What is a smash cut?

Filmmakers, cinematographers and editors all have various tools at their disposal to set the narrative pace of a film. One of the most powerful tools is the smash cut. Let’s take a closer look at smash cuts and how you can use them to elevate your films.

Understanding smash cuts

Definition and characteristics of smash cuts

A smash cut is an abrupt transition between scenes that can jolt the audience. It’s an editing technique where one scene abruptly cuts to another without transitional elements, creating a sudden shift in the pacing or tone of the story. Unlike gradual transitions — like fades or dissolves — smash cuts are instantaneous. They’re often used to surprise and shock the viewers. Smash cuts are most often used in dramatic scenes, such as a character waking up from a nightmare. However, they can also be used for comedic purposes, such as this scene from “Shaun of the Dead” (2004):

Purpose in filmmaking

Smash cuts are both stylistic choices and narrative tools you can use to advance your story. They have many different use cases, such as for conveying a character’s sudden realization or highlighting the abruptness of an event. For example, a chaotic party scene may smash cut to the main character in bed, opening his eyes for the first time after a nap. This would effectively change the pacing of the story, while also signaling to the viewer that the prior scene was just a dream. 

Check out this video for more ways smash cuts have been used in films and TV:

Smash cuts vs. match cuts and jump cuts

Jump cut

While smash cuts quickly connect two contrasting scenes, jump cuts are edits that quickly cut between very similar shots. This technique involves cutting within the same scene. Jump cuts often use shots of the same subject but from slightly different angles or moments in time. Jump cuts work well when trying to fragment a scene. Filmmakers use them to leave audience feeling uneasy or inject a sense of urgency into a scene. They are also used to illustrate the passage of time.

Imagine our subject is a custodian, finishing his graveyard shift by taking out the trash. After entering the dumpster room, the door suddenly shuts behind him, locking him in the room for hours. To illustrate the passing of time, one might choose to use multiple cuts shot at the same angle, each showing the character in different areas of the room becoming increasingly desperate. This would be an example of a jump cut. Montages also often use jump cuts to fragment a scene, usually to the beat of a song.

Match cut

A match cut is a transition that links two scenes by visually matching the composition, action or subject. Unlike the abrupt nature of smash and jump cuts, match cuts are smooth and often go unnoticed. They maintain the narrative flow both visually and in the sound. If you were to shoot a tracking shot of a young track star running through a town and then cut to a tracking shot of that character running years later, that would be considered a match cut.

The opening of “Forrest Gump” (1994) uses a match cut to show a jump in time. In the case of this scene, Forrest Gump is recalling a memory in his past. The match cut jumps from a present close-up of Forrest to when he was a child in a doctor’s office.

Ways to use smash cuts

Create tonal contrast

Filmmakers will use smash cuts primarily to create tonal contrast, as they can dramatically shift the tone of the narrative.

A smash cut can dramatically shift the emotional tone from one scene to another. Imagine a close-up scene where a character receives a piece of good news, their face filled with excitement. Instantly, the scene cuts to a wide shot of another character who, upon hearing the same news, is visibly angry and begins throwing items and breaking furniture. This could work well as a way to show the various reactions of your protagonist and antagonist to the same news. In this case, the smash cut would help progress the plot, as well as visually show the distinction between the two characters.

End a scene in a mystery/cliffhanger

Smash cuts can also build suspense and mystery. Think of a scene where a character is in imminent danger, likely on the brink of being attacked. Suddenly, the scene cuts to a peaceful visual of someone meditating in a field of flowers. Did the character die and pass on to the afterlife? Is this a premonition all made up in the character’s head? This sudden cut provides relief, but also leaves the audience wondering how the two scenes are connected. Overall, keeping the audience on their toes is a good thing as long as you eventually provide clarity. Taking this approach too often reduces its impact and may frustrate viewers if they feel lost, so use this sparingly.

Gilligan cut

The “Gilligan cut,” a specific type of smash cut, creates humor through irony. In this technique, a character confidently makes a prediction or assumption, only to be immediately proven wrong in the following scene. For example, a character might claim they are never late, insisting that they instead are always early. The scene then cuts to that same character rushing in late to an important meeting, out of breath and apologizing for their tardiness. This rapid juxtaposition not only induces laughter, but also makes the scene relatable and humorous.

Here’s a classic of a Gilligan cut in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989). In the scene, Indiana Jones confidently tells the villains that they will never find Brody, painting him as a master evader who knows dozens of languages and has hundreds of friends who could help him disappear, only for the scene to cut to Brody in a foreign country, lost in a crowd of people and desperately looking for someone who speaks English.

Jump in time

Smash cuts are also effective in depicting time jumps. Imagine a scene filled with the emotional high of a character being accepted into college, surrounded by proud family members. The film then cuts to a crazy party scene a year later, where we see the same character falling into temptations of college life. This smash cut communicates that time has passed, but also offers a contrast between expectations and reality in the story.

Don’t overuse it

Timing is crucial when using smash cuts. Use them sparingly so that they maintain their impact and don’t overwhelm the viewer. Sound design also plays a significant role. If you want the transition to be more impactful, a sudden sound effect or complete silence can heighten the effect of the visual cut.

Remember that overusing smash cuts can lead to viewer fatigue. Constant abrupt cuts can quickly become predictable and lose their effectiveness. Rule of thumb: A smash cut should serve a narrative purpose. Without a clear reason, it can confuse the audience and disrupt the story’s flow.

A powerful technique for your filmmaking toolkit

If you use smash cuts correctly, they make your narrative more compelling and immersive, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. Try to think about where you can implement a smash cut in your next video, you may be surprised at the results.

Kyle Alsberry
Kyle Alsberry
Kyle Alsberry is a multimedia producer and audiovisual technician at California State University, Chico and is Videomaker's associate editor.

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