an establishing shot in the full sun may not be cuttable with a medium shot where a cloud has moved in front of the sun. Sometimes you'll just have to be patient and wait.. or do it all over again!

Motion continuity and vectors

Vectors are directional forces that lead objects from point A to B, whether on-screen or off. When scenes with moving objects are cut together, it is important that they are filmed going in the same direction in every shot. You should always have the camera on the same side of the motion vector, otherwise it seems that the moving object is suddenly changing direction all the time.

When there are two persons talking to each other, imagine an invisible line going from person A to person B. When shooting, you'd place the camera(s) on one side of this line. When filming different angles of the two persons, never cross this invisible line, as this causes your viewers to think the two persons have switched places. This Keep person A on the left, and person B on the right.

About the author
Joseph de Meij

I am Joseph de Meij, 25 years old and I am a freelance cameraman who loves to travel. I'm currently trying to find different ways to overcome my toxic career syndrome and find out what my goals are in life.

This article was first published at www.askthecameraman.net.

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