Editing pattern – Cut on the look (Part 2)

Cutting on the look to a subjective shot might be the most straightforward answer to the question: “What is that character looking at?”, as we do it through his eyes. Not only do we fully identify with the looking character, but we can also focus on the ‘what‘ without worrying about anything else. So far so good, but how do we recognize a shot as a subjective shot from the looking character’s viewpoint?


Cutting to a subjective shot

In part 1, we already saw the effect of cutting on the look to a subjective shot. By default, the audience will always interpret a ‘what‘ shot as a subjective shot, as demonstrated by the following excerpt from Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997), unless they are proved wrong by typical objective composition elements.

Now there are a number of ways to put the audience even deeper in the shoes of the looking character. If he happens to be separated from his subject by a subframe (e.g. a keyhole, googles), an overlay (e.g. smoke, a window pane) or an obstacle (e.g. a grid), you might want to use that as the foreground of the subjectivewhat‘ shot to improve its immersion effect, as in the following examples from Mad Max 2 – The Road Warrior (G. Miller, 1981) and Die Hard (J. McTiernan, 1988). Just beware that it could detract from the intended meaning of the shot, depending on the context and style of the narrative.


In sync with character moves

Trucking – To increase the feeling of immersion of a subjectivewhat‘ shot, you could also move the camera in sync with the looking character’s motion, as in the following excerpts from Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008) and Subway (L. Besson, 1985). Obviously, the height and speed of the camera should conform to that of the looking character’s head for the effect to work smoothly.

Panning – You could also pan the camera to mimic the rotational motion of the looking character’s head. The height and rotation speed of the camera should more or less conform to that of the character, as in the following excerpts from Gandhi (R. Attenborough, 1982) and Cliffhanger (R. Harlin, 1993). Note how the perfect horizontality of the ‘what‘ shot from the first example doesn’t reflect the head tilt of the looking character, and how in the second example it occurs after the character has already turned his head. Isn’t the ‘look-what‘ editing pattern pliable?

Zooming – Finally, you could even zoom-in to mimic a character’s looking closer to his subject, either by physically moving his head forwards as in Sleepy Hollow (T. Burton, 1999) or mentally focusing on the subject as in Basic Instinct (P. Verhoeven, 1992) — although our eyes are obviously unable to zoom-in in real life. Again, the ‘look-what‘ editing pattern is very pliable.


Multiple viewpoints

In fact, we can even take advantage of the versatility of a subjectivewhat‘ shot to represent multiple characters’ viewpoints at the same time. In Cliffhanger (R. Harlin, 1993), more than one character enter the frame and look at the funky snowman and the money container at its feet, and it is hard to tell which of them the subjective shot belongs to. As usual, the audience won’t care about those details, as long as the ‘what‘ shot fulfills their need to know what the characters are looking at.


What’s up?

No wonder why subjective shots are so commonly used as ‘what‘ shots after cutting on the look. The audience tends to expect subjective shots to show up after ‘look‘ shots by default, and their immersion effect can be enhanced by using foregrounds and camera movements mimicking the looking character’s motion.

Now if you thought we were done with ‘look-what‘ editing pattern, you will be surprised when you learn about all the tricks that can be used to cheat on the audience’s expectations in part 3.


Recommended reading


Recommended watching