Picture an edit room, with a filmmaker, an editor and a lot of cigarette smoke. They watch a scene again and again, and finally the filmmaker says, “There’s something missing. The timing’s all wrong.” And that’s when the editor comes to the rescue, and for this post, we’ll say it’s a cutaway that saves the day.
In film terminology a cutaway is “the interruption of a continuously filmed action by inserting a view of something else. It is usually, although not always, followed by a cut back to the first shot” (Wiki). There are many reasons a filmmaker and editor would settle on using a cutaway, sometimes to mask a problem in the shooting, other times to help tell the story cinematically. Many current TV shows, such as 30 Rock and Family Guy, use cutaways as a form of punchline. (Quickly becoming the lamest kind of joke on TV, I think.) My favorite reason for a cutaway is to help the pace, to allow the viewer to absorb information the way the filmmaker intended.
Here’s some examples…
The Godfather (dir. Francis Coppola, editors William Reynolds and Peter Zinner) has a fantastic cutaway early in the film, when Michael is telling Kay about his father’s relationship with singer Johnny Fontaine. It happens right after Michael says, “That’s a true story.”
Dramatically, he’s dropped a bomb, both for Kay and for us, and I think the cutaway to Johnny, which does three things. First, Michael’s pause is now incredibly long (11 seconds!), which is a hint of the Michael to Come: silent, calculating. Second, even though Kay is not looking at Johnny Fontaine, she’s clearly confused and stunned and re-thinking everything she ever thought of him, so why not see Johnny at that moment? And third, ideally, we’re doing something similar: we’ve been given our first taste of how brutal it might get and need a beat to process it.
How would it have played otherwise? Since we’ve all seen the film so many times (admit it), it’s hard to say. But here’s a simulation, the end of that scene with the cutaway removed…
Next is something early on in The Big Chill (dir. Lawrence Kasdan, editor Carol Littleton). Meg (Mary Kay Place) and Nick (William Hurt) are talking about their friend Alex, who’s recently killed himself.
I expect that in the edit room they realized this scene had two endings: Nick’s joke and Meg’s comment. The cutaway allows Nick’s quip to get a healthy laugh from the audience as well as establish how dark his humor is. But Meg’s line is just as important. The cutaway to the street—not to the interior of another car and another conversation, mind you—lets us process each piece of information equally.
The last sample is from left field. God’s Step Children (dir. Oscar Micheaux, editors Patricia Rooney and Leonard Weiss) is a low-budget 1938 all-black-cast melodrama. Micheaux made his films outside of the studio system, and this was his 38th film since 1910.
The plot concerns Naomi, a light-skinned black woman who can pass for white. She and her brother Jimmy are unaware that she was adopted and are tortured by their attraction to each other. Here’s a scene where they see each for the first time in years. Since most of you haven’t sees this (few have), I’ve edited out the cutaway, to enable a before-and-after demonstration. Pay attention to their kiss.
OK. Now, look at the end of that scene with the cutaway:
I know it’s crude filmmaking, but humor me and think of what that cutaway accomplishes: That innocent, split-second kiss is now 5 seconds long, which makes much more of an impression of forbidden love than any of the writing, acting or shooting.
So whether it was a New York edit room in the 70s, a Hollywood cutting room in the 80s, or God-knows-where in the 30s—I think the same thing occurred: the filmmaker’s point was crystallized thanks to the cutaway.