Cross-cutting is a video editing technique used to weave together storylines. It shows the visual and narrative link between situations while building tension. This can be as simple as two sides of the same phone call or as complex as a mad dash through different universes.
Keep reading for a full guide to cross-cutting, from its many uses as a storytelling device to how you can effectively use it in your own video editing.
Cross-cutting is a video editing technique that sees a film or TV show cut back and forth between actions taking place in different locations. The distance between the events does not matter—what’s important is that the viewer gets a clear sense of what is happening in every location. This lends a sense of cohesion to ideas, themes, and complex action.
For example, in “The Dark Knight” (2008), the Joker gives Batman a choice to save Harvey Dent or Rachel Dawes. The film then cuts between Batman racing in one direction, the GCPD racing in another, and Harvey and Rachel in their respective locations.
“Inception” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
You might hear cross-cutting referred to as parallel editing, but there is a slight difference between the two techniques. Cross-cutting is any time a movie or TV show cuts between two or more locations. This can mean any time and place, and the actions don’t need to be happening simultaneously. For example, “The Lake House” reaches its emotional climax by showing Keanu Reeves’ character in the past and Sandra Bullock’s character in the present before merging the two timelines.
Parallel editing, however, is a specific type of cross-cutting, in which we cut back and forth between actions happening at the same time. Parallel editing is often used to build tension and anticipation, as the technique allows you to show several different characters—either working together or competing against each other—gunning toward the same goal. Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” is famous for leaping between several different timelines simultaneously.
“Severance” Courtesy Apple TV+
Show action in different locations
One of the greatest cinematic benefits of cross-cutting is that it allows you to cover great lengths of space and time without confusing the audience. This can be simple—if you need to capture both sides of a phone conversation, cross-cut between the two parties. But it can also be complex—large-scale action scenes often use cross-cutting to catch the audience up with each character involved in the chaos.
The ending of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016), for example, cut between the heroic Cassian and Jyn on the beach, the villainous Krennic on the tower, and the Empire engineers inside the Death Star. This allows the film to not only contextualize the horror and enormity of the moment, but also capture how it affects individual characters.
Compare and contrast
Cross-cutting should not just solve logistical issues; it’s also a powerful storytelling tool. Cutting between different actions, locations, and characters allows you to visually and thematically compare or contrast various themes—rich and poor, past and present, good and evil.
“The Godfather” (1972) famously uses cross-cutting to display the duality of Michael Corleone. As he attends the Baptism of his niece, the film cuts back and forth between the brutal assassinations he ordered as the new head of the Corleone crime family. The contrast between the sacred and the violent symbolizes Michael’s internal struggle.
Cross-cutting is one of the most effective ways for a filmmaker to build anticipation. It all harkens back to Alfred Hitchcock’s advice about showing the audience that there is a bomb set to go off in five minutes under the table. It creates a (figurative or literal) ticking clock onscreen. By revealing either the danger or goal of a scene, you can cross-cut with your characters getting closer and closer, creating tension along the way.
“The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) expertly utilizes and subverts this idea by cutting between the serial killer Buffalo Bill and the FBI raid seemingly surrounding his house. Just when the tension is at its peak, the film reveals Clarice Starling at Bill’s door, signaling that the FBI raid is at the wrong location. All of the dread built up by the cross-cuts is now directed toward the fact that Clarice is alone.
Frame Stock Footage/Shutterstock
- Use match cuts. Cross-cutting is a great way to draw parallels between separate scenes. Hammer these connections home even harder by using match cuts, or cuts that purposely transition between similar shapes, colors, or ideas.
- Utilize cinematic language to distinguish your scenes. As you move from scene to scene or location to location, you never want your audience to be confused as to where they are. Use various filmmaking techniques to orient the viewer with each cut. Start with establishing shots to set the scene. Experiment with different lighting or color grading to differentiate one location from another. Employ a range of camera angles to emphasize the intention behind each scene—a disorienting Dutch angle in one and a more static wide shot in the other, for example.
- Cut with intention. Don’t use cross-cutting just for the sake of trying out a new technique. There should be a reason behind it. Are you making a point about two different time periods? Are you ratcheting up the suspense? Are there actions taking place across a great distance? Ask yourself the “why” before you settle into the “how.”
- Conceive each scene separately. Every scene you use in your cross-cutting should have equal value and feel like a complete moment. Whether it’s in the screenwriting phase or the editing process, craft each scene on its own from beginning to end, then identify the most impactful places for them to overlap.