* This blog post contains spoilers!
Film and television ask the spectator to suspend disbelief. This is true not only regarding narrative or character construction but also in terms of the cinematic world. Fragmentary space is stitched together to form a unified whole. Moving images, whether set in the past, present, future, or even outer space, aspire to invent a verisimilar world by assembling unconnected spaces into a coherent, integrated place. This illusion of the wholeness of space on-screen is created by the interplay of cinematography, editing (or lack thereof in tracking shots), and set design. Art directors plan the construction of logical spatial relationships even before the shooting of the film begins.[1] Production design plays a crucial part in the construction of cinematic worlds. Yet spatial continuity vs. discontinuity is an understudied subject in film and television, which instead tends to focus on editing techniques or the mise-en-scène in connection with thinking about set design.[2]
In most American productions that use the continuity editing system (unobtrusive cuts), fragmentary imagery is perceived as a verisimilar place and is thus not usually questioned. Rarely is there a noticeable glitch in the cinematic layout. Perhaps when this does occur, it is noticeable because one has grown familiar with a particular spatial imaginary that is now breached. An example of such spatial discontinuity recently materialized in the American television show Scandal. The political drama, currently in its fourth season, centers around Kerry Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, who is a former White House Communications Director now running her own crisis management firm. In episode 10 of season 4, “Run,” Olivia Pope is abducted from her apartment and taken to an undisclosed location. In the following brief discussion of the opening sequence, I pay particular attention to the plausibility of the layout of Olivia’s apartment and the floor it is on.
In over 60 episodes throughout 4 seasons, the viewer has never seen a particular corner of the entrance hall to the two apartments on Olivia’s floor. Only three out of four sides that make up the square of this space are known: (1) the elevator, (2) Olivia’s apartment entrance door, and (3) her neighbor’s apartment entrance door. Number (4) is presumably a wall between this entrance hall and Olivia’s hallway to her bedroom.

Olivia dances in her living room next to the entrance door and the hallway to her bedroom.

In the episode under consideration, Olivia is snatched from her living room in a matter of seconds and disappears. Jake, a trusted friend and recurring lover, soon discovers that he is left alone in the apartment. He proceeds to run after Olivia and turns his attention to the hitherto unknown fourth wall, which is revealed to offer a door to a fire escape stairwell, and starts what will be a futile pursuit to street level. Meanwhile, it is subsequently revealed, Olivia is actually hidden in her neighbor’s apartment. The kidnappers (and scriptwriters) have thus concocted an ingenious plan that aligns the spectators with Jake as well as anticipating his fruitless actions and leaving the viewers feeling deceived, frustrated, and astonished. The sequence first builds suspense through the abrupt change in tone from careless ease to life-threatening situation, and then by proceeding to withhold information and unraveling the actual events in well-timed stages. At first, the spectators are aware of what Jake seems to know and are encouraged to fear for Olivia’s wellbeing. Only when Jake returns to the apartment and takes immediate action to find her, the viewer learns how the events have really been coordinated, finding out about Olivia’s surprising whereabouts.
The sequence seamlessly sutures together unconnected spaces through unobtrusive cuts and a soundtrack fusing all fragments to create a wholeness of this specific place. Thus the spatial discontinuity is masked through the urgency of the situation created by this key plot event (narrative development), Olivia and Jake’s reactions (performance), and musical motifs signaling danger (sound). In this sequence, the question of spatial verisimilitude is moved to the background to create viewing pleasure. Spectators are encouraged to feel emotional involvement towards their heroine’s predicament rather than question the invented physical world.
If one does consider the layout of Olivia’s apartment, one realizes that the fire-escape door is impossibly placed: the door would in reality lead straight into her hallway. If one were to further question the spatial layout of the entire floor, it would become clear that the neighbor’s living room also overlaps with Olivia’s bedroom. Nevertheless, this sequence entertains by creating an imaginary wholeness the spectator is discouraged to assess. Instead, the narrative is foregrounded to disregard spatial coherence. This brief example shows that the perception of space in film and television requires the suspension of disbelief not merely regarding plot or characters but also in terms of spatial integration in the construction of its physical world.
Scandal_S4E10_Outside Apartment

The kidnappers peak through the neighbor’s door viewer: elevator (right); Olivia’s open apartment door (opposite); open fire escape door a.k.a. wall of Olivia’s hallway (left).

Scandal_S4E10_Fire Escape

Jake runs down the fire escape stairwell a.k.a. a different set location.


The neighbor’s apartment invaded by the kidnappers: Windows where logically there is (a) Olivia’s bedroom or (b) the fire escape stairwell.


Physical layout of Olivia’s floor showing the impossibility of spatial continuity nevertheless created through editing techniques.


[1] For a discussion of set design in film, particularly 1930s European cinema, see: Sue Harris, Tim Bergfelder, and Sarah Street, eds., Film Architecture and the Transnational Imagination: Set Design in 1930s European Cinema, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014).

[2] See, for example, John Gibbs, Mise-en-Scène: Film Style and Interpretation (London: Columbia University Press, 2002); or David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 10th ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2012).

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