Editing pattern – Cut on the look (Part 3)

Although the cut on the look — either objective or subjective — is already a very efficient technique as such, it is still possible to increase its effect with simple tricks. Let’s ‘look-what‘ we’ve got here.


Increasing the audience’s need to know

One of the simplest ways to improve the stressing effect of the ‘look-what‘ editing pattern is not to fully disclose the ‘what‘ too soon. Withholding information is always a great way to increase the audience’s attention. For example, it takes some time before we clearly see who Alex’s “very special visitor” is in A Clockwork Orange (S. Kubrick, 1971). In Cliffhanger (R. Harlin, 1993), Gabe looking around in Close Shot cuts to a wider shot that only partly reveals the reason why he is looking so concerned, until Jessie shows up and the camera pans up — and lets the cat out of the bag.

Another very efficient way to build up tension is to disclose the ‘what‘ in several shots, alternating between the looking character and closer and closer shots of the ‘target’. For instance, characters could do a double take to emphasize the importance of the ‘target’, as in No Country for Old Men (J. & E. Coen, 2007) or The Departed (M. Scorsese, 2006).

Returning to the two first examples, an important outcome is also that the more people that look off-screen simultaneously, the more enticed we are to look at what has grabbed their attention. And tension builds up even more when those characters are displayed sequentially like a chain reaction, as in Underworld (L. Wiseman, 2003). Putting it all together, the ‘chain-reaction’ and ‘double-take’ techniques can happily let the audience’s frustration reach breaking point by repeating the ‘look-what‘ editing pattern over and over again, as in the following excerpt from Gandhi (R. Attenborough, 1982). All these storytelling techniques are intended to serve one purpose: To withhold the ‘what‘ as long as possible.


Playing with the code

The audience is so used to the ‘look-what‘ editing pattern that they love to be taken for a ride once in a while. For instance, in Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997), the shot of Ellie looking off-screen cuts to what looks like a subjectivewhat‘ shot at first sight. Only when the character enters the frame do we realize that the shot is actually an objective shot — which turns to be the first part of a more elaborated shot.

Turning a ‘what‘ shot the audience expects to be subjective into an objective shot is a smart way to transition to a new scene. In My Name is Nobody (T. Valerii, 1973), the ‘what‘ shot we first think is Jack Beauregard’s subjective viewpoint through a window actually is an objective shot starting a new scene — although the character does witness the action from where he stands, only not from that viewpoint. The plunging view over the hedge maze in The Shining (S. Kubrick, 1980) is even more ambiguous, as we soon realize that it’s a shot of the actual maze instead of what we thought was Jack’s subjective viewpoint on a model.


How about not cutting to a ‘what‘ shot?

Probably the most spectacular way of withholding the ‘what‘ probably is not to cut on the look at all and prevent the audience from seeing what they are craving for. In the TV series episode The Avengers: Thingumajig (L. Norman, 1969), we are prevented from seeing the character’s noisy aggressor by cutting to a reaction shot of his fellows somewhere nearby. Then it’s too late… In the TV series episode The Wild Wild West: The Night of the Headless Woman (A. Crosland Jr., 1968), the shot of the two characters welcoming West in their own way doesn’t cut to the expected ‘what‘ shot. Instead, the insistent ‘look‘ shot freezes to a cartoony snapshot and turns into a teaser. As stunning as they can be, those storytelling techniques are obviously not suitable for all kinds of movie styles.


What’s up?

In the last part of this article, we saw how we could let tension build up in ‘look-what‘ editing patterns by playing with the ‘look‘ part (e.g. more looking characters, ‘chain-reaction’ shot), with the ‘what‘ part (e.g. not disclosing it too soon, let characters do a double take) or both. The audience is so used to the pattern that they love it when misleading subjective shots act as transitions between scenes, or even when they are deliberately prevented from seeing what they are craving for — at least to some extent.

In next article, we will explore four different ways to getting back to the looking character after a cut on the look.


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