Editing – The parallel-axis cut
If ‘taking a closer look’ is often associated with cut-ins, then ‘closely examining’ is the realm of parallel-axis cuts. Presented in succession, shots of different parts of a subject sharing the same viewing axis always make the audience feel they are scrutinizing that subject. Furthermore, this technique can be used to catch up or separate moving characters.
Editing shots that share roughly the same scale and viewing axis is like putting the camera into an ‘elevator’ and taking it up or down a subject — even sideways. The audience inevitably feels they are scanning that subject, especially when it remains relatively still. This is precisely what happens in Titanic (J. Cameron, 1997), when Rose demonstrates that she can stand on tiptoes like a ballerina. The crowd is scrutinizing the character from head to toes, and so are we. Cutting from a shot of her feet to a shot of her face — both sharing (roughly) the same scale and viewing axis makes it clear that we are watching different parts of the same character.
It is important to note that whenever we are presented with successive shots of different parts of a subject — all sharing approximately the same scale and viewing axis — we feel as though we were scrutinizing that subject from our own view point, not through the eyes of any character who may be watching it too. For instance, in Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides (R. Marshall, 2011), as Angelica and her crew watch Blackbeard taking over her ship, a parallel-axis cut is used to transition from the pirate’s face to the action of his hand on his sword. Same in Mad Max 2 – The Road Warrior (G. Miller, 1981), as Max rescues Nathan who has been injured, carrying him over his shoulder back to his tribe. Two parallel-axis cuts transition from Max’s upper body to Nathan and back. In both cases, the main character is being watched by many others, but keeping roughly the same scale and viewing axis ensures that we see the action objectively (i.e. from own view point), not subjectively (i.e. from some character’s view point).
Parallel-axis cuts with multiple subjects make it even clearer that we are scanning the action from our own view point. In Jurassic Park (S. Spielberg, 1993), a series of parallel-axis cuts lets us freely examine Grant’s, Sattler’s and Hammond’s grandchildren’s reactions as they expect to see a Dilophosaurus. In Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Q. Tarantino, 2003), a series of parallel-axis cuts let us examine O-Ren and ‘the Bride’ in turn as they speak to each other, playing with shot scale like nested cut-ins. In both cases, keeping the same viewing axis lets us browse characters’ faces or features at our convenience from an objective and mobile view point.
Catching up and anticipating
All this is fine when observing relatively static subjects, but how about moving subjects? Well parallel-axis cuts can also prove useful for catching up with subjects as they exit the frame from one static stance to another. Keeping the same scale and viewing axis makes it clear that we are watching the same character in both shots — only slightly shifted in space — as our perspective doesn’t change much from shot to shot. Plus our emotional involvement remains unchanged (i.e. neither closer nor farther from the character). For example, when Scottie slips from a tiled roof and hangs on to the gutter at the beginning of Vertigo (A. Hitchcock, 1958), a parallel-axis cut allows us to instantly catch up with the character as he slips out of frame. Note that we meet up with the character ‘one floor below’, which conveys a sense of height (an important point in this case).
This technique is frequently used to anticipate characters’ moves as in Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008), when ‘the Kid’ falls down on subway tracks, or when Max Payne stands up with a pump-action shotgun. In both cases, a character exits the frame and enters an empty one, triggered by a parallel-axis cut. It looks as though we knew exactly where he would end up and were waiting for him to show up. Because neither the scale nor the viewing axis changes from shot to shot, we know we are watching the same character at one-storey move from his previous location.
Parallel-axis cuts have a very interesting side effect when dealing with two characters at different heights (e.g. one standing character and one sitting or reclining). They allow for a clear separation of those characters while keeping the action easy to read (i.e. same viewing axis). This is the case in Underworld (L. Wiseman, 2003), when Selena catches up with a Lycan she had injured, or in The Hitcher (R. Harmon, 1986), when Jim Halsey disarms an unconscious Ryder. In both cases, a parallel-axis cut is used to enclose both characters separately within two hierarchical spaces while maintaining the same viewing axis.
Nested parallel-axis cuts
Like cut-ins and cut-outs, parallel-axis cuts can be nested for unique storytelling effects, as in The Usual Suspects (B. Singer, 1995), when Verbal Kint tells the tale of Keyser Söze. The camera gets lower and lower with each cut — successively framing the character’s head, arm, and hand — and making the fire in the background the symbol of Söze’s revenge (read more in Focus – Pointing vs Concealing).
Editing together shots of different parts of a subject along the same viewing axis makes the audience feel they are freely scrutinizing that subject. Parallel-axis cuts can also be used to catch up with moving subjects ahead of time, as though we were anticipating their moves, or to separate them in different spaces, while maintaining the same perspective on the action. This technique lends itself very well to strongly designed effects like nested parallel-axis cuts.
Now is the time to tackle the 30-degree rule and start moving the camera around characters.
- Scaling up – Cut in
- Editing pattern – Nested cut-ins
- Editing pattern – Nested cut-outs
- Focus – Pointing vs Concealing