While you’ve definitely heard a director yell “cut!” to stop filming, you may be less familiar with the term “smash cut.” Read on to learn what a smash cut is, how it differs from a standard “cut,” and how to use them in your work.
“Gilligan's Island” Courtesy CBS
A smash cut is a film edit that cuts abruptly from one scene to another, meant to highlight the difference between the two. It’s also known as a Gilligan cut, named after the show “Gilligan’s Island” that routinely featured a character refusing to do something, and the next scene would be them doing that exact thing.
“A feature film is a long series of cuts whose purpose is to use the best performances from the talent and set the pace of the story, to keep the viewer engaged and on the edge of their seat,” says first assistant editor Eric Brodeur (“Transformers: The Last Knight,” “The Nun,” “Ouija”). “Although everything is ‘a cut,’ the smash cut is used to show a sharp contrast between two scenes. It’s usually written into the script and shot intentionally; however, an editor might employ a smash cut for creative reasons regardless of the script.”
Unlike a regular cut between scenes or a jump cut that moves the story along, a smash cut is defined by the point of the scene in which the cut occurs. Smash cuts occur at a crucial moment and when least expected. Usually, the cadence of a scene relays a beginning, middle, and end. A smash cut can take you out of a scene at the most heightened point and before the scene reaches a natural resolution.
The best way to grasp how a smash cut works effectively is to view examples. Pay attention to the scene’s tone before the smash cut, the contrast it creates, and what it reveals artistically.
This scene in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” depicts a serious tone the moment Jimmy Conway gives Henry Hill money and tells him to do what’s right. A smash cut to Henry entering his house announcing he bought the most expensive Christmas tree contrasts the tone and provides comedic relief from the tension in the previous scene.
One of the most popular television shows of all time regularly employed smash cuts. In this scene, Rachel announces quitting her job and never having to serve coffee again—smash cut to her new job, where a man shows her how to serve her boss coffee.
Smash cuts aren’t always used between two action scenes. Sometimes, a smash cut to black is used to create mystery and leave the audience guessing what happened—or simply leave them in utter surprise.
“Us” Courtesy Universal Pictures
Smash cuts are a tool for storytelling and to help establish tone, often used to heighten drama, horror, comedy, or to add irony and mystery. Like any other transitional cut, smash cuts must be used correctly and appropriately or they risk hindering the film or episode.
“Like anything style-wise in a script, if I use a ‘SMASH CUT TO:’, it’s when I want to put a button on a joke,” says writer Kraig Wenman (“Bandit,” “Secret Obsession”). “Trope-wise, we see it often in films, when a character says something like, ‘There’s no way you’d ever catch me doing that.’ SMASH CUT TO: That character doing that RIGHT away.”
Screenwriters often use smash cuts to enhance the tone for the reader. In screenplays, screenwriters use “CUT TO” on the far right to transition between certain scenes. In this case, they’ll use “SMASH CUT TO” instead to imply there should be an abrupt visual contrast between the two scenes.
Editors are the professionals in charge of actually cutting scenes. While a smash cut can be written in a script, an editor uses their expertise and creativity to ensure it’s applied correctly and at the right time.
“It’s all intuition, either your own or the director’s,” says editor Paul Hirsch (“The Mummy,” “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol,” “Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back”). Which means for a smash cut to work as intended, it needs to contain a visual, narrative, or emotional purpose that supports the overall story.
To create effective smash cuts, consider the following elements:
Disparity: The best time to use a smash cut is when you can create a disparity between two scenes: going from an intense scene to a tranquil one, a tense scene to a pleasant one (or vice versa). The tonal contrast between the two will take the audience by surprise in a different and interesting way.
Timing: Smash cuts occur when least expected. If a scene is in the middle of action and chaos, cutting to a calm and quiet scene will take the audience by surprise.
Suspense and mystery: Ending a scene in a heightened moment will leave the audience coming up with their own conclusions of what happened at the end of that scene.
Comedy and irony: In horror or dramatic scenes, writers often use irony as comedic relief to break up the tension. Smash cuts are a good tool for this. Seeing a character promise never to do anything terrible after surviving a bad situation, then cutting to them doing the same thing again is a popular comedic smash cut.
Objective: All transitions have an objective. The objective of a smash cut is to emphasize a crucial moment in the story, plot, or emotional element by interrupting the current scene abruptly to obtain a viewer’s reaction.