Scaling up – Cut in (Part 1)

Cutting in is without doubt the most common technique of the ‘gang of four’ (see moving to foreground, zooming in and trucking in) to scale up a subject on screen. A cut-in is an instant zoom-in or truck-in on a subject already present in the wider shot. But how does it work, and who decides why and when to cut?


The audience decides

Very often, cut-ins are triggered as a response to our need to be closer to a subject, when we feel too far away to see clearly what’s happening. In Full Metal Jacket (S. Kubrick, 1987), Cowboy — who has been shot by a sniper — has been rushed behind a building where his squad is trying to keep him alive. But the squad has dragged the character far away from us, and after a few seconds, we feel the need to come closer and see what’s going on. That need can also be triggered by an unexpected event, as in Wanted (T. Bekmambetov , 2008), when Wesley nearly gets run over by a car as he carelessly crosses a street. The sound of screeching tires suddenly sparks off interest, immediately followed by a cut-in which provides a closer view on the character’s reaction. In both cases, the use of cut-ins is an immediate response to our need to ‘see better’, although they occur after the action has been triggered.

When an event is anticipated, a cut-in will emphasize the moment the event is triggered. For instance, at the beginning of Black Book (P. Verhoeven, 2006), the first time we see Rachel is in a classroom where she walks away from us, singing with her pupils — thus hiding her identity from us. We expect the moment she will turn around and show her face, and when she does, a cut-in comes in the nick of time to alleviate our frustration, emphasizing the presentation of the character. In Terminator 2 – Judgment Day (J. Cameron, 1991), John is hacking an ATM with a homemade electronic device. As we all wait for the money to gush from the machine, a cut-in suddenly brings out the opening, emphasizing the character’s successful action. In both cases, cut-ins occur precisely as the action is being triggered.

A side effect of this subject/action magnification is that they instantly become more important or meaningful as they cover more screen space. We are made to be more interested in a subject when it is suddenly displayed right under our noses, whether the idea of coming closer originates from us or not.


The story decides

This is especially obvious when a cut-in occurs before some unexpected action takes place, some action that only the story ‘knows about’ — as opposed to the audience. In Birdy (A. Parker, 1984), Al walks over to Birdy — who is crouching on the floor crying — to tell him he won’t abandon him once again. A cut-in suddenly draws our attention to Al’s hand about to stroke Birdy’s neck, which immediately emphasizes that unexpected expression of affection as an important element of the story. In 9½ Weeks (A. Lyne, 1986), Elizabeth is listening to messages on her answering machine. At the end of the first message, an unexpected cut-in occurs, drawing our attention to the character’s face in anticipation for her reaction to the following message from her ex-lover. In both cases, cutting in focuses our attention on the action before it actually takes place, so that we know something important is going to happen.


The character decides

Finally, cut-ins can reflect characters’ determination or direct implication in the story, in which case their sudden magnification seems to emanate from the characters themselves — as opposed to the audience. In The Hitcher (R. Harmon, 1986), after Jim escaped a Sheriff Station and walked across a desert area, he arrives within view of an isolated market where he thinks he will eventually be able to phone and get out of trouble. At first, the character is framed in Medium Long Shot (MLS), then cut in to a Medium Full Shot (MFS) as he closes his jacket, to bring out his new resolve. In For a Few Dollars More (S. Leone, 1965), a cut-in emphasizes Indio’s taking over the screen after Groggy involuntarily insulted him. But instead of cutting in on his reaction to the insult, the editor waited for the character to come up with a speech, unveiling his action plan and establishing his power. In both cases, it’s the character who ‘decides’ when to take over the screen.


What’s up?

In this short introduction to cut-ins, we went through the basics of one of the most common editing techniques. Like zooming in, trucking in and having characters move to the foreground, cutting in fulfills our need to come closer to the action and brings out the importance of a subject or an action in the story. But unlike those techniques, cut-ins take place instantly, so different meanings come up from the moment one shot is cut to a closer one. In part 2, we will compare cut-ins with the rest of the ‘gang’.


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