Alternating cut-ins and cut-outs

Cut-ins and cut-outs are definitely not limited to one-shot effects. Alternating cut-ins and cut-outs — like alternating zoom-ins and zoom-outs or alternating truck-ins and truck-outs — lend themselves very well to designing long series of shots — even entire scenes — from dialogs to action sequences.


How simple is simple?

One of the most simple — but effective — editing of a scene is an alternation of only two shots: one master shot and a closer shot following one character or subject in the same axis. In Raiders of the Lost Ark (S. Spielberg, 1981), the scene where Indiana and Marion defend themselves against a group of Arab henchmen has been (mostly) edited that way. This ‘basic’ layout makes it easy to follow chaotic action simply because neither the staging nor the camera viewpoint apparently changes from shot to shot. The master shot is then mostly used to introduce and deploy torrents of new characters in the frame whereas cut-ins draw our attention to the most interesting ‘one-on-ones’. Now this simple layout is not limited to following one subject only, as in Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Q. Tarantino, 2003), when O-Ren and ‘the Bride’ face each other in a western-like duel. Despite the tremendous shift in shot scale between the master and the closer shots, both characters are easy to identify in their respective one-shot for neither the staging nor the camera viewpoint apparently changes. To sum things up, alternating one master shot and cut-ins makes it easy to understand the action when it becomes difficult to read.

Taking advantage of perspective and depth of field, a master shot might even not be necessary. This scene from Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008) begins with a game of ping-pong between a two-shot of Payne and Colvin (out of focus) and a one-shot of Colvin; No need for a master shot. More importantly, our relationship with Colvin evolves as he steps closer to the camera, thus changing the scale of the shot (read more in Have subjects come to the foreground). In Young Sherlock Holmes (B. Levinson, 1985), instead of letting the characters walk towards the camera, three different shot scales have been edited together from the same viewpoint, so that we feel closer to the characters as they commit more deeply to each other. Amazing how in both examples, alternating different shot scales from the same viewpoint can turn a simple dialog into a highly legible emotional choreography.


Emotional choreography

Let me dwell on that concept of ’emotional choreography’. In Black Book (P. Verhoeven, 2006), the scene where Müntze is put in front of a firing squad begins with an alternation of cut-ins and cut-outs. This layout is not meant to make the action more legible — the action is crystal clear in every shot actually. It’s meant to echo both the character’s and the audience’s feelings. It’s an ’emotional choreography’ where the camera pushes in to probe the character’s emotions and pulls out to reveal the context. Idem with this scene from Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008), where two takes from the same viewpoint have been intercut to alternatively emphasize the action and the character’s emotions. This layout is deceptively simple, as the character keeps moving towards the camera, which constantly changes the scale of the shots — more and more ‘mental’, less and less ‘physical’. This is ’emotional choreography’.

Here is a scene from Highlander (R. Mulcahy, 1986) entirely made of cut-ins and cut-outs, and edited as an emotional choreography. Here is the plot: Connor has followed Brenda to a bar. She doesn’t know him yet and thinks he is a stalker. After a brief exchange of views, she walks away. Ok, the full panoply of cut-in/cut-out effects have been brought into play here — even nested cut-ins. They bring us closer to and farther away from the characters in sync with the tension of the scene, especially the dialog. This breakdown is clearly not meant to make the action more legible, it’s meant to be in phase with characters’ emotions. In short, presenting a series of shots all (apparently) taken from the same viewpoint makes it easy to relate characters both to each other and the environment, which allows the audience to plunge more deeply into the complexity of characters’ emotions as they evolve.


Design bias

Alternating cut-ins and cut-outs comes in handy when dealing with highly designed sequences that obfuscate the action. In Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Q. Tarantino, 2003), the epic battle between ‘the Bride’ and the ‘Crazy 88’ takes numerous forms, one of them being a sword fight silhouetted against a night-blue background looking like a music video clip. This radical lighting let the stunt double of the actress execute a whole fight sequence (longer than the short excerpt presented here) without resorting to odd attitudes meant to conceal her face from the audience. As a result, the action inevitably looks more confusing on screen. Countermeasure: a master-shot-and-cut-ins breakdown which makes it easier to read the action and allows the audience to keep track of the characters. In Birdy (A. Parker, 1984), the scene where Al and ‘Birdy’ buy a car wreck has been designed so that we can’t hear what the characters say. Concealing characters’ speech is a sure way to obfuscate the action. Countermeasure: edited as an alternation of cut-ins and cut-outs, the action has the look and feel of a mime show; It becomes humorous and surprisingly easy to read.

So much for confusing actions, now for some emotional-choreography design. Who said that alternating cut-ins and cut-outs had to be transparent to the audience? In Trainspotting (D. Boyle, 1996), the scene where Spud — a drug addict — applies for a job is mostly edited as a random emotional choreography of cut-ins and cut-outs from the employers’ viewpoint. This breakdown is turned into a conspicuous emotional choreography humorously bringing out the character’s mental state.


Is cutting always suitable?

Basing a scene on cut-ins and cut-outs is not the only way to vary shot scale while maintaining the camera along the same axis. In Underworld (L. Wiseman, 2003), the scene where Selene finds the trail of the Lycan she has shot in the shoulder a moment before is an ’emotional choreography’ entirely based on cut-ins and cut-outs — including nested cut-ins. By contrast, this sequence shot from Four Minutes (C. Kraus, 2006) resorts neither to cut-ins nor cut-outs but to a lateral dolly, slow zoom-in and focus pulling to achieve a masterful emotional choreography without changing the view axis. Cuts — whatever their types — are not always suitable to all situations, especially when the audience is to react quietly and smoothly to the action. So although alternating cut-ins and cut-outs is definitely a very efficient way to achieve this kind of effect, it’s not always the way to go.


What’s up?

Basing a scene on cut-ins and cut-outs makes it easy to figure out what’s going on on screen, which makes it a weapon of choice when dealing with confusing action. What that means is that action can be deliberately obfuscated by resorting to this kind of breakdown as a countermeasure. Alternating cut-ins and cut-outs also comes in handy when the audience is to focus deeply on characters’ emotions, but it’s definitely not the only way to go.


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