Smash cut to mix up your video edits.
The smash cut is a valuable filmmaking technique for directors and editors at any level. Learn how to use smash cuts to add humour, suspense, drama or just to avoid bad acting.
What is a smash cut?
Whether you put together a promo video, documentary or narrative, you have to make decisions about scene transitions. A star wipe might work every time for Homer Simpson, but it won’t serve the story or keep the viewer engaged. The smash cut is one editing technique that can do both.
In a smash cut, the action cuts 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.
In a way, a smash cut is the opposite of the match cut, which carries a similar composition or line of dialogue from one scene to the next. The abrupt cut highlights a difference rather than a similarity.
How filmmakers use smash cuts.
Screenwriters write smash cuts into the script or visualise them during storyboarding to emphasise a contrast between two scenes.
In Cameron Crowe’s 2001 film 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 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 gaol 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 gaol bars.
Smash cut to add suspense.
Sci-fi films, 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.
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 to 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, amazing spaceship or godlike presence to the viewer’s imagination with a smash cut at a crucial moment.
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.”
Whichever film editing techniques you choose, you can make your cuts with Adobe Premiere Pro, the industry-leading video editing software for film, TV and the web. 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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