Editing pattern – Reverse cut on the look

So far, we have studied the cut on the look for all it’s worth. But equally important is the ‘reverse cut on the lookediting pattern. Cutting from the looking character to what is grabbing his attention is merely done in reverse: The ‘what’ is displayed just before we see the character looking at it — which means the audience is aware of the ‘what’ before or at the same time as the character. Illogical? Let’s see…


Including the looking character into the ‘what‘ shot

Let’s start off with a simple version of this editing pattern. We are presented with a relatively wide shot featuring both the looking character and what he is starting to look at (i.e. the ‘what‘) in the same frame, then cut to a closer shot of the character’s face to better see his reaction. In that case, we become aware of the ‘what‘ along with the character and keep in sync with his emotions. This is the way the two following excerpts from For a Few Dollars More (S. Leone, 1965) and Full Metal Jacket (S. Kubrick, 1987) have been edited.

But the real meat of this editing pattern is when we become aware of the ‘whata few seconds before it grabs the character’s attention. As we can see both the ‘what‘ and the character in the same frame, we are put in a position where we can anticipate the effect of the former on the latter. In the two following examples from The Matrix (A. & L. Wachowski, 1999) and Godzilla (R. Emmerich, 1998), we are presented with the problem the character is going to face a few seconds before he knows it. But because we can see both the ‘what‘ and the unaware character in the same frame, we experience the effect the character is about to feel, so when we watch him looking at the ‘what‘ in a subsequent reverse shot, only his reaction matters — like an echo of our own.


Separating the ‘what‘ from the looking character

Let’s move on to the hardcore ‘reverse cut on the look‘, where the looking character is not part of the ‘what‘ shot anymore. The audience is now unexpectedly exposed to a surprising event in one shot (no looking character), then knowingly turns to the looking character in a separate shot. The two following excerpts from Fast and Furious (R. Cohen, 2001) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (S. Spielberg, 1981) showcase this storytelling technique. Note: If the first shot is completely unexpected, it might be necessary to repeat the editing pattern several times to overcome its surprising effect on the audience — as is the case in both examples.

A very effective way to separate the ‘what‘ from the looking character’s reaction is to show the ‘what‘ through the eyes of the character himself. By using a subjective shot to present the ‘what‘, the audience is put in the looking character’s shoes, which naturally holds his reaction to the second shot (unless there’s some kind of mirror reflecting his face in the first shot). The following examples from Love Actually (R. Curtis, 2003) and Terminator 2 – Judgment Day (J. Cameron, 1991) use such subjective introductory shot before showing us the character’s reaction. Note how, in the second excerpt, a symbolic shot has been inserted between the ‘what‘ shot and the ‘look‘ shot — almost impossible to do with a regular ‘cut on the look‘.

Displaying the ‘what‘ separately from the looking character is also a great way to start a new scene, by exposing the audience to some unexpected event in some unexpected context (i.e. completely unrelated to the previous scene), then cutting to the looking character which reveals the context. For instance, in Thelma & Louise (R. Scott, 1991), we are presented with an unexpected shot of JD by the road, which takes on a whole new significance when we see the girls looking offscreen in the next shot. In Stargate (R. Emmerich, 1994), when Skaara offers some food to O’Neil, an intriguing ‘what‘ shot of an opening chest starts the next scene, but only when we see the looking character’s face do we understand that we are back into the pyramid with Ra.


Including the ‘what‘ into the ‘look‘ shot

Finally, we could slightly change this editing pattern so that both the ‘what‘ and the looking character become part of the second shot. This way, we still are exposed to an intriguing ‘what‘ shot before we can see the looking character dealing with it — as opposed to only witnessing his bare reaction in an exclusive shot, as in the two following excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (S. Spielberg, 1977). Note: Actually, the second excerpt is a mix of several techniques we have come across. The ‘what‘ shot of the mountain of clay is subjective, used as an intriguing separator between two scenes (i.e. the looking character reveals the context) and shows the character dealing with the ‘what‘.

Speaking of the ‘reverse cut on the look‘ as a scene separator, showing the ‘what‘ before the looking character’s face is also a very efficient way to bind two linked actions or scenes together. Most of the time, this takes place in the form of an ‘hourglass’ pattern: The last shot of a scene cuts to a much closer ‘what‘ shot starting the new scene, which opens to a wider ‘look‘ shot. Here are two examples of this. In Cliffhanger (R. Harlin, 1993), after we hear Gabe telling Jessie about a ticking time bomb, an intriguing Extreme Close Shot of a wristwatch precedes a wider shot of the looking character (the bomber), binding both scenes together semantically. In Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008), when B.B. tries to reach Nicole Horne by phone, we are presented with an Extreme Close Shot of a mobile phone (the ‘what‘ shot) before seeing its owner’s face (the ‘look‘ shot), which effectively links both scenes together. Note: Logical scene connections will be covered in depth in an upcoming article.


What’s up?

Showing the looking character after what grabs his attention (i.e. ‘reverse cut on the look‘) might seem counterintuitive, but it has a whole lot of great uses in movie storytelling, different from those provided by the ‘cut on the look‘. For one thing, the audience reads the story before (or in sync with) the character. Besides, it can be used to cleverly separate or bind scenes together. This editing pattern also proves very flexible, allowing to include both the ‘what‘ and the looking character in either shots, even adding an insert in-between.

In next article, we will see plenty of alternatives to cutting on/to the look.


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