Continuity Editing in Documentary Film
Sandi Prasetyaningsih
and Gretchen Coombs
Multimedia and Networking Engineering, Politeknik Negeri Batam, Batam, Indonesia
Enabling Capability Platforms RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia
Keywords: Documentary, Editing, Continuity.
Abstract: This study focuses on continuity in documentary film editing. As a part of film’s pipeline production, editing
takes an important role in terms of delivering the story, especially for documentary which comprises many
unpredictable events during the production. This study uses one of the qualitative research methodologies
namely practice- based research. That methodology will be followed by case study method in order to provide
actual case study from the industry. Moreover, Whiteley and Gurrumul that won the best editing in 2017 and
2018 are used as case study in this research. Insight and techniques that are implemented in those films are
taken and then it is applied to the project. Three continuity techniques; 180º, over the shoulder, and action
match are implemented in the film editing, and it comes up with a reflective process in order to know what
type of continuity that can run well and what is not. As the result, the documentary film runs into two minutes
long while it is not as original plan since the project has not adequate material to implement the
aforementioned continuity techniques.
For the creative project, “Indri” is edited in two min-
utes. It is a short biographical documentary about Siti
Nurlaila Indiriani, who is a master’s student of
Sustainable Energy Engineering at RMIT University.
According to the experience, working in documentary
film is a big challenge. The filmmaker confronted a
real situation where they did not have adequate mate-
rial, such as extra footage, as a supporting element to
enable them to deliver the story clearly to the viewer.
When they struggled to establish the story’s flow,
they ruined the continuity aspect of the edit. In
particular, several parts of the story ran too fast or
they could notice that the transition between shots
was too apparent.
The main objective of continuity in editing is to
preserve the audience’s attention and avoid audience
from being confused in the middle of the story. The
continuity itself should be applied smoothly in order
to prevent the viewer from feeling distracted by
transition between shots and to give time to the
viewer to catch the story flow moment by moment.
Consequently, in the
production process, the
filmmaker usually took a number of camera
placements in order to support them in creating
continuity during the editing process, such as 180º
rule, over the shoulder, and action match. These
existing shots will be used to explore continuity
editing techniques. Testing will be conducted on the
editing process to learn whether those camera
placements work to keep continuity or not.
According to Bricca (2017), there are no fixed
rules about editing documentaries. Moreover, the
research will focus on continuity techniques in
documentary editing. The editing in documentaries
has shown how challenging it is for the editor when
they have a large amount of material and are required
to choose the right shots to be used. The shots then
have to make it into an interactive visual while
maintaining both visual and narrative continuity.
To support this research, the practice-based re-
search is implemented as the methodology. Those
methodology is chosen since it is suitable for the
creative production. Batty and Kerrigan (2018) state
that screen production associated with creative
practice research enquiries can be represented in
several ways; practice-led-research, practice-as-
research, practice-based-re- search, and research-led
practice. Furthermore, there is case study method that
works in line with the practice-based research. The
case study method will generate the reflection in the
of the result in order to measure which part of
Prasetyaningsih, S. and Coombs, G.
Continuity Editing in Documentary Film.
DOI: 10.5220/0010351200270033
In Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Applied Engineering (ICAE 2020), pages 27-33
ISBN: 978-989-758-520-3
2021 by SCITEPRESS Science and Technology Publications, Lda. All rights reserved
continuity methods that will work well and what is
Continuity editing explores editing methods which
connects to a narrative system and enables the story
to be illustrated with less disruption and
disorientation to the audience (Orpen, 2003).
Furthermore, a study conducted by Kydd (2011) tells
that continuity editing develops a specific cinematic
space in which the spectator is bound into a certain
focus that connects with the action of the scene. The
main aim of continuity style is to transmit narrative
information smoothly and clearly over a series of
shots (Bordwell, Thompson, & Smith, 2013). In
addition, based on argument from Schaefer (1997),
‘when continuity techniques are done well, the
scene’s edit appears to be nearly invisible’.
Continuity in editing can be employed across
numerous elements in a film, such as story flow,
camera placement or angle, and cutting. Phillips
(2009) gives an illustration of camera angle eye line
matches from the scene of Life is Beautiful (1998)
when the man on his bi- cycle looks off-screen to the
left; the next shot shows what he is looking at. Over
the shoulder shots are usually employed for
conversation or dialogue scenes to display the
reaction and emotion of each actor. Furthermore,
continuity editing can also be reached by cutting the
action. For instance, a shot shows the end of the
subjects movement and the next shot starts with a
different angle or distance.
180º Rule
When working with 18 rule, continuity editing is
required to deal with the perception of spatial and
temporal (Magliano & Zacks, 2011). According to
Bordwell et al. (2013), to produce continuity style for
the scene’s space, the filmmaker can use the axis of
action, the center line or 180º rule.
It is essential to keep in mind during the
production that all shots must be taken from the same
side of “axis of action” or the imaginary line created
by the camera persons in their mind. If the camera
crosses the axis of action, it establishes the space
context and will create confusion for the viewer’s
understanding of the film’s visual. Firstly, the
background will change, which may confuse
audiences, and after seeing the right side of the
characters, the audience is exhibited the left side
which is another space that shifts the context of axis
of action. Secondly, the cutting between two shots
that go across the axis of action will create the
appearance of characters speaking with themselves,
as they replace each other’s spaces rather than each
other (Kydd, 2011). As an illustration, the first shot is
camera 3, then the camera position goes to X position;
when it turns into editing, the continuity of 180º rule
will not work, and it appears that the characters are
talking to themselves.
In terms of creating varieties of aesthetic framing,
the editor can employ one of the applicable angles of
shot from 180º system, such as over the shoulder
(OTS). This is usually used to reveal the conversation
between two persons and positioned either in place of
the listening character or just behind their shoulder
(camera 2 and 3 see Figure 1). As stated by Smith
(2006), over the shoulder displays both characters on
screen at the same time; the shoulder and back of the
listener’s head is shown on one side of the screen
while the speaker’s face can be seen on the other side
of the screen.
Figure 1: 180º rule of camera spot, all shots must be taken
from camera 1, 2,3. A cut cross from camera X will create
a “discontinuity”.
Match Action
One of the important components in generating
smooth continuity is to match action between two
construction shots. Nevertheless, the noticeable
problem to matching action is ‘to keep the action and
movement shown in consecutive shots accurately
continuous’ (Reisz & Millar, 1997). According to
(Kydd, 2011), match action is ‘part of the continuity
system that provides links between the shots, using
movements that are the same from one position to
another’. In addition, match cut is based on ‘visual
continuity, significance as well as similarity in angle
or direction’ (Dancyger, 2018).
As an example, when filming an actor, the camera
person can take several shots of the actor from many
ICAE 2020 - The International Conference on Applied Engineering
positions; it usually has several takes in the same shot
and scene, but it is important to note that the actor’s
movements must be made within the parameters of
the camera’s position. The editor then cuts the scene
by finding the point where the action between shots is
most closely matched. Nevertheless, the exact part to
cut is based on the editor’s sense of movement and
character (Katz, 1991).
Figure 2: Match action that could be cut between “before
jump” and “mid- jump”.
Match action is also related to maintaining the
screen direction in terms of having narrative
continuity. It is necessary to maintain the screen
direction to avoid audience confusion and to make the
characters distinct. The pattern of right-left or left-
right is the most main concern for keeping screen
direction. Burch (1973) suggests that if someone or
something in the screen on the left side enters the new
frame, it must be showing the space that closes from
the right; if this condition is not accomplished, there
has been a modification in the direction of a moving
person or objects. This explanation is also meet the
implementation of match exit/entering cut. When
someone enters a room, the first shot will show the
character on the right side of screen; then for the next
shot when the character has already entered the room,
the shot will show the character on the left side of the
Figure 3: Match action exit/entrance.
Candy and Ernest (2018) argue that new media arts as
one of the creative artefacts highlighting the creative
process and the works that are made; practice and
research operate together to construct new knowledge
that can be distributed and analysed. Based on this
argument, the research will be practice- based. To
support the methodology, the reflection will be used
as the method to approach
the case study. According
to (Starman, 2013), case study becomes the first type
of research that is utilized in qualitative methodology.
In addition, the reflection method will become part of
the learning process after analysing the case study,
implementing this into the creative practice, and
finally reflecting upon the creative practice. As such
as, the reflective practice is ‘intentional consideration
of an experience in light of particular learning
objectives’ (Hatcher & Bringle, 1997).
First and foremost, to have adequate material for
research, the study will be working on analysing two
documentary case studies from the Australian Award
of Cinema and Television Arts Awards (AACTA).
Whiteley won Best Editing in a Documentary in 2017
and Gurrumul was nominee for Best Editing in a
Documentary in 2018. We will look at the first three
minutes of each documentary film and take note of
how they approach the editing in general, as well as
focus on how they maintain the continuity throughout
the editing process. The case study analysis will
inform and improve the creative work. According to
Rowley (2002), case study is widely used since it
suggests various ways of gaining insight that might
not have been reached with other approaches; case
study is also applied for evolving more structured
tools that are important in surveys and experiments.
In the end, after exploration in continuity editing, the
research will reflect on which things work well and
which do not during the post- production process. The
reflection on the case study is part of the learning
process in the creative project. Ghauri (2004) says
that ‘a case study is both the process of learning about
the case and the product of our learning’.
The analysis will be concerned on the first three
minutes of Whiteley and Gurrumul. We picked up the
beginning because it usually determines the
audience’s interest to watch the whole film.
In addition, during the analysis process, the
reflection method will be used as an approach to the
learning process in which several points of analysis
will be implemented into the creative practice. The
reflection method is also used as a process of
problem-solving any issues that might occur in
executing the own creative work.
Whiteley is a documentary film about Australia’s
most iconic artist, Brett Whiteley, with duration of
Continuity Editing in Documentary Film
one hour and 35 minutes. This documentary uses a
notion of ‘in his own words’ and visualises
Whiteley’s story by using his notebooks, personal
letters, photographs, and other materials that support
his concept (IMDb, 2019).
Figure 4: The opening visual of Whiteley documentary
In the first scene, the documentary shows montage
sequences of black and white, and colourful images
to introduce Whiteley, explaining when and where he
was born. As mentioned by Frierson (2018),
‘montage in the broad sense describes a series of short
shots that compress time, space, or narrative
information, but it actually has several diverse
meanings. Montage sequences can be used as one of
the supplementary elements to support the visual
aesthetic. Leibowich (2007) supports the concept that
montage can be used as a device for establishing
spatial and temporal relationships within a movie.
As the montage sequence commences, there are a
small number of quick cuts, swift moves between
medium shots and close-up shots, and shifts in screen
direction. However, as the sequences begin, there is
no action shown of the character. It is a beautiful
opening of this documentary film, but as there is a
rapid shift from one shot to others, the cutting across
the screen with various directions does not allow for
the viewer to enjoy the visual moment of every
painting. In the classical Hollywood style, montage
describes a series of shots in which these shots do not
maintain the continuity concept, spatial and temporal
continuity, but the shots link together on every image
over time or across space (Orpen, 2003). This also
occurs in this documentary film; the montage
sequences refer to the creation of meaning within the
film and are used as a tool for introducing the
character by providing a series of beautifully crafted
pieces by Whiteley.
Moreover, the process by which the editor picked
the beautiful series of shots can be appreciated since
this component is really attractive for the audience.
With the combination of Whiteley’s self-portrait and
his amazing art pieces, this brings the audience to feel
more engaged in understanding his life story. The
black and white concept showing his portrait
distinguishes the expressions and activities of
Whiteley with his creative work.
Figure 5: Black and white self-potrait of Whiteley.
The voiceover in this scene is a narration from an
actor that provides an intimate effect that brings the
audience closer to knowing more about the existence
of Whiteley. Referring to Dancyger (2018), the
narration can aid the visual or directly give
understanding into the meaning; narration also can be
an important audio element in the documentary.
Narration assists in producing clear communication
to the viewer. Furthermore, the montage concept of
this documentary used in the beginning leaves no
space to visually show the dialogue part. As stated by
Bordwell, et al. (2013), montage sequences usually
lack dialogue, and the sequences usually come with
music as the back sound.
This is a documentary film of one hour and 36
minutes telling the story of Indigenous artist,
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Born blind, his
community inspired him to write songs. ‘Gurrumul is
a portrait of an artist on the brink of global reverence,
and the struggles he and those closest to him faced in
balancing that which mattered most to him and
keeping the show on the road’ (IMDb, 2019). This
documentary film won two awards and was
nominated in five categories, including Best Editing
in a Documentary.
The opening of this film is beautiful; it reflects the
lived experience of Gurrumul, showing a black screen
with the voiceover of an ABC reporter interviewing
ICAE 2020 - The International Conference on Applied Engineering
Gurrumul. It represents what Gurrumul’s world is
like. The only thing he sees is dark and black; he can
hear anything, but he does not know how his
surroundings look. It is an amazing way to introduce
the character’s condition and his shy personality. The
next scene comes up with a medium shot portrait of
Gurrumul (see Figure 6), demonstrating the physical
appearance of his character.
Figure 6: Medium close-up of character potrait.
Figure 7 shows the camera position within a 180º,
arch in which this 30º position rule means the camera
has to move at least 30º between two shots.
Nonetheless, it is essential to note that there cannot be
two shots that are too close to each other. If this
happens, it will confuse the viewer and reveal an
awareness of the cutting. When the camera does not
have adequate space between shots, a jump cut will
exist, and it is considered to break the rules of
continuity editing (Kydd, 2011).
Figure 7: 30º rule.
Figure 8 shows one of the scenes in Gurrumul that
implements the 180º rule camera placement system.
It is evident that the camera position is still in the axis
of action area that defines the spatial correlation
between three characters. The camera position moves
on one side of the line and moves to a different
position, but still does not cross the imaginary line.
Shot D in Figure 8 uses the over the shoulder shot,
which is usually used to show the dialogue action.
The camera is positioned on the back and shoulder of
the reporter while the other character’s B face can be
clearly seen on the other side of the screen. Although
there is an excess of head space in that shot, it creates
a space for the shoulder, but according to Magliano
and Zacks (2011), as long as the chosen shoulder area
is still within a 180º arc, the character will remain on
the correct side of the screen. The correct side of the
screen also preserves the direction of the shots, so the
audience will not be interrupted by any confusion
during their viewing of the film.
Figure 8: 180º rule
Having the freedom to play with the creative skills
during editing of the documentary, we wanted to
experiment with establishing the story flow, but it was
also important to us to consider the narrative
Figure 9 shows the notes that we have written
during brainstorming; we picked up three main points
to be executed for the filming, such as 180º, over the
shoulder, and action match. Eye line match and
change location are additional points that are used for
shot and location continuity.
In addition, in the pre-production process, it is
important to have the list of questions ready that will
be asked to the subject. However, it is better to give
the questions to the subject prior to starting the
filming, so if there are any questions that make the
subject uncomfortable, these can be discussed
Figure 9: Note for the preproduction stage.
Continuity Editing in Documentary Film
Figure 10: List of questions.
Figure 11: Opening part of “Indri” documentary film.
The documentary starts by showing the shots
where Indri mentions some sentences that describe
Indri’s feeling about her contributions to any
organisation activities. This type of opening can make
the audience curious about what the story is about.
The next scene reveals the character walking from
one place to another, also known as change in
location. According to Dancyger (2018), ‘rather than
show the character [moving] from point A to point B,
the editor often shows her departing(2018, p. 305).
Hence, we decided to show the shot from over the
shoulder, shot from her back, and continued her
departing in the next shot to demonstrate that she
moves from one location to another location.
We use the montage sequence that we adapted
from the Whiteley documentary film (see Figure 4).
Even though this technique of editing does not offer
more in terms of effect in continuity, the montage
sequence can be helpful to construct and support the
story flow.
Figure 12 is the one scene that we use the 180º
camera placement rule in which that position is
commonly used to show two people interacting. Over
the shoulder is employed as 180º rule that shows two
characters in the same frame. Shot A and B in Figure
12 shows one side of the screen of the head and back
of the speaker’s; it gives the space to show another
character in another side of the screen. This is one
example of implementation of continuity, not only for
preserving the match action, but also for screen
direction continuity.
Figure 12: Change in location.
Figure 13: Montage sequence.
Figure 14: 180º rule.
It is important to pay more attention to continuity
during the editing process. However, during the
research and the creative practice, we realise that
continuity is not entirely about how we create the
continuity in visual, but we also need to consider
other components that will contribute to an interesting
film. For example, first, it is essential to have a
smooth flow of the story in addition to the inclusion
of continuity shots. During the production stage, we
recorded all the questions in order, but in the editing
ICAE 2020 - The International Conference on Applied Engineering
process, we needed to choose the relevant part of the
interview in terms of providing the particular
information to the audience and arrange the parts to
establish clear story flow. The flow of the story
emerges from the continuity which is achieved
through selection of the right shots to support the
content. At this stage, we know that having a lot of
extra footage can be beneficial for creative work.
Unfortunately, we did not allocate more time to shoot
more footage during the production, so we do not
have many options of shots to choose from to support
the visual aesthetic. Hence, we decided to cut down
the duration from the initial plan of three minutes as
the plan to two minutes with the consideration of
having clear story flow content and support from
available extra footage. It is because we do not want
to enforce to have three-minute documentary, but the
story and visual are not credible.
The main concern of the research relates to the
application of several camera angle techniques and
correct placement; for the two-minute length of the
project, the big challenge for us has been that we
cannot use the selected techniques throughout the
entire film. Hence, we need to combine and play with
the shots of the interview section, apply the camera
techniques, and put the extra footage in to help us give
visual variation to attract the audience’s attention.
The first author would like thank to RMIT University
for giving a lot of experience during the study time;
especially to Gretchen as supervisor who is patiently
give precious feedback during finishing this research.
In addition, another thanks to Batam State
Polytechnic for funding support in publishing this
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Continuity Editing in Documentary Film