The Art of the Cutaway

Writer
Fact-checked by David Mercado
Editor
Updated on: May 15, 2023

Lights, camera, action! As you plan your videos' scenes and dialogues, include cutaways in your shot list. Shooting seamless and well-planned cutaways can add depth and dimension to your story and save you time in the editing room!

Cutaways are shots of something related to the main action of a scene but outside of it. They cut away from the main action to a separate or secondary action. Understanding cutaways can elevate this classic television technique to an art form. 

Continuity and cutaways

We use cutaways to maintain continuity. It is essential in filmmaking or videography to maintain believable and temporal relationships within a scene. 

Continuity editing, also known as cutting to continuity, is a term that refers to the actual arrangement of shots to produce a scene in which time and space seem uninterrupted, creating the illusion of reality. 

Moreover, cutaways can solve continuity problems such as jump cuts. 

Example: If a shot of a nurse sitting cuts to a shot of the same nurse standing in the same spot, without showing exactly how she got to that position, a cutaway of a clock in the room can smooth out the cut. The audience will fill in the gap by assuming the woman had plenty of time to reach the standing position.

Note: The general rule of continuity is constantly changing the size and angle of shots to allow them to cut together smoothly.

Cutaways as a time machine

We can use cutaways to compress time, adding detail and meaning to a scene. 

Example: A cutaway out of a train window showing passing farmland, followed by a shot of a young woman with an overnight bag getting off the train, paints a picture of a backpacker going to the city without needing to show her walking down the aisle and exiting the train.

Images speak for themselves

Cutaways can also increase tension in a scene without adding storytelling dialog.

Example: A shot of an older man with his little dog unlocking and closing the door to his house at twilight, followed by a cutaway of a set of dangling keys he left behind, still in the keyhole, and then the cut shows a man hiding behind a tree. Automatically the cutaways raise the audience stakes.

Cutaways for placement and dimension

We can use cutaways to establish or reestablish a location, to set a mood, to show off a prop, or to give the audience a sense of the surroundings. 

Example: A cutaway of an enormous skyscraper can establish the location of the action in a big city. A cutaway of a tree branch can give the audience a sense of being outdoors in a forest. In each case, the cutaway shot provides information not present in the main shot.

Cutaways to attract the viewer's gaze

Another technique is to use cutaways to create visual interest in a scene. 

Example: If you have two characters talking in a coffee shop, you might use cutaways to show details of the room linked to the conversation. You could cut to a shot of a book on a shelf when one character mentions a particular author or to a shot of a pendant light when the other talks about interior design. 

These types of cutaways add visual interest, while providing information that supports the dialogue.

Cutaways linking actions

In action scenes, we can use cutaways to add impact and excitement. 

Example: In a fight scene, you might use a cutaway to show a weapon being drawn or to emphasize a punch or kick. These cutaways can be shot in slow motion or from a different angle than the main action, adding emphasis and drama to the scene.

Another use of cutaways in action scenes is to show the reactions of bystanders or other characters. 

Example: In a police pursuit in a city downtown, you might cut to a shot of pedestrians jumping out of the way, followed by another cut of a car crash.

These cutaways add context to the action, showing the impact of the scene on the environment and the people around it.

Enhancing storytelling through cutaways edition

Cutaway shots are an essential tool in video editing. They are used to:

  • Bridge gaps in continuity.
  • Cover up unwanted footage.
  • Highlight key elements of the story. 

But cutaways can be so much more than just a Band-Aid for your edits. With creative and strategic use, cutaways can greatly enhance the storytelling experience.

One key aspect of using cutaways effectively is choosing shots representing the characters' feelings and thoughts. These can be shots of objects, locations, or people that help convey the character's situation subtly but effectively. 

Example: If a character feels overwhelmed, a cutaway shot of a crowded metro station could help emphasize that feeling.

Another important consideration when using cutaways is avoiding them to cover up cuts. Instead, use them as a storytelling device that serves the story. It means choosing cutaways that are not only visually interesting but also help to advance the plot or convey important information to the audience. 

Note: You need to distract the audience while serving the story momentarily. A well-timed cutaway can be a powerful tool to keep the audience engaged and invested in the story.

But how do you balance the use of cutaways without overusing them? The key is experimenting with different techniques and shots and finding the right balance that works for your particular story. 

Conclusion

Cutaways are a powerful editing tool that can significantly enhance the storytelling experience. They can be used to create tension, build suspense, or even provide comedic relief. But remember, too many cutaways can take away from the overall experience. At the same time, only a few can leave the audience feeling lost or disconnected from the story. So, embrace cutaways and experiment with different techniques to find the perfect balance for your story.

Layla Saman is an accomplished educational content creator with over 6 years of experience developing digital products and programs. She has created thousands of articles, videos, and webinars in partnership with companies like Meta, Johnson & Johnson, and Cisco. Layla is driven by a passion for education as a tool to empower underserved communities. Her writing makes crucial digital skills accessible to diverse learners.
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