Editing – Alternatives to the ‘cut on the look’ (Part 2)

Moving the camera or characters is not the only alternative to cutting on the look. There are plenty of other creative ways to draw the audience’s attention from the looking character to what he is looking at — and vice versa — in one shot, without the need to cut, from pulling focus to using reflections and more. But the key question is: Do we really need to cut on the look?


Depth of field

Using shallow depth of field is a very efficient way to separate the looking character from what he is looking at (i.e. the ‘what‘) in one shot. By pulling focus, you can draw the audience’s attention to either one or the other without the need to cut, as demonstrated by the following excerpts from Three Days of the Condor (S. Pollack, 1975) and Die Hard (J. McTiernan, 1988). Read more in the focus series.

As a side note, you might even want to keep one of the subjects blurry, depending on the story and the effect you want to achieve. In Lenny (B. Fosse, 1974), the nurse returning to the background is kept out of focus — even when Lenny glances at her — to emphasize her grip on the character. Much more evocative than a mere cut on the look in this case.


Reflections and displays

Another great substitute to cutting on the look is to include the ‘what‘ into the ‘look‘ shot — or vice versa — using reflective surfaces (e.g. a window) or displays (e.g. a monitoring screen). The following examples from The Silence of the Lambs (J. Demme, 1991) and The War of the Worlds (S. Spielberg, 2005) show this technique in action. Read more in Subframes – Mirrors and Subframes – Screens.


Let them look back

A similar approach is when the looking character herself looks at a subject in a mirror. The audience can alternate between the looking character facing them and the subject in the background — no need to cut on the look — as demonstrated by this excerpt from Thelma & Louise (R. Scott, 1991). In case there is no significant reaction to expect from the looking character, he could even momentarily turn around before returning back in position, as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (S. Spielberg, 1977), without cutting in to what he looks at.


Keep it secret

As we saw in Cut on the look (Part 3), a more drastic approach is to prevent the audience from seeing either the looking character or what he is looking at, keeping its appearance secret. In The Graduate (M. Nichols, 1967), we are prevented from seeing the hotel room the character has stepped in, despite his numerous glances offscreen. We are made to focus on the looking character’s feelings — no need to cave into a predictable cut on the look. Now the opposite: In Silver Bullet (D. Attias, 1985), we can only see through the looking character’s eyes — no reverse cut on the look here. His appearance is deliberately kept secret — only hints are given away (e.g. his breathing, the back of his hand). Admittedly, those techniques are not appropriate for all kinds of movies.


Or simply refrain from cutting too often

As efficient as they may be, editing patterns shouldn’t prevail over creativity and good storytelling. Just because cutting on the look is common place in movies doesn’t mean that you have to do it whenever a character glances offscreen. Keep in mind that the rhythm of the cuts is utterly important in conveying the pace of a scene. In Birdy (A. Parker, 1984), we stay a little more time than usual with each character. They are about to begin a friendship, it has to be soothing. Listening to the offscreen character while staying by the other’s side is clearly more sound than cutting on the look every time they glance to each other. You could even be more selective over when to cut on the look, by not cutting at all, as in My Name is Nobody (T. Valerii, 1973). Focusing exclusively on Nobody’s face is key to building up the tension of the scene. Hints of his the saloon door, the basket or the crook’s face are more than enough to figure out what is going on.


What’s up?

Beyond character and camera moves, many effects can prove to be efficient alternatives to the cut on the look editing pattern. Shallow depth of field or mirrors provide enough control over what the audience is looking at to avoid overcutting. Hiding the appearance of the looking character or what he is looking at from the audience might be an option, but the truth is that you don’t always need to cut on the look every time a character looks offscreen. In the end, it’s all about story and style.


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