Movies and Film: Cutting for Content

Cutting for Content

Especially for Hollywood, editing is all about conveying as much information about the plot, characters, and mood as an audience can stand. Various cutting techniques were initially created in order to get an audience efficiently from one chunk of information to another in a way that looks like cause and effect. Some of the most-often used methods for creating order through editing are determined by the content of where you begin and where you end. They include (but are not limited to) the following:

Short Cuts

One editor describes her best editing moment in terms of "creative geography": "In Aces High I made battle scenes out of nothing. I made them out of footage from The Blue Max, Darling Lili, stock material, our own full-size flying planes, 20-foot miniatures that were electronically controlled, little baby miniatures that were flown, and real live people on the ground firing guns in machines that rocked about and had clouds rush past them."

  • Cutting to continuity.
  • Parallel editing or crosscutting.
  • Match on action.
  • Eyeline match.
  • Flashback and flash forward.

Cutting to Continuity

Cutting to continuity involves taking out all the inessential moments in a conventional action. Editing takes out the dead, boring moments in a film. Imagine having to watch all 31 miles of celluloid shot for Lawrence of Arabia! When James Bond travels from London to The Bahamas, do you really want to watch the whole trip: snoring for eight hours on the plane, brushing his teeth in the airport bathroom, renting an Aston Martin at Avis, and so on? Cutting to continuity just includes Bond's leaving M's office, boarding a plane, leaving the Jamaica airport, and driving his car down an ocean-side road. All this activity takes just a few seconds. Wouldn't it be great if we could cut all the boring bits out of our own lives?

Parallel Editing

Parallel editing, or crosscutting, is of two kinds: parallels in space and parallels in time. Parallel spatial editing includes those crosscuts between the bandits and the posse: We go back and forth between two temporally simultaneous events happening in different spaces. Parallel temporal editing includes for example flashbacks and flash forwards, when someone begins narrating the story of her childhood, as when Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy) tells the story of her younger alter ego Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) in Fried Green Tomatoes (1991).

Match on Action

Match on action occurs when an action that begins in one shot is continued or completed in the next. In an exterior shot Julia Roberts opens the front door to a house. In the next shot the camera, now indoors, photographs her entering the foyer and closing the door.

Eyeline Match

An eyeline match occurs when a character looks in a particular direction and the film cuts to the object at which he is looking. The scientist looks into a microscope. We cut to a super close-up of a virus expanding on a slide at an exponential rate. The logical opposite of this sequence is the reaction shot sequence, in which we see an action, and then cut to the reaction—say, a comic double take on David Spade's face as we cut away from something very clumsy or stupid that Chris Farley has just done.


A flashback occurs when the film cuts from the film's present (most often our own present as well) to a moment before that present. The structure of Citizen Kane (1941) is a series of flashbacks from a journalist in 1941 interviewing various people who knew Kane in his youth, to sequences in which we see recollections of that youth in the minds of his friends and lovers. Flash forward of course works in the opposite way: We cut from the prehistoric opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to a future of interplanetary travel.

In this flash forward from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick seems to be saying that the object and the technology have changed, but that the aggressive fascination with flight has not.

In this flash forward from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick seems to be saying that the object and the technology have changed, but that the aggressive fascination with flight has not.

Cutting for Chaos

With some notable exceptions, Hollywood tends to use editing to create order for its audiences because order is more entertaining. But sometimes filmmakers create a meaningful and interesting chaos, purposely confusing their audiences, sometimes in order to make intellectual connections, sometimes in order to assault the viewer's emotions with an unexpected, sometimes offensive image. We have briefly discussed (""Film Directing") the opening sequence of An Andalusian Dog, which contains a cut from a cloud passing over the moon to a man cutting open a woman's eyeball, and this silent (with music track) 1929 black-and-white French/Spanish production still has the ability to make audiences blanch. The film's apparently arbitrary connection between shots suggests absolutely meaningless connections between various places and between different times.

The Manner of Cutting

Cuts are also defined by the manner in which you get from one shot to another, as well as by the content. Here are some of the most frequently used and discussed edits:

  • A cut is the simplest kind of edit. The shot just ends, with no editing effect added.
  • At the next level, fade-in and fade-out simply mean, respectively, going from black to an image, and vice versa.
  • A dissolve is an edit in which, while one picture fades out, another fades in to replace it.
  • A jump cut occurs when an edit is not smooth, when, for example, five seconds of a character's movement is removed from a film every 10 seconds so that his movements look jerky and unreal. The photography sequence near the beginning of Blow-Up (Great Britain, 1966), when Thomas, a photographer, becomes aroused while photographing a model is a marvelously kinky example of this effect.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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