The Art of the Cutaway

0While you plan the scene and dialog details for your videos, you need to remember to plan for cutaways as you take that journey down the path to good composition.

Shooting seamless and well-planned cutaways can add depth and dimension to your story... and they can save your bacon in editing!

Why do filmmakers, television professionals and videographers use cutaways? What is a cutaway anyway? A good understanding of the cutaway can elevate this classic television technique to an art form. A cutaway is a shot of something related to but outside the main action of a scene. It's a shot that cuts away from the main action to a separate or secondary action - hence its name, cutaway. For instance, a shot of a high school teacher lecturing to his students is followed by another one of the principal standing at the door listening. Then back to the shot of the teacher lecturing. The shot of the principal is the cutaway shot. In this instance, the cutaway also acts as a reaction shot - a shot of a subject's face to capture an emotional response.

Continuity and the Cutaway

In order to better understand the role of cutaways and unleash their true potential, we first need to understand the notion of continuity, which some consider the basis of the classical narrative structure. The dictionary defines continuity as the state of being without interruption. Continuity, as it relates to filmmaking or videography, refers to maintaining believable and temporal relationships within a scene in such a way that shots you intend to put together actually fit together in a natural and seamless flow of action, preserving the illusion of reality on the screen. That's where continuity editing comes in.

Continuity editing, also known as cutting to continuity or just the Hollywood style, is a term that refers to the actual arrangement of shots to produce a scene in which time and space seem to be uninterrupted, creating the illusion of reality. You maintain the fluidity of an action without showing all of it. Let's take a look at the following example. A medium shot (a shot from the waist up) of a man picking up a drink from a table is followed by a shot of him drinking it. (A closeup is usually a shot of the head and shoulders when it's a person.) Although two shots (one medium shot and one closeup) made up the action, we expect the movement to flow or give the impression of flowing smoothly, like a single, continuous action.

Bear in mind that a basic requirement of continuity (it could even be called the general rule) is to always change the size as well as the angle of shots that you intend to cut together within a scene. This will allow the shots to cut together smoothly. Maintaining and preserving continuity is of paramount importance and indeed is the name of the game. Continuity problems or mistakes will arise if you don't maintain a smooth and coherent action. One of such problems is a jump cut - an interrupted flow of action from one shot to the next. For example, if you cut from a shot of a woman sitting to a shot of the same woman standing in the same spot, without showing exactly how she got to that standing position, you will produce a confusing jump in time. The cut will break the continuity of time.
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Now that we know a little more about continuity, let's cover the instances in which you might want to use cutaways. The possibilities are virtually endless. Use cutaways to solve continuity problems such as jump cuts. Sticking to the example we used earlier, if we cut from the shot of the woman sitting to a cutaway of a clock in the room, then back to the shot of the woman standing, the cut will be smoother. The audience will fill in the gap, by assuming the woman had plenty of time to get to the standing position. However, this is not the only assumption of a movie-savvy audience, which leads us to another usage of cutaways.

Cutaways for Time Control

Cutaways can emphasize important details or add detail and meaning to a scene. From the cutaway shot of the clock, the audience might rightfully assume some of the following: the woman has to be somewhere on time, she's probably late and therefore is in a hurry, etc. The assumptions are infinite. Of course, the shot immediately preceding the cutaway and the one that follows it, as well as the context of the scene (whether the woman is actually looking at the clock, her facial expressions, her overall demeanor, etc.), will help in the interpretation.

2Imagine another scene with a man working on a laptop sitting on a train, embarking on a long journey cross-country. Where is he going? What is he thinking? A cutaway out the train window shows passing farmland; the next shot shows him with an overnight bag slung over his shoulder, getting off the train. Clearly, without needing to say it, using only your cutaways, you've painted a picture of a businessman going to the city. The simple cutaway of the farmland out the window eliminated your need to have him get up, grab his bag, walk down the aisle and exit the train. You compressed time with your cutaway.

Unspoken Words and the Cutaway

Use cutaways to increase tension in your scenes. You automatically raise the stakes when you shoot a harried woman with her arms full of groceries unlocking and closing the door to her house at twilight, then you follow up with a cutaway of a set of dangling keys she left behind, still in the keyhole. The audience will have no problem coming to the appropriate conclusions or assumptions.

Let's return to another passenger on our train. This one is staring out the window as the endless plains of the Midwest rush by. What is he thinking? Where is he going?3 This time, we cut away to a completely different scene, perhaps of the man and a young woman. Is the man on the train thinking about his daughter he left behind? Or is hoping to meet up with someone at the end of his destination? Again, the cutaway creates the tension and drives the audience without unnecessary storytelling dialog.

Linking Action and the Cutaway

You want to break or link action in scenes? Use cutaways. Jump people around by moving them from place to place? Cutaways. Use them for suspense or excitement, to reveal information, to smoothly join one part of the speech in a dialogue with another, to fix screen direction mistakes, even to confuse the audience. As you can see, the list can go on forever.

Remember the documentary trick of a newspaper cutaway? Television news videographers are indeed notorious in the use of cutaways. They usually grab a cutaway here and there whenever they're shooting, just in case, which editors usually love. It is unfortunate, however, that many times those cutaways are limited to shots of hands, feet or other boring items that aren't pertinent to the story, but are necessary because the videographer didn't or couldn't supply enough cover shots. Be careful not to resort to cheap cutaways, which will make you look like the newcomer on the block. A cutaway shot whose sole purpose is to mask an overt mistake reminds the audience - or especially a trained eye - that something was fixed or removed. It is a delicate balance.

Balancing Cutaways

Choose cutaway shots that truly represent what the characters are feeling or thinking about or shots of objects - anything that serves the story, not just something you can use as a Band Aid to cover cuts. This is where the art of the cutaway truly lies. You could call this the art of momentarily distracting the audience. In the end, that's what a cutaway truly is: a momentary distraction to the audience to serve the story.

This article barely scratches the surface of what cutaways can do. We urge you to fully embrace cutaways, because they're wonderful editing tools. They allow greater flexibility in editing. Experiment with them and have fun.


Eric Ossohou is a director, cinematographer and editor. He also teaches cinematography and film production.