Image courtesy: Walt Disney Pictures

In a nutshell

  • A match cut is a direct transition between two or more similar shots
  • Types of match cuts include match on action, graphic matches and sound bridges
  • A match cut leverages similarities between two adjacent shots to create connection and meaning

As you learn more about the art of video editing, you’ll likely encounter the concept of the match cut. It’s an essential tool in any editor’s toolbox. Let’s explore what a match cut is, the different types of these cuts and how the match cut has been used throughout cinema history.

What is a match cut?

A match cut is a direct transition between two or more similar shots. This links the two shots together to either maintain continuity, establish a connection or create meaning. The shots on either side of a match cut might share graphic or sound elements, or they may show the continuation of an action from one angle to the next. What matters is that the shots are connected through the match cut.

Match cut variations

Now that we have a better idea of what a match cut is, let’s get to know the different types of match cuts you might encounter. We’ll also look at a few examples so we can see the match cut at work.

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Match on action

First, let’s look at the most common type of match cut: match on action. This type of cut appears in nearly every film or TV show since the invention of editing.

A match on action occurs when the action in one shot flows smoothly into the next. It’s the basic tool of continuity editing. A great example of this is Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic, “Seven Samurai.” In this sparring scene, we can see how the movements of each fighter continue from shot to shot so that there is no interruption to the action. Even though the camera frequently changes angle, cutting on the action maintains the illusion that we are witnessing a continuous event. In this case, the ideal cut is one that’s invisible to the audience.

However, an invisible cut is not always the goal, even for an action match. Matching the action of two different characters in two separate locations is a great way to link those characters together. You can also match camera movement instead of character movement for a slightly different effect.

Graphic matches

Unlike a match on action, which mostly stays hidden, the graphic match cut is more obvious. It invites contemplation. A graphic match cut juxtaposes two or more shots with similar graphic elements, like shape, line or color.

Perhaps the most famous graphic match occurs near the beginning of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). We see two groups of apes engaged in a fight. One ape takes a discarded bone and uses it to attack another ape. The victorious ape tosses the bone into the air, but before it falls back, we cut to a satellite in space. The two shots share an almost identical composition, forming a strong visual and metaphorical connection between the two objects.

Going further back in cinema history, this graphic match in “2001” draws inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s “A Canterbury Tale” (1944), which juxtaposes a medieval pilgrim’s falcon with a Hurricane fighter plane.

Sound bridge

Next up is the sound bridge. This type of match cut relies on audio elements rather than visual elements to connect two shots. A sound bridge can go in either direction. You can let the sound effects or music bed from one scene bleed into the next shot. Or you can bring in a sound effect early before cutting to reveal its source.

A great example of this comes from “The Matrix” (1999). In one scene, Neo and Trinity meet in a crowded nightclub. It’s a loud environment, so when the clock radio alarm starts blaring, it’s all but drowned out by the intense music of the scene. The alarm sound grows louder until a cut brings us back to Neo’s apartment. The alarm continues after the cut, becoming the dominant sound.

Why are they used?

There are a number of different reasons filmmakers may employ a match cut. The technique can emphasize an object or location that’s important to the story, or it can create connections between different characters. But before we get to that, let’s take a look at the most common use for the match cut: continuity.

Continuity

As we discussed above, a match on action is a fundamental technique of continuity editing, which is the art of constructing a believable environment and sense of action from a collection of clips. For most productions, scenes are filmed non-sequentially, and the same action is often captured from different angles over multiple takes. Then, the editor takes that footage and rearranges it so that the narrative space of the film feels consistent and logical and the action appears fluid.

To do this, you’ll often use a match cut — in this case, a match on action. Matching motion between two different shots of the same action will ensure the flow of the action is smooth and logical.

Without a match on action, we’ll see a jump-cut effect, which can be used to its own advantage. See Goddard’s “Breathless” (1960).

Montage, meaning and metaphor

In the early days of cinema, Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov and other Soviet filmmakers formulated the Montage Theory of cinema. The theory says that shots juxtaposed against each other forge a relationship that creates an entirely new meaning. These filmmakers believed this clash of visual ideas could be leveraged to convey deeper concepts and messaging.

In this context, the match cut can be used to compare and contrast characters, scenes and other story elements, evoking new meanings and metaphors along the way.

Time/travel

Another use for the match cut is to create connections across time and space. This type of cut might use a match on action, a graphic match or even a sound bridge to link shots together.

We can see an example of this in “The Lion King” (1994). During the “Hakuna Matata” interlude, a series of match cuts show how Simba, Timon and Pumba have stuck together over the years.

Match cuts are great for showing progression forward through time. However, they can also be the perfect way to trigger a flashback. For instance, in the “Titanic” (1997), as Rose begins her tale, we start with a shot of the sunken RMS Titanic. The bleak underwater scene slowly fades to a matching shot of the ship still in the harbor as it prepares for its maiden voyage, taking us back to the setting of Rose’s story.

But this type of match cut can be used to communicate even more complex ideas. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022) uses a series of quick cuts to squeeze an infinite multiverse into a single sequence.

Putting the cut to use

As you can see, the match cut can take a variety of forms and serve a variety of functions. The next time you plan a shoot or edit a video, think about how to use this cut to build connections and create meaning.

Nicole LaJeunesse is a professional writer and a curious person who loves to unpack stories on anything from music, to movies, to gaming and beyond.