Guide to Cutaway Shots: How to Use Cutaway Shots in Editing

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Of all the shot types available to directors and editors, the cutaway shot may be the most useful for revealing a lot of information in very little time. Learn how cutaway film shots can make your life easy behind the camera and in the editing bay.

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What is a cutaway shot?

In filmmaking terms, a cutaway shot is a brief release to another scene that then toggles back to the same film shot it interrupted. To picture an example, imagine a film scene where a crafty smuggler tells a confidante where he hid a box of jewels. While the smuggler talks, the film’s visual image cuts to a shot of him hiding the jewels days earlier. The film then cuts back to the smuggler as he finishes his tale. That interlude to a past event is a cutaway shot.

Cutaways are also called cut-in shots because, in the days of celluloid film, editors would cut the tape of a single shot and splice in some inserted footage. They’d then do a bit more cutting and splicing to go back to the original shot. Today’s digital editing technology works a lot differently, but we still use the term “cutaway” to describe interruptions of an otherwise continuous shot.

What’s the difference between a cutaway shot and an insert shot?

Some directors use the terms “cutaway shot” and “insert shot” interchangeably. Technically, though, these shot types are slightly different.

  • Insert shots stay in the same scene. When a film script calls for an insert shot, the screenwriter is almost always suggesting that the director cut to a special angle of something in the scene. For instance, a script might call for a reaction shot of someone’s face as they hear important news. This would be an insert shot. Another example would be a close-up of a phone screen as a character gets a text message.
  • A cutaway shot leaves the scene. A cutaway shot is a shot that cuts to a different time and space. Often, cutaways reveal something that happened earlier in the film or TV show.

How to create a cutaway shot

Creating a cutaway shot is one of the easier maneuvers in the domain of film editing. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Assemble your footage from two single shots. To create a cutaway shot, you’ll need two separate sets of footage. We’ll call them rolls, even though they’re most likely digital. Roll 1 contains your main footage and Roll 2 contains your cutaway footage.
  2. Create two video tracks in your editing software. Set up two video tracks and assign Roll 1 to the first and Roll 2 to the second.
  3. Interrupt Roll 1 by briefly cutting to Roll 2. Once you’ve reached the perfect moment for a cutaway, cut from Roll 1 to Roll 2. Let Roll 2 show whatever information you hope to convey, and then cut right back to Roll 1.
  4. Use whatever kind of cutting technique you like. Note that cutaway shots work with any kind of cross-cutting aesthetic you choose. You can do a simple smash cut, a cheesy star wipe, or special cuts like a J-cut or an L-cut where audio and video don’t switch over at the same time. All of these work for cutaways.

5 examples of cutaway shots

It’s easy to spot cutaway shots in film and TV productions. Here are five great examples of how cutaways function as an interruption of a continuously filmed scene.

  1. The Simpsons (1989): In a hilarious scene from The Simpsons Season 4, Episode 17 (“Last Exit to Springfield”), Homer Simpson recalls a labor strike at the nuclear power plant and says, “That’s where I got this scar.” The action cuts away from the Simpson family living room to a flashback of that very strike. We then learn that Homer got his scar not on the picket line but while demanding that a food truck chef give him a burrito.
  2. The Godfather (1972): This sequence from the end of the first Godfather film demonstrates both the cutaway technique and a film technique called parallel editing. Director Francis Ford Coppola cuts from the main footage of Michael Corleone in church at his nephew’s baptism to Michael’s men committing heinous crimes in and around New York City. In both scenes, Michael becomes a Godfather — in the religious sense at church and within his crime family via street violence.
  3. Vanilla Sky (2001): In an eerie clip from this Cameron Crowe film, Crowe and his editors Joe Hutshing and Mark Livolsi use a quick cutaway from protagonist David Aames (Tom Cruise) wearing a prosthetic mask to a shot of him without the mask, acting disturbed. The cutaway represents David’s inner thoughts, showcasing how his disfiguration has affected him.
  4. Inception (2010): When multiple scenes interweave into a series of cutaways, the technique is known as cross-cutting. In an extended cross-cutting sequence from the 2010 film Inception, director Christopher Nolan uses laser-focused cutaways to blend scenes from a car chase with those in a hotel suite. As a meditation on dream states, these scenes defy the boundaries of real-life physics.
  5. Family Guy (1999): If there’s one show known for its cutaway shots, it’s Family Guy. The show’s signature comedy style involves cutting away to a joke scene, a style it established in its very first season. In Season One, Episode 3 (“Chitty Chitty Death Bang”), Peter Griffin makes the comment that “a party couldn’t be any better if Jesus himself showed up.” The action then cuts to an imagined scene of Jesus at a house party, which then cuts to a disco scene with Jesus on the dance floor in ‘70s attire, before cutting back to the Griffins in their kitchen.

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