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.
After a few more cuts between shots (of Bening) and reverse shots (of Spacey), the conversation/argument comes to an end, whereupon we get one last reestablishing shot and fade out to end the scene.
Note the symmetry in this scene, an important feature of most continuity systems. It opens with a fade-in, closes with a fade-out. (Remember, fades are known for transitioning in and out of scenes and acts.) In between the fades, we have the following pattern: establishing shot, shot-reverse-shot, reaction shot (typically when the daughter is looked at or mentioned), shot-reverse-shot, and reestablishing shot, with cuts, occasional reframes, and match cuts intermixed to advance the action smoothly, continuously and invisibly.
It’s important to remember that American Beauty does not employ a continuity system throughout its entirety. That is, this film is not always invisible. But this scene demonstrates it perfectly and with a clear intention: to have us focus on the ironic, dark humor, the conversation, and the character dynamics as they’re unfolding. Instead, we barely notice the camera and editing in this scene, and that’s the point.