One of the hallmarks of Hollywood and studio systems more generally is what we call a “continuity” style of
editing and filmmaking. By continuity, we mean that the shots are put together in ways that orient the viewer
and develop the storyline both logically and linearly. Continuity editing, for instance, maintains eyeliner and
screen direction, such that continuity of space and time is assured for the viewer. It’s no accident that continuity
systems of filmmaking are also called “invisible,” because their style (the edits and camera movement, for
instance) is not meant to detract from the plotline, the characters, and the drama.
Let’s animate this by looking at a scene from American Beauty, which perfectly illustrates the techniques and
intentions of the rule as well as continuity/invisibility.
Here’s the scene in question. (I suggest watching it now and then again after my analysis — it’s only a few
minutes in length.)This scene starts with a fade-in to an establishing master shot of a dining room and the family about to have
dinner in this scene. This master shot lasts long enough for the daughter to enter and take her seat, at which
point the shot-reverse-shot pattern may begin. Their suburban neighborhood had already been established
earlier in the film, so for this scene, only the dining room needed establishing.
Based on this first shot of the scene, we can draw an imaginary line from the back of Annette Bening’s head
across the table length-wise to Kevin Spacey — this is the 180º line. Based on the camera placement for this
first shot, the camera must (in a continuity system) stay on this side of the centerline. We could expect it to
hover over Spacey’s left shoulder and Bening’s right shoulder, but never to shoot from the daughter’s side of
the table. This maintains screen direction and viewer visual orientation.
From the establishing master shot, the film cuts to the shot in the shot-reverse-shot pattern that we call the
breakdown (of the space and characters introduced in the establishing shot). Note that the 180º rule is being
obeyed, as the camera is to the left of Spacey’s left arm (given that she’s looking at him to our right). The
camera will hold on to her as she speaks and then cut away from her usually when another character begins
speaking. In this way, the camera and editing emulate the give and take of conversation. After a brief reaction
shot of the daughter, the movie cuts to the reverse shot of Spacey, who then begins his line.
As expected, we are now to the right of Bening’s right shoulder, again in keeping with the 180º line. He says his
piece, then it cuts back to shot, and so forth, with the occasional reaction shot of the daughter intermixed.
Inherent to continuity and the 180º rule is invisibility. Classical Hollywood typically did not want editing and
other film techniques to distract the viewer from what the industry considered its greatest selling points: the
stars, action, and drama. Continuity typically keeps the focus on these elements. Everything in this sequence
serves to reinforce this continuity and invisibility. Take, for instance, how every shot of Bening is the exact
same (in distance, camera height, character position, etc.), while every reverse shot of Spacey is likewise the
exact same. This way we notice the edits less because each cut takes us to the same shot and reverse shot.
In addition to the editing, the cinematography is also continuous/invisible, in keeping with standards of studio
filmmaking. When the daughter has had enough of their bickering and stands to leave the room, the camera
reframes in a way that mimics her precise movement and keeps her in the center of the frame. In fact, we can’t
tell whether the camera moves first or she does. Again, we notice the style less because of the synchronicity
between character and camera.
Shortly after, we see a match on action (aka match cut), another hallmark of continuity editing. When Spacey
stands up to get the f-ing asparagus, we get a reestablishing shot that visually reestablishes the space and
character dynamics (and that also allows us to see him getting the asparagus, below).
As he returns to his seat opposite Bening, Spacey begins the motion of sitting (below), before the camera cuts
to him finishing the motion, while also returning us to the shot-reverse-shot pattern previously established.
Like most match cuts, this one smoothly and invisibly cuts on the action, seamlessly continuing the movement
of the character and moving forward the scene.