Cinematographers and editors work together to create sequences that resemble reality. Once an editor gets the footage, if there are mistakes that create unintended disorientation, editors need to go to their tool belt. One way to do this is to use cutaway shots. As a cinematographer, it’s always important to shoot cutaway shots because it gives the editor an opportunity, one, to get creative, but also to fix any continuity errors. What does that mean? And what else can cutaway shots do you for your film? Let’s find out.
Table of Contents
Everything you need to know about cutaway shots
- What is a Cutaway Shot?
- When to Use Cutaway Shots
- Is this Shot a Cutaway?
What is a Cutaway Shot?
Using cutaways for continuity
1.1 What is cutaway?
Defining the cutaway shot
Before we can dive into the benefit of shooting cutaway shots, or why editors use them so frequently, we should first define what a cutaway is.
Cutaway Shot Definition
What is a cutaway shot?
A cutaway shot is a shot that "cuts away" from the main action to any shot that adds visual information, and then returns to the original shot with new meaning. Imagery shown in a cutaway can occur anywhere in relation to your scene, and have no strict geographical requirement.
Shooting seamless cutaways isn’t always easy, so sometimes cutaways serve as a band aid for poor shooting, and often take place in the editing room. While cutaways are shots, it’s important to note that editors use them for maintaining continuity.
What can cutaway shots do?
- Build tension in a scene
- Help the audience get inside a character’s head
- Control time and space in a scene
We’ll dive deeper into more examples, but for now, take a quick look at this cutaway shot from Goodfellas, so you understand the general idea.
In the definition above, I mentioned cutaways as a solution for editors to maintain continuity in a scene. What exactly does this mean?
1.2 Why the Cutaway?
Defining continuity editing
To understand cutaways, let's get the whole picture.
Continuity Editing Definition
What is Continuity Editing?
Continuity editing is the process of arranging shots to produce a scene where space and time appear uninterrupted. It’s also referred to as “cutting to continuity,” and without it there would be no fluidity to the action on screen, and the viewer would feel disoriented.
You often don’t notice this continuity because it’s working. It’s easy to understand continuity editing when there is none.
Let’s take this basic example.
If a character is sitting at a desk and you suddenly cut to them standing up, walking out the door, you may disorient the audience.
Now how can a cutaway help with this needed continuity?
If instead you show the character sitting at the desk, followed by a cutaway shot of a clock, by the time we cut back to the character walking out the door, fluidity remains. No one is confused, and you’ve even provided context that the character has to be somewhere else.
There are more tricks to keep the continuity in a scene before you get to the editing stage. Learn more about the rules of shot composition to go over some things to keep in mind while shooting.
Preserving continuity is tantamount to creating the illusion of reality on screen. And a common way to make your cuts less jarring, is shooting cutaways. But what else can a cutaway do?
Let’s explore some cutaway shots and their effect on the scene.
when to use cutaway shots
possibilities of the cutaway
2.1 get inside the character's head
Use cutaways for memories
Getting inside a character’s head on screen isn’t always the easiest thing to execute. You obviously want to avoid excess dialogue, anything appearing too “on the nose” could disengage the viewer, and so your shot choice matters.
So when we want to show a character thinking about something...how might we do it? If a character is remembering something, talking about the memory doesn’t always cut it. Remember we want the audience to not just know what the memory is, but to experience it as the character.
Could using a cutaway be the solution? Gasp! It just might be.Let’s take a look at this scene from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Watch below:
Because the film is seen mostly through Joel Barish's memories, the viewer could experience some confusion about where they are on Joel’s timeline. This cutaway reminds us that we are in an old memory that is being erased. In some cases in this film, his memories also double as flashbacks. Cutaways can be used in the exact same way.
2.2 use the cutaway for fantasy
Use cutaway shots for daydreams
The “what if” daydreamy cutaway shot is commonly used in romantic comedies, and it is one of the best indications that the character is in fantasy-land.
One of my favorite daydream sequences is from none another than Dumb and Dumber. You all know the one. Lloyd is driving and somehow manages to drift off to la la land, envisioning (his version) of a perfect date with Mary Swanson.
The cutaway shot is actually a kind of dreamy montage sequence inside the mind of Lloyd - and it's hilariously idiotic. We love it.
If you need a refresher, enjoy the clip below.
The headlight transition was also nice touch.
Again, we know it’s just a daydream because we're back to him driving, nearly getting killing by oncoming traffic. The cutaway serves its purpose, getting us inside the mind of the character, but also heightens the ridiculousness of the character and comedic tone of the film.
2.3 Cutaways to Externalize the Internal
Use cutaway shots to show feeling
Again, getting inside the mind of a character isn’t always a simple task. But using a cutaway shot can give the audience hints into what they’re feeling - a way to externalize the internal.
Take an example, similar to the one from earlier: a student sits at her desk, looks at the clock, and then we see her, now sweating, getting up and heading towards the door.
Continuity may be covered, but what about the narrative? Well if we consider the clock, we become aware that the student has to leave. There is a kind of urgency that we experience because we cut to the clock. We become immediately aware of her anxiety.
Because what if we get rid of the clock? Her sweating could indicate her feeling sick, but it wouldn’t be as clear that it was a time issue.
DID YOU KNOW?
Filmmakers use the term “insert shot” and “cutaway shot” interchangeably, but there is an important distinction.
In our example, the clock is an insert shot and a cutaway. Insert shots exist within the same scene and are always tangible things, objects or props. Whereas cutaways can bring you to different places in time, or might not even exist at all.
Watch a clip from the film, Seven, to see how, because of a cutaway shot, we experience David Mills’ (Brad Pitt’s) anger, right before he shoots the killer of his wife.
The quickness of the cutaway also contributes to how fast his thoughts are going in an extremely stressful situation. We experience his panic. The cutaway shot of his dead wife also allows us to experience his wrath as he shoots and kills Kevin Spacey’s character.
You can also read our article on the insert shot here.
2.4 Transport Your Audience
Move to a different time with associated cutaways
Using cutaway shots that are associated with a different time and place, (can be a flashback, but not always), is best expressed in comedies.
This kind of cutaway shot (sometimes) exists as the punchline.
Whether you love it or hate it, here are a ton of associative cutaway shot examples from Family Guy.
While it’s not always my favorite use of the cutaway, and can get a little tired, it does have its moments.
2.5 Build Tension
Stay in the same place
Some of the best cutaways stay in the same place. Cutting to and from different shots, (usually inserts, which we'll cover more in a moment), within the same location, naturally builds tension.
We’re paying attention to what’s going on in that one space. We’re on high alert. The cutaway shots could even seem meaningless like the cutaway from our first section...the sausage in Goodfellas.
It’s literally a shot of meat, but yet, we feel Paul Cicero’s anger even more.
Or the cutaway shot could have way more meaning based on what’s verbally happening in the scene.
Take a look at this example from The Godfather:
Michael is telling a story of how his father threatened Johnny Fontaine’s life to get what he wanted, we cutaway to Johnny singing across the way, and we understand the power behind Michael’s family, but also a glimpse into what Michael is potentially capable of.
This merely scratches the surface of what cutaways can do, you can mix and match same-location cutaways with memories, or even build tension with cutaways from flashbacks.
The possibilities are endless but make sure to use cutaways that truly serve your story, not just as a cover up for poor shooting.
Cutaway shots are a great way to build context, subtext, and to give your editor some room to work, but they are often confused with other types of cuts and shots. We'll clear up any misconceptions below.
Is This Shot a Cutaway?
On Cross Cuts, Match Cuts, and Jump Cuts
3.1 Types of Cutaway Shots
Insert shot vs the cutaway shot
Filmmakers use the term “insert shot” and “cutaway shot” interchangeably, but there is an important distinction.
Insert shots exist in the same scene and are tangible things.
That's why in our clock example from earlier, cutting to the clock is a cutaway, but the clock is an insert shot.
Whereas in Seven, mentioned above, the flashing of David Mills' wife’s face is not an insert shot, because it’s not really there, she exists in a different time and space. So that shot is just considered a cutaway.
If you want more on the insert shot, check out our video below.
3.2 Types of Cutaway Shots
Know the difference between cuts
Sorry to cut away from our focus, (almost sorry for the pun), but I wanted to clear up some common misconceptions. This is not a post that covers every type of cut. But I wanted to briefly go over some cuts that often get confused with each other.
3.3 Is this Shot a Cutaway?
What is cross-cutting?
It’s common to confuse cutaway shots with cross-cutting, because in cross-cutting you are technically cutting away and coming back.
But cross-cutting is an editing technique often used to establish action occurring at the same time, and mostly in two different locations.A cross cutting film example would be Arthur’s fight/car chase sequence in Inception.
The sequence cross cuts back and forth between a dreaming Arthur in danger in a car chase, with an awake version of Arthur, fighting.
Also, this concept is not to be confused with intercutting. An intercut is an edit where two or more actions in distinct locations are edited together into one scene.
The most common example of this is a phone conversation.
Take this example from The Social Network:
We’re technically cutting away from one character to another, but because this ping-pong effect exists within the confines of a single scene, with no real time is elapsing other than the conversation itself, it’s considered an intercut.
3.4 pass the time with the jump cut
What are jump cuts
A jump cut is an editing technique in which a few frames are taken out of sequence. It refers to when the editor cuts within the same shot. It’s frequently used to intentionally show the passage of time, or to heighten urgency. Montages are also great examples of this.
Keep in mind though, jump cuts can be a bit jarring and are not cutaways. Using cutaways, and cutting between different shot types (close-ups, medium shots, etc.), is smart if you want to avoid the discontinuity of the jump cut.
3.5 more shot transitions
What are match cuts?
Before we get back to the cutaway shot, let’s talk match cuts.
Match cuts cut from one shot to another, matching either the action or composition of the previous shot.
And they’re mainly used as scene transitions.
Because match cuts move us to new locations, it makes sense why they’re easily confused with jump cuts.
Other types of shots are considered cutaways because they "cut away" to another type of shot, and then come back to the same action.
Shots like the reaction shot, or the shot reverse shot.
3.6 cutaway shots
Shot reverse shot
Shot reverse shot refers to when a filmmaker places a camera setup on a subject, and then uses the next setup to show the reverse view of the previous one. Shot reverse shot is most often used for dialogue scenes, and will often use over-the-shoulder shots, or matching single shots for the interaction. Which is why reaction shots are commonly used. Check this out below.
To dive deeper into the shot reverse shot or reaction shot, read our next post. We have an entire article entirely devoted to the subject.
Shot Reverse Shot
Cutaway shots are one of the most commonly used shots in cinema. They can solve for editing discontinuity, and help orient the viewer. And it’s in their particular application that determines if they’ll elevate your story or not.
But unique ways to use the shot come in the next post. Getting creative with camera setups for shot reverse shots can take your filmmaking to the next level. Read more below.