Editing pattern – Three ways to cut on the look and back (Part 1)

Cutting on the look from a looking character to whatever-is-drawing-his-attention is great, but the story doesn’t end there. Once we have figured out the situation, we (very) often want to cut back to the character and see him reacting. Let’s take a look at the three main editing patterns designed for that purpose.


Editing patterns #1- Back to same shot scale

So here’s the big picture: A shot of a character looking off-screen (i.e. a ‘look‘ shot) cuts to a shot of what has grabbed his attention (i.e. a ‘what‘ shot). So far so good, but now we want to see the character’s reaction. The easiest way to do that is merely to treat the ‘what‘ shot as an insert and return to the original ‘look‘ shot.

This basic approach is mostly used:

1- When the ‘what‘ shot doesn’t provide a meaningful answer to the character, as in Cliffhanger (R. Harlin, 1993) or Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997).

2- When the ‘what‘ shot provides a meaningful answer that doesn’t affect the character to the point of dramatically changing his mindset, as in the following excerpts from Raiders of the Lost Ark (S. Spielberg, 1981) and The Matrix (A. & L. Wachowski, 1999).

3- When the ‘what‘ shot raises more questions than answers, as in Mad Max 2 – The Road Warrior (G. Miller, 1981) and No Country for Old Men (J. & E. Coen, 2007).


Editing patterns #2- Back to closer shot scale

Before studying this editing pattern, let’s take a look at what could be called an intermediate level: cutting back to the original ‘look‘ shot, then scaling up the looking character. For example, in Little Big Man (A. Penn, 1970), the ‘what‘ shot does cut back to the original shot of the looking character, but then the latter moves towards the camera to show off his growing anxiety (read more in Scaling up – Have subjects come to the foreground). A similar effect can be achieved by moving the camera towards the character after returning to the original ‘look‘ shot, as in The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring (P. Jackson, 2001) (read more in Scaling up – Zoom in and Scaling up – Truck in).

Now instead of cutting to the original ‘look‘ shot and slowly scaling the looking character up, we could cut straight to a closer shot of him and get an instant emotional reaction. This editing pattern has the look and feel of a cut-in and is especially useful when the looking character is trying to hide his emotions: the closer shot conveys his true feelings. In Love Actually (R. Curtis, 2003), cutting straight to a closer shot of the looking character after a ‘what‘ shot subtly brings out the impact of the latter on the former. In Young Sherlock Holmes (B. Levinson, 1985), this effect is used twice in succession, pushing the audience closer and closer to the looking character after each ‘what‘ shot, like nested cut-ins. In both cases, resorting to character or camera moves would ruin the subtle feeling of intimacy provided by this technique.

Many of the effects we studied in the ‘scaling up’ series work hand in hand with this technique. For example, cutting back to a closer shot of the looking character can be used to bring out contradictory feelings, from fear and resentment as in Black Book (P. Verhoeven, 2006), when Müntze is put in front of a firing squad, to malice and malignancy as in Die Hard (J. McTiernan, 1988), when Gruber — a terrorist impersonating an employee — takes over the screen as he realizes that McClane — a cop — doesn’t know who he is. This editing pattern depicts a more ‘mental’ side of the character after the ‘what‘ shot, although for completely opposite reasons here (i.e. weakness vs strength).


What’s up?

Among all the possible ways to go back to the looking character after a cut on the look, three are really common place in movies depending on the story. Returning to the original ‘look‘ shot makes sense when the character hasn’t been affected too much by the ‘what‘ shot. Cutting to a closer shot of the looking character emphasizes the emotional impact the ‘what‘ shot, even if the character keeps his feelings to himself.

The third editing pattern will be covered in part 2, and we will see that all those techniques put together can make for rich emotional choreographies.


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