An example of a smash cut. A photo of a child blowing on a dandelion next to a photo of palm trees blowing in the wind.

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Using smash cuts to mix up your edits.

Learn how to use smash cuts to add humor, suspense, or drama.

How to use smash cuts in films

  • A smash cut transitions abruptly from one scene to a different scene with a notably different mood.
  • You can use a smash cut to surprise your audience, build tension, deliver a hilarious punchline, or relieve pressure after a tense scene.
  • Too many smash cuts can diminish the effect and distract from the story, so use them wisely. 

What is a smash cut?

A smash cut is a film editing technique in which the action cuts abruptly from one scene to another to highlight a dramatic contrast. The action on one side of the cut should be quite different from that on the other side. “A smash cut is used to make an impact, to hit you when you’re not expecting it,” says videographer Nick Cann.

How filmmakers use smash cuts.

Screenwriters write smash cuts into the script or visualize them during storyboarding to emphasize a contrast between two scenes.

Smash cut to add drama.

In Cameron Crowe’s 2001 psychological thriller Vanilla Sky, Crowe offers a good example of a smash cut used to shock and intrigue the audience. In the first scene, Tom Cruise’s David is confident, handsome, and charming as he strolls through his publishing company office.

 

A quick flashback to David as a boy skateboarding through the offices he would soon inherit smash cuts to David in the dark, wearing an expressionless mask as he rages at a prison psychologist. The viewer immediately wonders what happened to turn him into this scarred, tormented figure.

Smash cut to add comedy.

A smash cut for comedic effect is known as a Gilligan cut after the beloved, classic TV show Gilligan’s Island. Gilligan and his fellow castaways often make an emphatic statement followed by an ironic contradiction of that statement. In “Gilligan Goes Gung Ho,” Gilligan throws Mr. Howell in jail and the Professor tells the Skipper, “Don’t underestimate Mr. Howell. He’s tough — he can take anything.” Smash cut to Mr. Howell crying through bamboo jail bars.

A photo of a person falling from the sky.
A photo of a person waking up from a bad dream.

Smash cut to add suspense.

Sci-fi movies, thrillers, and horror films often cut from the middle of a scene at the moment of greatest tension to start a new scene. “They change the vibe. A scene looks like it’s going in one direction, but the smash cut goes to something completely different,” says Cann.

 

In an early scene in 2000 horror film American Psycho, we see a long shot of businessman/serial killer Patrick Bateman slowly peeling off a cosmetic facemask as he narrates in voiceover about his lack of humanity. As the creepy music and his dead-eyed stare intensify, we suddenly smash cut to a shot of him walking into the office to the cheerful, upbeat sounds of Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine.” This sudden mood shift keeps the audience off-balance and uneasy, never certain when Bateman will turn dark again.

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Smash cut to avoid.

A smash cut can go straight from a murder about to happen to the police detective at the murder scene, standing over the dead body. Or, if the characters in your love story are about to have twins, you can smash cut to a close-up of the kids years later, once they’re old enough to have adventures of their own. If the actor just can’t perform a convincing combination of emotions that you need, you can try screenwriting around it. Smash cut to a later moment when the character has had a chance to process events.

 

A smash cut can help you use your audience’s emotions to amplify the scene. Sometimes a viewer’s imagination can conjure up something more terrifying or beautiful or fantastic than you can possibly put on film. Avoid expensive special effects that may come off as cheesy, and leave the gruesome violence, awesome spaceship, or godlike presence to the viewer’s imagination with a smash cut at a crucial moment.

Smash cut to provide relief.

Smash cuts are just as effective at relieving tension as they are at creating it. By abruptly cutting from a tense scene to a calm, relaxed situation, you can give your audience a chance to breathe or even laugh.

 

In the 2006 episode “Exit Strategy” of the comedy series Arrested Development, Michael Bluth goes to visit his brother Gob in an Iraqi prison where he’s being held captive. Gob assumes that Michael has come to set him free, but Michael solemnly tells him that because of the crimes he’s been charged with he might have to stay in this prison for a very long time. Dramatic music swells as Gob processes this information — and then we smash cut to Gob and Michael silently riding away from the prison in a taxicab a few minutes later. “That was a lot easier than I expected,” Michael deadpans.

Smash cut with caution.

Every transition in every video requires something different, so don’t rely too heavily on any one tool. You always want to have a good reason to use a smash cut. “In video marketing or lifestyle commercials, you probably don’t want to use smash cuts because you’re not trying to catch people off guard,” says Cann. “You’re trying to communicate a message clearly and concisely, and a smash cut might steer people away from that message.”

Difference between jump cuts, smash cuts, and match cuts.

If a smash cut isn’t quite what your scene needs, a match cut or jump cut may do the trick. Different types of cuts can create different moods and give viewers different ideas about how two separate ideas are connected. 

A landscape shot taken at dusk.
A landscape shot taken during the day.

Match cuts.

How is a match cut different from a smash cut? A match cut creates a visual parallel to help create a sense of continuity between two scenes. For example, if the last shot in your previous scene was of a plane taking off, you could match cut to a plane landing in the next scene to help bridge the gap between the two different locations. You can also use a match cut to suggest the passage of time, such as by cutting from a shot of a tree full of green leaves to a shot of a tree with bare branches to show that months have gone by. 

Jump cuts.

A jump cut is a cut in the middle of an otherwise unbroken shot. It differs from a smash cut in that it shows the logical completion of an action. For example, if you’re filming a character walking across a room, a jump cut would cut from the character on one side of the room to the character on the other side, skipping the footage of them walking through the middle of the room.

 

This type of cut is another handy way to quickly convey the passage of time. In the 1986 horror musical film Little Shop of Horrors, director Frank Oz uses a series of jump cuts to show Seymour, Audrey, and their boss Mr. Mushnik standing silently in different parts of their empty flower shop to suggest that it’s been a long, boring day with no customers.


Whether you put together a promo video, documentary, or narrative, you have to make decisions about scene transitions. Whichever film editing techniques you choose, you can perfect your cuts with Adobe Premiere Pro. Explore tutorials to learn how to create and edit sequences or trim clips right in your timeline, and see what you can create.



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