How Intercutting Impacts Your Films

Shooting a movie scene on an outdoor location

Film sequences where the picture toggles between two camera shots are incredibly common, yet you may not even notice them. Ever take a peek at a character’s phone screen or hop between an employee’s overloaded desk and their boss’s tropical vacation? Those are examples of intercut scenes. Here’s how they work and why they’re so valuable in the filmmaking process.

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What is intercutting?

An intercut in film or video is an edited sequence that snaps back and forth between two or more camera shots that show a different course of action. The main difference between intercuts and regular cuts is that regular cuts end a camera shot and never return to it. A defining aspect of intercutting is that directors return to previous shots, which establishes a sense of fluidity and continuity.

Intercut scenes often toggle between actors in two different settings, such as two people talking on the phone on opposite sides of the country. Intercuts can also cut back and forth between two images that exist in the same general space. Picture a horror movie that cuts between a group of friends playing a board game in a living room and a deranged killer staring at those friends through a window.

Intercutting vs. cross-cutting: Is there a difference?

Many filmmakers use the word “intercutting” as a synonym for the term “cross-cutting.” To these directors and editors, there is no difference between an intercut and a cross-cut.

Others say there is a difference. For them, intercutting is a blanket term to describe all types of editing that cut back and forth between multiple shots. Within that blanket intercutting category, you have parallel editing, where editors cut back and forth between two scenes with a clear commonality, such as a similar theme (for example, people commuting to work interspersed with computer parts moving through a factory line) or the same location (like two scenes in the same house happening decades apart). All other intercuts — the ones that don’t qualify as parallel editing — would be termed cross-cuts.

When is intercutting used?

Filmmakers use intercutting whenever a screenplay calls for multiple locations or multiple perspectives to be shown simultaneously. Screenplay intercut instructions typically appear in scene headings. For instance, a scene heading might read INT. HOTEL ROOM (DAY) / EXT. SWIMMING POOL DECK (DAY) - INTERCUT. This tells the director to toggle back and forth between shots of the interior hotel room and the exterior pool deck, using their own discretion about when to cut.

Some common screenplay scenarios that call for intercutting include:

  • Phone calls. Directors and editors use intercuts to show both sides of a phone conversation.
  • Texts and DMs. If you want to film a hyper-realistic scene set in the present day, you’re probably going to show a whole lot of texting. To do this, you may end up intercutting between a person staring at their phone and a close-up of the phone’s screen.
  • To contrast different scenes. This form of intercutting, typically known as parallel editing, goes back and forth between two scenes happening at the same time or in the same place.
  • Chase scenes. Intercuts work great during a chase, whether it’s on foot or in a vehicle. It’s easy to ramp up the action by cutting between the faces of the pursuer and the pursued. You can also throw in a few action-packed overhead shots if your budget allows for it.

How does an intercut affect the final on-screen product?

In many cases, intercuts take place fluidly, without the audience realizing that they’re watching multiple scenes toggle back and forth. Meanwhile, directors and editors use intercuts to achieve the following effects.

  • Enhanced continuity. By showing multiple perspectives or multiple locations within a single sequence, directors and editors imply a sense of continuous action with no gaps in between.
  • Multiple perspectives. Intercut scenes allow directors to show multiple characters’ faces, which gives viewers a clearer window into their true feelings.
  • A sense of motion. Intercut scenes often give a sense of forwarding momentum. When directors hold on to a single shot or a single bit of staging, they can often convey gravitas and emotional heft, but those scenes can also feel slow and static. Intercuts, on the other hand, overlay a sense of motion onto scenes. Without fully being conscious of it, viewers feel like a scene is constantly moving forward.

4 examples of intercutting

To visualize how intercutting works in real-world filmmaking, think about these sequences from popular films.

  • You’ve Got Mail (1998): In the Nora Ephron-directed romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, Kathleen (Meg Ryan) and Joe (Tom Hanks) think they hate each other in real life, but in an email exchange using pseudonymous screen names, they’re bonding. In a classic sequence from the film, Ephron intercuts back and forth between Kathleen and Joe emailing one another. We see both characters typing in different locations, and we also see both characters’ computer screens. Their email dialogue appears on the screen but can also be heard in voiceover narration.
  • The Dark Knight (2008): The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan has built a reputation as a master of short, tightly-cut scenes. He demonstrates his prowess in a long intercut sequence during which The Joker (Heath Ledger) and his team execute a Gotham City bank heist. We see shots of rooftop snipers, street-level robbers, and bank lobby assailants. Nolan intercuts among all these scenes to create a sense of dread and urgency.
  • The Artist (2011): This Academy Award Best Picture winner is a silent film, so it relies heavily on visual imagery to tell its story. Director Michel Hazanavicius uses intercutting as part of his toolkit for visual storytelling. In one masterful scene, which shows the staging of a silent film dance sequence, fictional silent film actor George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) secretly arranges for actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) to appear in his film. Meanwhile, studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) has no interest in casting Peppy, and he storms on set to make his opinion known. Hazanavicius, who has no dialogue to work with, uses a series of intercuts to show multiple characters’ perspectives — Peppy’s, Al’s, George’s, and those of the crew. Using nothing but careful intercutting, Hazanavicius reveals a whole sequence where Al’s furious disapproval gives way to a grudging acceptance that Peppy will appear in the film.
  • BlacKkKlansman (2018): One of the most popular uses of intercuts comes in scenes where two people are talking on the phone. In 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, director Spike Lee uses intercutting to show how Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) tricks Ku Klux Klan member Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) over the phone. As Detective Stallworth, a Black man, affects a midwestern “white” accent, Lee intercuts among a number of images: Stallworth on the phone, Breachway on the phone, Stallworth’s actual rotary dial phone, and Stallworth’s police colleagues listening to his end of the conversation.

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