Editing pattern – Nested cut-ins (Part 1)

Getting closer to a subject doesn’t mean that we have to do it in one go. When action is static, or emotions need time to build up, a step-by-step approach allows the audience to gradually sneak into a scene. This is when successive or ‘nested’ cut-ins come in handy. When action gets tense or even hectic, the pace of cut-ins can be sped up accordingly for a totally different effect.


Getting closer in stages

In Little Big Man (A. Penn, 1970), Jack watches Sunshine giving birth on her own on the bank of a river while the 7th Cavalry is slaughtering her camp. Cutting in on Jack’s face is done in two phases, separated by a shot of the troopers. Cutting in might not even be needed if other shots are inserted between the steps, as in Dances with Wolves (K. Costner, 1990), when Dunbar wants to shoot at a pitiful lone wolf. The three steps it takes for Dunbar to feel closer to the animal are alternated with shots showing his own successive reactions. In both cases, getting closer is done on a step-by-step basis to change the way the audience gauges the characters without rushing them.


Nested cut-ins

Now if we discard those divider shots, we end up with a series of nested cut-ins without any other visual distractions. Cutting -in in gradual steps makes the audience more interested in a subject as they get closer and closer. This technique is commonly used to introduce a new scene, as in The Avengers: Game (R. Fuest, 1968), where we venture closer and closer to Dexter’s dead body on a swing. Introducing the scene through nested cut-ins makes us feel as though we were sneaking into the park. At the beginning of Seven Samurai (A. Kurosawa, 1954), the same effect is used to introduce a scene where peasants in distress — harassed by a gang of marauding bandits — have gathered at the center of a village to reach a decision. Transitioning from a Long Shot to a Medium Full Shot of the assembly is done in multiple steps, making again for a sneaky introduction.

Various kinds of scenes can benefit from nested cut-ins. For example, a dialog scene from Se7en (D. Fincher, 1995) shows Detectives Mills and Somerset having a conflicting chat in a hallway as they wait for fingerprints to be analyzed. In this case, nested cut-ins have us more and more interested in Somerset’s point, straightening the edges of an otherwise slow and static scene. The same approach is used in Raiders of the Lost Ark (S. Spielberg, 1981) to make us more and more involved in Indy’s investigations in the map room, when the character reveals hidden markings carved in a stone.


A pattern is born

As long as action is slow enough, the audience won’t notice those nested cut-ins. But when things get tense and tempo speeds up, the editing pattern becomes more obvious. In Terminator 2 – Judgment Day (J. Cameron, 1991), after the T-1000 enters the name of his target in the inboard computer of a police car, two consecutive cut-ins have us read John Connor’s criminal record and eventually his address from the cyborg’s POV. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (S. Spielberg, 1984), the team manages to escape a trap, which is supported by two consecutive cut-ins ending on Jones’ hand fetching his hat. In both cases, what prevents the audience from feeling the effect as a pattern is that the subjects evolve from shot to shot (i.e. each shot is dedicated to a specific state of those subjects). As we will shortly see, this effect will be much more conspicuous at a quick pace with static subjects.


What’s up?

‘Getting closer’ can be done in more than one step, letting subjects take the time they need to reveal themselves and the audience adapt accordingly. Conversely, series of nested cut-ins can be used at a quicker pace to involve the audience in tense scenes, in particular when they are to focus on smaller and smaller details. But our editing pattern will show its full worth with the Russian doll effect we will study in part 2.


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