Editing pattern – Cut on the look (Part 1)

The ‘cut on the look‘ is probably one the most natural — and common — cuts ever. Whenever a character turns his head and looks off-screen, we invariably want to know what has grabbed his attention and expect the following shot to answer that question. It seems we are never tired of that simple ‘look-what‘ sequence of shots. So let’s take a look at this editing pattern in its various forms.


Why cut on the look?

Probably owing to our instinct for survival, we seem to endlessly assess and rationalize what is happening around us so that we feel safer in our environment. Unexpected events always represent a potential threat to our understanding — and hence our security. This might explain why we develop such sensitivity to early warning signals like alarmed facial expressions and gazes. Even babies do.

Now as we watch movies, we identify with characters and unconsciously act the same way we do in real life. Characters suddenly looking off-screen trigger that fear of the unknown. We crave for a cut on the look to see what worries them in order to assess the ‘fight-or-flightness’ of the situation.

The following excerpt from Cast Away (R. Zemeckis, 2000) exacerbates that feeling of insecurity we experience watching a character look off-screen. Each time a ‘look‘ shot cuts to a ‘what‘ shot, we expect to assess the situation and cool down, but in this case, it just doesn’t happen. In fact, the more Chuck looks at the ball’s ‘face’, the more he/we feel it’s alive even though he/we know it is but a bloody volley ball. A bunch of ‘look-what‘ editing patterns is all we need to make us call into question our own rationality. How paranoid can we get?

Besides, this excerpt showcases the two main approaches to cutting on the look: Cutting to an objective vs subjective shot. The first time Chuck glances to the decorated volley ball, the ‘look‘ shot cuts to a reverse objective shot revealing the ball’s ‘face’ in the background, along with the character in the foreground. From then on, all ‘look‘ shots cut to ever closer subjective shots of the ball from the character’s viewpoint. Both approaches can be used interchangeably depending on their intended meaning. Let’s see the differences in depth.


Cutting to an objective shot

An objective shot is a shot taken from our (i.e. the audience’s) own viewpoint, as though we were freely wandering on stage and observing the action — as opposed to a subjective shot taken from the viewpoint of a specific character. There are various ways to cut on the look to an objective shot. In Goodfellas (M. Scorsese, 1990), a shot of Jimmy angrily looking off-screen cuts to a dialog shot of Henry and Morrie. Although the second shot is completely unrelated to the first one in terms of camera position (i.e. this is by no means Jimmy’s POV), it works simply because we normally expect a ‘what‘ shot to follow a ‘look‘ shot. The following excerpt from Rambo: First Blood Part II (G. Cosmatos, 1985) makes sure we recognize the ‘look-what‘ editing pattern by letting us ‘stand’ relatively close to the action plane between characters in both shots.

An important variant of this objectivelook-what‘ editing pattern is when the looking character gets integrated into of the ‘what‘ shot. Its structure looks more elaborated — at the expense of being slightly more difficult for the audience to grasp — but the framing leaves no ambiguity over who is looking at what — especially when the camera is placed onto the action plane. The big difference is that it now translates into “A looks off-screen → A looking at B” instead of “A looks off-screen → B”. This variant is being used twice in this excerpt from The Shining (S. Kubrick, 1980), when Danny looks up to figure out where the mysterious ball rolling to him came from. The ‘what‘ shot might even have a more stunning effect if it is reversed as in the following excerpt from Tropic Thunder (B. Stiller, 2008), for we can visually check both the ‘seen object’ in the foreground and the looking character’s gaze in the background.

Cutting on the look to an objective shot doesn’t always mean that we have to spin around and change the viewing axis to see what is grabbing the character’s attention. For instance, a cut-out is used to reveal what Butch is looking at in this excerpt from Pulp Fiction (Q. Tarantino, 1994). On the other hand, cutting in on the look makes this a bit trickier, as the ‘target’ is already in the frame. But with a little help from depth of field, it can be kept blurry enough so that we want to cut in and see it in full and in focus, as in Ghost (J. Zucker, 1990), when Carl glances at the clock in the background. Note: Whether the final Close Shot of the clock is an objective or a subjective shot is debatable, though. I would consider that cut-in as a way to provide us with a closer view of the clock, not as the character’s viewpoint. But the closer we get to the action plane, the less obvious the difference.


What’s up?

“The most natural cut in film is the cut on the look“, so said Godard. Indeed, watching characters look off-screen always triggers the need to know what has grabbed their attention. In part 1, we studied various objectivelook-what‘ editing patterns, getting closer and closer to the action plane.

In part 2, we will ‘stick to the plane‘ and focus on subjective shots.


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