The Wonderful Cutaway

You stare morosely at your edit screen as Dexter Dimbulb says into the phone, "I’ll see you in…. (A long pause while he gropes for his line) …Detroit, tomorrow." That endless dead spot has to go but how?

The answer is that all-purpose editing Band-Aid: The cutaway shot. Holes in the footage? Cut to the birds. Mismatched action? Cut to the clouds. Lousy performance? Cut to well, cut away to a cutaway shot, edit out the problem, and then cut back to the primary action.

Deployed with finesse, cutaways can fix a multitude of goofs; but shooting them takes planning and inserting them takes skill. We’re here to show you both. Well catalogue the different kinds of cutaways, review the glitches they can fix, explain how good directors shoot them, and share some tips for splicing them invisibly.

Cutaway Flavors

"Cutaway" is the generic term for any shot that punctuates the main action; but the word also labels one of three specific shot types:

  •  Cutaway shots show parts of the action outside the main shots.

  •  Insert shots show close details of the action in the main shots.

  •  Color shots show material that is not part of the action but contributes to the overall feeling of the sequence.

    So if a main shot shows a mother at the beach coating her child with layers of sunscreen,

  •  A cutaway shows the child playing with his shovel.

  •  An insert shows her raised palm with sun block squirting into it.

  •  A color shot shows the beach, surf, gulls, etc.

    Uses for Cutaways

    You can use all three types of cutaways to provide information. For illustration, let’s turn to those lovable bank robbers, Bunny and Claude, escaping, as usual, in their getaway car. (see Figure 1).

    1. CU THRU WINDSHIELD: Bunny driving. She glances down at…

    2. INSERT: …the gas gauge, which reads empty.

    3. MS (CONT.) She looks up again. BUNNY: We losin’ ’em?

    4. MCU: Claude twists his head around to see out the back window.

    5. CUTAWAY: Shot of the pursing car speeding along behind them.

    6. MCU (CONT.): CLAUDE: Prob’ly not.

    7. COLOR SHOT: A sun-dappled meadow full of grazing cows. BUNNY (OFFSCREEN): Right purty day.

    8. MCU (CONT.): CLAUDE: Jest drive!

    In this condensed sequence, we’ve used all three types of cutaways to deliver information to the viewer.

    Cutaways are also great for altering movie space and time. Stopped at a BRIDGE OUT sign, Bunny starts up again, accelerates for the 300 yards to the river, and jumps it with the car. This action is covered in a single medium long shot with the camera panning the car from startup to river jump.

    Trouble is, the middle 200 yards of the shot are redundant and on screen they seem to last forever. To tighten up the timing, you can use a trusty cutaway:

    1. MLS: The getaway car burns rubber as it starts to pull away.

    2. CUTAWAY: A spinning tire smoking and spitting gravel as it chews up the road.

    3. MLS (CONT.): the car surges up to the bank and soars over the river.

    Because the cutaway does not show the car in relation to the road, you can use it to slice 200 yards from the shot and shrink 15 seconds of screen time to three.

    Cutaways can also improve performance. To return to Dexter Dimbulb, let’s use an insert to delete his endless pause:

    1. MS: DIMBULB: I’ll see you…

    2. INSERT: The airline ticket in his hand. DIMBULB (OFFSCREEN): …in Detroit,

    3. MS (CONT.): DIMBULB: tomorrow.

    Hiding the Evidence

    In general, a major use of cutaways is to hide action mismatches, screen direction goofs and jump cuts.

    Jump cuts happen when you try to follow one shot with a very similar shot, or with a later piece of the same shot. If you simply cut those two hundred yards of road and spliced the shot back together, Bunny’s car would visibly jump the gap long before it jumped the river. The wheel cutaway hides your surgery.

    In other cases you may have two different shots, but they’re too similar to cut together invisibly. A cutaway breaks up the viewer’s mental picture of the preceding image, so that changes won’t be noticed when you return to it.

    In many cases jump cut problems happen because you want to use several different takes of the same shot. Suppose the director makes two takes of another angle on Dimbulb, who still has trouble remembering his lines. Here’s the resulting dialogue:

    TAKE ONE: I’ll see you in Cleveland, tonight.

    TAKE TWO: I’m going to Detroit, tomorrow.

    Since the content points are that he’ll see the other person in Detroit, tomorrow, neither take will work by itself. The answer is to use half of each one, concealing the switch with the insert:

    1. DIMBULB (TAKE 1): I’ll see you in…

    2. INSERT: The ticket. (OFFSCREEN AUDIO FROM TAKE TWO): … Detroit,

    3. DIMBULB (TAKE TWO): tomorrow.

    Even where two angles are different enough to cut together, you may have problems with their content especially, when there’s mismatched action:

    1. FRONT ANGLE WIDE SHOT: PHOEBE studies a glass in her right hand. PHOEBE: Hmm: 1995, a splendid year for prune juice.

    2. 3/4 ANGLE MEDIUM SHOT: She sets the glass down with her left hand.


    If you can buffer the two shots with a tight insert of the prune juice glass, the audience will probably not notice the switch.

    Sometimes the mismatch occurs not in action but in screen direction. Say, for example, that Bunny and Claude’s car has been driving screen right to left throughout the sequence, but it proves impossible to shoot the river jump from the same side of the action line. As a result, the car roars up to the bank right to left, jumps the river left to right, and resumes escaping right to left again.

    You can’t flop the shot because that would suddenly put Claude in the driver’s seat. Instead, you separate both pairs of mismatches with inserts: (see Figure 2).

    1. CU: The car screams up to the bank moving from left to right.

    2. INSERT: Bunny’s foot (shot from the passenger’s side) stomping the accelerator.

    3. FULL SHOT: the car zooms towards the river, still moving left to right.

    4. INSERT: the steering wheel as Bunny’s hand wrestles it to control the car.

    5. WIDE SHOT: the car digs in and takes off again, this time from right to left.

    By wrapping the wrong-way shot with cutaways, we’ve insulated it from the rest of the chase sequence. In addition, the abundance of quick cuts is itself disorienting, so that the audience loses track of directions.

    Editing Tricks

    As this example suggests, you don’t want to just stick a cutaway into the action any old way. Used arbitrarily, cutaways can be painfully obvious. To deploy them stylishly, you may want to try these suggestions.

    First, place cutaways at logical points. If a character opens a drawer and looks in it, cut to an insert of the gun in the drawer. Don’t wait until she thinks and then looks in the drawer again. Subconsciously, the audience will think, why didn’t you show me the first time?

    Next, motivate the cutaway. If she gasps at the sight of the gun cut to it after the gasp, as if to show the audience what is surprising her.

    As a general rule, color shots used for their own sake can seem crude and arbitrary. The exception is when you’re establishing a sense of place. As the family walks along the beach to its spot on the sand, cut to the gulls, cut to the waves, cut to the wind surfers. These color shots work because the family is presumably taking in this new scene as they move through the environment. But once they’re established on their beach blanket, throttle back on the artsy atmosphere shots.

    Time cutaways carefully. To return to Phoebe and her prune juice, in shot 1 she raises the glass and looks at it. In shot 2 she continues looking at the glass (in the wrong hand) and then puts it down. You conceal the mismatch with the insert of the raised glass.

    The trick here is to cut back from the insert just as Phoebe starts lowering the glass. If you let the glass sit there in the second shot, the mismatch will be more obvious. Remember that movement distracts the viewer’s eye from details in the scene.

    Finally, decide whether your cutaway will ripple or roll:

  •  A rolling edit replaces the front end of the following shot.

  •  A ripple edit makes room by pushing the following shot (and the rest of the program) forward over time.

    The difference? A rolling insert preserves the flow of time, while a ripple insert extends the time by the length of the cutaway. In our running examples, Dimbulb’s airline ticket is a rolling insert, used to restore the intended timing of his line. The gun in the drawer might be a ripple insert, lengthening the woman’s reaction and heightening the drama.

    Meanwhile Back at the Shoot…

    If you study the cutaways used to conceal Bunny’s reversed river jump, you’ll see that the director has helped sell the deception with two sneaky ploys:

  •  Shot from the passenger’s side Bunny’s foot is facing (toe-ing?) screen right, anticipating the reversed direction of the following shot.

  •  The back-and-forth wheel turns before the second reversal implies that the car might be changing direction again.

    In both cases, the director spotted the need for cutaways during the shooting and staged them for maximum effective-ness. Without these shots, the editor would not have been able to fix the screen direction problem.

    To anticipate the need for cutaways, ask yourself these three questions as you shoot:

  •  Will we need to play with space and time in this sequence; in particular, will we need to tighten it by cutting material?

  •  Is there a goof in performance, continuity, or screen direction; or a technical problem with focus, movement, or exposure?

  •  Does the audience need more information than the main shots can deliver: the gun in the drawer, the time on the clock face, the length of the burning fuse?

    Remember that a cutaway must look like a natural part of the continuity, rather than an intrusion. If it flows with the action, the audience will never notice that it has been inserted into the mainstream footage.

    In shooting inserts, it’s critically important to match the look and feel of the main shots, especially in lighting, movement and point of view.

    For instance, the insert of Bunny’s foot hitting the accelerator will be shot with the car standing still. To match the pitching and jiggling of the wildly moving auto, you need to shake the camcorder on purpose as you shoot.

    To provide the greatest flexibility for Phoebe’s prune juice cutaway, bring the glass up into the shot, hold it, then lower it again. And here’s another cheat: shoot the insert from Phoebe’s point of view, with the glass already in the wrong hand. Why? Because her point of view is on the other side of the action line, the screen direction will reverse and the left hand in the insert will be on the same side of the screen as the right hand in the previous shot.

    Also, be sure to match the lighting. If the desk is in murky gloom, don’t light the gun in the drawer like a product shot.

    Finally, anticipate the need for cutaways by taping generic models. At the beach get the waves, the birds, and the surfers. For an interview, shoot the interviewer listening alertly and nodding sagely. In the auditorium or grandstand, get the spectators, while down on the field, tape the coach watching the game. Editors can use these cutaways almost anywhere they need a quick fix, and theyll thank you for your foresight.

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