Character Continuity Editing in Casablanca

I noticed a continuity that extended beyond the editing in Casablanca. As I was watching, paying attention to the continuity editing, I noticed one thing that seemed to stay the same. There were many establishing shots followed by shot/reverse shots. But within that spacial orientation, I found myself connecting characters in more than just the space of the single scene. I noticed that characters were continuously placed on a certain side of the frame. In particular, Rick on the left and Ilsa on the right.

      

The examples go on and on. Almost every time we see them on screen, Rick is on the right side and Ilsa is on the left side. I think this continuity is helpful for viewers to always know where we will find each character. It also, especially in the scenes in Casablanca, establishes two forces that are constantly at odds with one another, always occupying their own space. Those spaces never do truly merge, as Rick and Ilsa do not end up together in the end.

As the flashback to their time in Paris begins, we see a montage of shots all placing the two characters in this orientation. The first time we see them in different orientations is after they have recently been informed of the impending German invasion. This event has rocked their world and turned it 180 degrees to then show Ilsa on the left and Rick on the right for not just one but a series of shots.

 

Another time we see Rick on the right side of the screen is when he is shown conversing at a table with another woman. By placing the female on the left and Rick on the right, we get a subtle visual cue that this relationship is different. Rick has his heart fully set on Ilsa, paying a minimal amount of attention to this woman. He is forwardly emotionally invested, as he is the left-oriented character infatuated with the right-oriented character.

I know there are probably a few more shots with Rick on the right and Ilsa on the left, but they are certainly a small minority. This has got me thinking of other films I have seen and whether they have a continuous hemisphere in which a character will occupy and how the changes in that have been used to symbolize changes in the character or story. I’m also curious as to any other reasons why this orientation would be used continuously in Casablanca.

Editing as Art

Editing forms the basis of how we interact on an emotional and visual level with any film.  An editor’s style and choice of techniques decide which characters we side with, how well we are able to follow the plot, and even allows certain thematic elements to seep into the image itself.  Christopher Nolan’s film Memento (2000) is an excellent example of the power of editing.

Throughout the film, his editor (Doddy Dorn) makes frequent use of eyeline matches and POV shots to put the audience in the shoes of the protagonist, a man struggling with his recent loss of short term memory.  We share his confusion and struggle to ascertain fundamental truths about his situation as the editor makes continuous use of sharp cuts to temporally ambiguous scenes.  We as the audience struggle with every sequence to piece together where it fits into the timeline of his life just as he does.

Though Memento plays with the techniques of temporal editing, it falls in line with the modern style of continuity editing within each sequence, obeying the 180-degree rule and the 30-degree rule, ensuring that during the portions of the film in which the protagonist is able to begin to piece his story together, we as his companions can also piece together his life alongside him.  Though the overall plot is muddled by his memory issues which are reflected in the editing, it is never unclear to us who is speaking, where they are located in the set, or their physical distances from other characters.

However, some films abandon with this modern style of continuity all together, seeking to blur the lines between even the characters themselves.  Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) uses this technique, or lack thereof, to great effect.

In the third act of the film, his editor (himself) begins to entirely dispose of the current “rules” of film editing throughout sequences that become almost impossible to follow.  He frequently cuts to inserts of scenery or random objects as one of the characters speaks, making it difficult to even tell who is telling these stories that become retold repeatedly.  He also does away with the 30-degree rule in most of the sequences which frame both of the protagonists together in conversation, making disjunctive cuts between shots which are only a few degrees apart, sometimes even canting the camera even between shots.  All of these methods combined together act to distract us and rip us away from any hope of following the dialogue between our protagonists, usually making these cuts at the precise moment we have just begun to latch onto the continuity.

The Significance of Editing

In films, we can see the importance of mise-en-scéne and cinematography quite easily because these incorporate everything within the frame that we are focusing on. Does editing hold the same significance as these factors? The characters, the colors, and the props are all bits of information that are relayed to us directly through the mise-en-scéne and cinematography. Editing is defined as “the process of selecting and joining film footage and shots” — Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White, The Film Experience, 168. It is essentially taking different manifestations of cinematography and mise-en-scéne and putting them together. Knowing this, editing takes on paramount importance as it pieces together shots and footage in meaningful ways using cuts, transitions, and other things.

Editing can be broken down into different elements. Each element creates meaning in its own way by changing the way that the film is experienced by an audience. A cut is “the join or splice between two pieces of film” (Corrigan and White, 168). Cuts are the simplest and most common forms of editing and consists of many different types that create feelings about the film or assert an idea. Transitions are the join of two separate pieces of film with the use of some embellishment that also adds meaning to the film. This video talks about different types of cuts and transitions.

Another element of editing is the continuity style. Although it is not necessary or guaranteed, many films use a continuity style in order to orient space and time. They do this to give their film verisimilitude, which “is the quality of fictional representation that allows readers or viewers to accept a constructed [world] as plausible” (Corrigan and White, 180). By having spatial and temporal patterns, the film becomes something that is believable when we are watching it. A common use continuity editing is the eyeline match. A character is shown looking somewhere off-screen, then the camera cuts to another shot with a new subject. As viewers, we assume that the character was looking at what we saw in the second shot. Based on this edit, we can form spatial relationships between characters and objects as well as ideas about the significance of the character’s glance. In this clip from Star Wars: Episode 1, Obi-Wan Kenobi looks at his lightsaber off screen, then it cuts to his lightsaber. This mixed with his obvious desperation, we form an idea that he is planning to do something with the lightsaber to get out of his current situation, which he does.

Editing’s relationship with time is also important for creating meaning in a film. For example, sometimes the scenes of a movie will not be shown in chronological order of the story. When this occurs, typically there will be some sort of external cue through editing. Flashbacks might dissolve in simulating a character’s memory. Some sequences in films are not explicitly located in any part of the story timeline. This ambiguity is sometimes used on purpose for descriptions, psychological depth, and others. Duration also plays a part in the audiences viewing experience. A film tells a story that has its own timeline but is shown only in the runtime of the film. The length of the story and the length of the movie are almost never the same lengths, therefore it is important in editing to manipulate the duration to make the story flow and feel like its happening in its own timeline. This is affected by pace and rhythm. How often movie cuts can be measured by the average shot length (ASL). ASL helps determine the pace of films. Films take on different paces depending on what type of film they are or what kind of feeling they want to give off.

All of these elements put together are very subtle and go unnoticed when discussing the important parts of a film. However, editing creates so much meaning that basically none of the films you see today can exist without it. Not only is it necessary to put together films that we see, it is important in commanding the way that the viewer is seeing the film and interpreting it. What do you think is more important as a viewer, things like mise-en-scéne and cinematography or editing? As time has passed, the ASL of films has dropped. In your opinion what could be the cause of this trend? Is continuity something that you pay close attention to when watching a film?

The Subtlety and Importance of Editing

Most directors believe editing (post-production) is the most important step in the making of a film. Although a shot is what you see, an edit is how you see it. An edit determines the experience for the viewer and entirely navigates the interpretation of a scene. And very often (unless intentionally otherwise), the viewer is completely unaware of this manipulation. They make it subconscious and seamless so that the viewers think they came to their own conclusions themselves.

Lately, especially with blockbuster films, we primarily see continuity editing– the style of editing that promotes verisimilitude and efficient story-telling. It requires little critical thinking on the viewers side and each shot naturally continues off of the last. This editing technique is usually used when editing is not a primary focus for the film’s development, but instead CGI or great acting performances. (This is actually why the Dark Knight trilogy is amazing– it has it all. The first scene that comes to mind is the parallel editing [alternation between two simultaneous strands of action] of this famous scene where The Joker is yelling “Hit me” while Batman speeds at him with the possible intent of actually killing him).

 

Unexpectedly, continuity editing is hard to uphold. There are several rules for it to maintain “sense.” Most importantly is the 180-degree rule. If the camera is on one “side” of a conversation (determined by an “axis of action” or “line of vision”), the camera must continue to be on that same side throughout cuts unless at some point the camera moves to the other side. Otherwise, it randomly appears as if the characters switched positions.

Slightly less important is the 30-degree rule. It states that the next shot must change in angle by at least 30 degrees from the current. Not only because a pan/tilt could easily replace the small angle cut, but also because viewers notice this and interpret it as almost an accidental stutter/jump in the film frames.

Continuity editing is easy on the viewer, but hard on the director. Is that what makes it the “default” choice? Because over the years, films have become less about creative expressionism and more about eye candy consumerism? And why in movies that are entirely fictional, do we try to maintain the realism of visual perception? Does that not contradict the fictionalism of the movie itself?