From the hilarious insertions of tangentially related comedy on “Family Guy,” to the interruption of Johnny Fontane singing during Michael’s confession to Kay in “The Godfather,” the cutaway shot is one of the most essential tools for filmmakers and editors.
“Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood” Courtesy Sony Pictures
The cutaway shot is a popular editing technique that does exactly what it says—it cuts away from your main subject to a secondary shot (or b-roll). This fast-paced interruption ends by returning to the original scene.
The cutaway shot can depict almost anything—even something very geographically and temporally distant from the primary scene—as long as it’s related in some tangible way. Cutaway shots are primarily used to:
- Add comedic relief
- Create tension
- Add different elements of time and space than can be achieved with a continuous shot
- Encourage the audience to understand what a character is thinking
- Maintain continuity in a scene
It may seem paradoxical that a cutaway from a continuous scene can help maintain continuity, but it can actually provide context about an entire situation. For example, if a character is looking out their window, and then suddenly runs outside without the audience knowing the reason, it can feel disjointed and confusing. But if a shot shows that the house across the street is on fire before the character runs out to help, the audience understands why the character is rushing outside.
The main types of cutaway shots are:
- Cut between a character and a location: This cutaway shot establishes where a character is going, where they want to be—or where they’re running from, in horror, thriller, and slasher films. In the beginning of this scene from “Halloween,” pay attention to how often it cuts from Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode desperately trying to get her neighbor’s attention back to the house she just escaped from.
- Cut between a character and an object: Shots that depict an object can indicate a character’s mental state or sense of interiority. By showing what the character is looking at, this cutaway shot allows the audience a glimpse into the character’s mindset. As James Bond (Sean Connery) attempts to defuse a bomb in “Goldfinger,” the film cuts several times to the countdown ticking down to zero.
- Cut to depict the passage of time: This cutaway shot moves from the main scene to a visual that somehow implies that time is passing, then back to the original scene. This might be accomplished by cutting away to a clock, an evolving situation (such as a gathering army or a castle being built), or the sun moving in the sky. For example, in this scene from “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” the action cuts to a time-lapse overhead shot to emphasize how long Jesse (Aaron Paul) is searching the apartment for money.
- Cut to advance the plot: Cutting to a different moment in time or space is a simple way to provide exposition and advance the plot. Take the following scene from “The Godfather”:
This cutaway alarmingly contrasts Johnny’s cheery singing with the violence of Michael’s narrative—a vital juxtaposition that drives the rest of the storyline.
The main shot depicts the subject or situation of a scene, such as the protagonist of “The Shawshank Redemption,” Andy Dufresne, sitting in court and narrating his understanding of a double murder. The cutaway shot depicts anything other than the main shot that somehow ties the scene together or builds tension—like when the courtroom scene cuts away to a vivid depiction of Andy’s wife and her lover.
This cutaway shot gives the viewer insight into the devastation Andy must have felt realizing that his beloved wife was having an affair. After this cutaway shot, the scene returns to the main shot: Andy in the courtroom.
To edit a cutaway shot on non-linear video editing platforms such as Adobe Premiere Pro, Audacity, or iMovie:
- Assemble and import a-roll footage (main shot) and b-roll footage (cutaway shot).
- Create and name two video tracks, one for each footage type.
- Identify the moment you want to cut away from the a-roll footage.
- Cut away to the appropriate b-roll footage using your preferred cutting technique.
- Cut back to the a-roll footage.
- You’re done! Now simply export the edited film and watch your perfectly executed cutaway.
To use cutaway shots in the most effective manner:
- Do research ahead of time: In preproduction, watch cutaway shots done by the cinematic greats. Think about how and why they include cutaway shots and the ways that might inform your own film editing choices. Jot down some notes, create a storyboard, and share your thoughts with the director and crew.
- Keep the cutaway in mind while filming: B-roll footage is usually used to provide context and tell the story—perfect for a cutaway shot. Ensure that your b-roll is relevant, interesting, and provides ample opportunity to include excellent cutaways.
- Consider character interiority: If you want to make your audience get inside a character’s head to really understand why they think what they think and do what they do, a cutaway shot is a great way to accomplish it. Whether it’s a memory, a daydream, or simply to demonstrate a feeling, the cutaway shot brings the audience into a character’s mindset.
- Think of timing: If there are any parts in your film that require either a depiction of the passage of time or a punch line showing a different time and place, a cutaway might be the right choice.
- Contemplate continuity: Review your film to see if there are any segments that would benefit from the continuity that a cutaway can bring.
- Play around: Some of the most brilliant cutaway shots of film and TV might never have happened without the creativity of the filmmaker and film editor. Play around with your shots, rewatch your b-roll footage, and see if you’re inspired to create something new and wonderful.