Scaling down – Cut out (Part 1)

Like cut-ins, cut-outs are ubiquitous in movies, to say the least. A cut-out is nothing but an instant truck-out or zoom-out, transitioning from one shot to a wider shot along the same axis. The action then appears scaled down in a broader frame. But how does this technique relate to good storytelling?


Exposing context

Like zoom-outs and truck-outs, cut-outs are very often used to reveal characters’ environment in an attractive way, by focusing on characters first, then — and only then — showing the environment around them in a wider shot. In fact, starting a new scene with a character shot piques the audience’s interest and automatically creates a need for a wider shot, as in Young Sherlock Holmes (B. Levinson, 1985), when a man — posing as an Egyptian clerk — walks down stairs in Medium Full Shot. Only when a cut-out occurs are we allowed to see that the character is inside the pyramid, preparing for a human sacrifice. Likewise, in Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008), we see BB rushing through a door, then a cut-out reveals the empty helipad, which brings out that the character has been framed.

So cut-outs allow us to discover the environment without losing sight of the characters. This is especially interesting when characters themselves are discovering their own environment, as in Resident Evil: Extinction (R. Mulcahy, 2007), when LJ is checking out the dark corridors of a deserted motel, or in The Shining (S. Kubrick, 1980), when we see Wendy trying to escape from the Overlook hotel. In addition, the characters appear scaled down in the wider shot, which brings out the pressure exerted on them by their environment.


Exposing action

Cut-outs can also be used to reveal a character’s action. Usually, the closer shot conveys the character’s intentions, the wider shot displays the ensuing action, transitioning from a mental to a more physical shot scale. In A Nightmare on Elm Street (W. Craven, 1984), a Close Shot (mental) of Tina shows her intention to walk, then a Medium Full Shot (physical) shows her starting to move. An extreme case of this technique comes with The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring (P. Jackson, 2001), when a Close Shot of Legolas shows his deciding to take action, immediately followed by a Mid Shot of his shooting an arrow, all that in only 1.5 second.

Cut-outs are often used to reveal broad movements, the same way they reveal context. In The Abyss (J. Cameron, 1989), ‘Hippy’ leaps forwards to fetch his rat floating on the water. A Medium Close Shot of Hippy cuts out to a shot just wide enough to encompass both the character and his business (the rat) in the foreground. Note: A cut-away of a submarine module has been trimmed off for the sake of clarity. In Full Metal Jacket (S. Kubrick, 1987), a Mid Shot of ‘Cowboy’ — visibly up to something — cuts out to a Full Shot as we realize he is actually leading a group of soldiers.

Cut-outs are naturally triggered when a character in Close Shot suddenly makes a sharp move and/or slips out of frame. We unconsciously call for a wider shot in order to keep up with the action. In Terminator 2 – Judgment Day (J. Cameron, 1991), John Connor triggers a cut-out as he suddenly jumps off the hood of a car and moves out of frame. In Birdy (A. Parker, 1984), a series of Close Shots of ‘Birdy’ and Al cut out to a wider shot as the characters manage to ignite the car they have bucked up, for the action becomes too hectic to fit in a Close Shot.

In fact, cutting out is also a way to ease the high tension provided by Close Shots. In Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997), tension has insidiously built up between Ellie and Palmer, so a cut-out is welcome when both characters turn to their cell phones and disengage with each other, giving a bit of fresh air to their conflicting relationship. In Terminator 2 – Judgment Day (J. Cameron, 1991), look how a cut-out cleverly emphasizes the pause occurring in the middle of a gunfight as the T-1000 reloads its pistol. Such cut-outs give some rest to the audience and a kind of breath to the action.


What’s up?

Cut-outs have a lot of different uses, from revealing context to exposing action while keeping the audience focused on characters. Those characters often trigger cut-outs by starting to move or exiting the frame, creating a need for a broader view on the action. By widening the screen, cut-outs can also offer a moment of rest to the audience when the action is tense or hectic.

In part 2, we will see how cut-outs can reveal characters, create space or amplify the action.


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