Thursday, July 29, 2021

Hollywood 9 to 5 - episode #4 Writing Continuity

Here's the video:

And here's what I thought I was going to say:

Job Description: Today I’m going to talk about writing continuity. This is the job I currently have!

If you work in an English department, this might be part of your job, but most companies like to hire freelancers to do this. Even if you don’t have to write the continuity itself, you will still need to know what it is. You will probably have to assemble a CCSL (combined continuity and spotting list) at some point. Most English departments hire outside freelancers for the continuity writing because it is time consuming and the members of the team will have other tasks which are more pressing with tighter deadlines.

I use the job title “continuity writer.”

 What is continuity?

Continuity is a shot-by-shot description of the complete action of a movie. Occasionally a trailer will also require continuity. And yes, every shot. Most movies average around fifteen hundred shots, but I’ve worked on a few movies which have had over 4000 shots and some with under 500 shots. It just depends on the editing style and genre. Action movies, superhero movies and some comedies will have higher shot counts while dramas and actual horror films, not slasher, but like suspenseful horror films, will be on the lower end of shot counts. Although you never know for sure.

Though the continuity focuses on the main action, it will include any text which appears on screen, including details about signs even if they are in the background and more atmospheric than something the viewer needs to read, as well as including descriptions of action in the background or information about new locations to help set the scene. Once background action is described, it can be left out of subsequent entries in the same scene so that the entries can just focus on main action.

Since the continuity will be placed with the dialogue and spotting lists, no mention of dialogue gets included in it. You might occasionally include notes about sounds, like if a doorbell rings or something, but in general you could write the continuity with the picture muted and still include the majority of what needs to go into the it, because it’s just based on what you can see.

Why continuity: The CCSL document gets sent to the library of congress as part of the official paper record of a film. It can also get sent to some territories where the translator technologically can’t access the film as easily as some other places. So the translator can read the CCSL and have a more complete understanding of the film than they would otherwise have just from the dialogue list or spotting list with annotations if they can’t easily access picture.

On independent films, they might not even know why they are writing a CCSL with continuity, they will just have been told it is a “delivery requirement,” meaning that a larger company will not consider buying the small film unless this document has already been created and paid for by the original production company. Usually, these are not as thorough as one created by an English department.

Example: Here’s an example of some continuity I’ve written for a short documentary a friend and I have been working on. Usually the client will provide a list of shot in-times, which can then just be spot checked while working, so you are only responsible for the writing part.

Or, here’s a sample of some continuity I’ve written for some shots around my house.

For the actual writing part, the entries contain a screenplay-like slug line each time the location changes. The slug line includes whether the scene takes place inside or outside (INT. or EXT.), where the location is, usually from large to small. Like a scene of me sitting here might start with INT. Tujunga / Camille’s House / Main Room. Then the slug line includes a general term for time of day, usually either day or night, although dusk and dawn are sometimes used if it is important to the plot. Then normally the shot framing is given- which is a description of how close to the subject of the shot the camera is, I’ll explain a little bit more about this later -  and finally a description is written about what action happens in the scene. It could be as short as MCS - Camille, or more involved, like MCS - Camille. She sits in front of a scarf-draped piano which has vases of flowers and various knickknacks on it.

Then repeat with the next shot until you reach the end of the movie.

If you’ve seen Avengers: Age of Ultron, imagine the big fight scene near the end when all of the Ultron drones fight with the Avengers. That’s what continuity writing can feel like. You are an Avenger fighting a seemingly never-ending parade of killer robots. And working on that movie gave me one of my mottos for continuity writing which is “fight the robot in front of you.” You can’t spend your time thinking about how many shots there are still to write in a movie. It becomes overwhelming. You just write one entry at a time, chugging along, until eventually you will reach the end.

Qualifications and Tests: Just like with other jobs in or for an English department, you will probably have to take some kind of English test, although if you worked with one company as a freelancer and someone from that company moves to a new company, you might not have to take the tests and will get the work just based on your work history and past relationship.

I’ve never had to take a test specific to continuity writing. If there is a test, it will be the same general English proficiency test used for the rest of the English department.

Training: As with most things, you are unlikely to get a lot of training. You’ll will be given an example document, mostly for formatting, and probably there will be some kind of guidelines document detailing how to write continuity. I have written some of these guidelines documents and always include a page with stick figures to show what different shot framings look like for my preference.

At the first company I worked for in Hollywood, which was literally in Hollywood, I spent one Christmas span writing continuity on an independent film called Palmer’s Pick-Up. This was in the before times when digital storage was outrageously expensive and 2-gig drives were the size of shoeboxes, so I had to use a ¾ inch u-matic machine to play the video, with a TV monitor attached and then write the continuity, inputting time codes by hand, on a computer in Word. I don’t think I ended up doing the whole movie, just as much as I could get done as the only person in the office during that slow time of year.

What kind of person is this good for: The hardest part of the job is that it is repetitive and tedious. If you are the kind of person who likes to do intricate hobbies, like beading or painting, or assembling jigsaw puzzles, you are starting off with a good temperament for it. When I worked in an English department and hired the freelancers to write the continuity, it wasn’t uncommon to have people get hired for one or two projects and decide it wasn’t for them.

The reason I learned how to write continuity for real was that our freelancer (Hi, John!) decided he had had enough of continuity writing. We didn’t have another person lined up who could take over, so I jumped in. The first project I did in this more professional capacity was Shark Boy and Lava Girl, and I put in way too much detail, which John then had to proofread and critique. It can take a while to figure out just how much detail to include and when it is too much and really distracting from the important information of the scene. So there is a little bit of a learning curve to figure out how much is the right amount of detail to include.

The downsides: The biggest downside is how tedious this is. If you can get past that, then the next obstacle you might encounter is the turnaround time. If you are very slow at this, or just can’t handle doing maybe 500 or more shots in a day, then you could run into trouble with the deadlines. Usually there is at least one day per reel on a project. A trailer, which is short, but probably 200 shots, will also have about a day turnaround time. On some projects, that might not be enough time. Animation is particularly difficult and time-consuming, so extra time on animated features is always welcome. I recently finished an animated project which ended up with over 80,000 words of continuity. That’s the size of a short novel, in case you didn’t know. And on action films, one reel might have more than 1000 cuts, so getting through that quantity of entries in a day can be difficult to manage, so extra time on action films is also helpful and should be considered when accepting a job.

The other downside is that each year it seems like more companies decide they don’t need continuity anymore. So the pool of available work is dwindling and I do worry about what will happen when all the companies decide they no longer require full CCSLs on their movies.

The pay: I’ve managed to work as a freelancer who primarily writes continuity since late 2013, so for me it is enough money to live on. Again, the pay can vary greatly from client to client and often isn’t enough for me to accept a job, especially from smaller companies without big studio projects. I’ll occasionally take one of those jobs if I have free time on my schedule, but if that was the only level of work available, I couldn’t make a living doing this. Also, there are only enough projects for maybe 2 or 3 full-time continuity writers, so there’s a small pool of people who do this work and who can do enough to make it their primary source of income. In other words, the work is not abundant enough for a bunch of new people to get into this line of work.

Wrap Up:

So, to wrap up continuity writing isn’t hard, but it is tedious. Perfect for me! And I don’t need any more competition from you.

For the people who just nod when I tell them what I do for a living, I hope this has helped explain it a little better than when I try to give a quick explanation in casual conversation.

 Just one more thing you probably didn’t know was happening behind the scenes in the movies.

Don’t forget to subscribe while you’re here, if you made it this far to the end of the video! Thanks for watching! 

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