The beauty of great filmmaking is that it can immerse you in a story and trigger powerful emotions using visual imagery.
But a single shot can’t always offer the specific detail a director needs. That’s where insert shots come into play. Insert shots allow a filmmaker to weave a wider narrative picture by cutting different shots together.
What is an insert shot?
An insert shot is an additional camera shot that a director uses to offer new visual information that couldn’t be gleaned from a single continuous shot. After an insert shot, the film toggles back to the previous shot and continues from there. Screenwriters will sometimes add instructions for an insert in screenplays when they believe the best way to reveal specific details is to present another visual perspective.
For example, imagine a scene where a character receives a text message. The director starts by showing a medium shot of the character checking their phone. To reveal the contents of the message, the director then cuts to a close-up shot of the phone’s screen where the text is visible. Then the director cuts back to the same medium shot of the character reading the message.
How to create the perfect insert shot
On a technical level, the actual editing of insert shots is quite easy. Most film editors simply toggle back and forth using simple cuts (sometimes called smash cuts). Still, you can lend insert shots a great deal of artistry by following certain principles:
- Use a variety of shot types. When you insert movie shots into otherwise continuous footage, seize the opportunity to offer viewers a different type of shot. If your primary footage is a medium shot, consider using a close-up for your insert. Or, if you’re focused on a large group of people in your main shot, use your insert to draw the viewer’s attention to one person’s face.
- Use simple transitions. Insert shots aren’t a good place for fades or star wipes. Simple cutting works best. If you’d like to add a little flair, consider a J-cut or an L-cut where audio and video don’t transition at the same time.
- Use a series of inserts to create cross-cutting. Cross-cutting is an editing technique that cuts back and forth using footage from multiple camera angles. By toggling through shot clips from various perspectives, directors can give scenes a sense of motion and momentum. Suddenly the same exact sequence of events feels much more energized than it would if it were presented as a single shot from one camera.
- Watch for continuity. If you’re inserting a shot from the same scene, take care to ensure continuity. Props must remain in the same exact place, actors must stand in the exact same location, and the eyelines should match if characters are looking at one another. If you don’t account for continuity, your audience may think you’re jumping around in time — or just see it as a mistake.
What’s the difference between an insert shot and a cutaway shot?
Some directors use the terms “insert shot” and “cutaway shot” interchangeably. But on a technical level, these two shot types are slightly different.
- A cutaway shot leaves the scene. In the vast majority of cases, a cutaway in film is a shot that cuts to a different time and space. Cutaways typically reveal something that happened earlier in the film or TV show.
- Insert shots remain in the same scene. When a script calls for an insert shot, the screenwriter wants 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.
3 examples of insert shots in film
The insert shot is one of the most utilitarian editing techniques in the world of film. Here are three films that brilliantly use insert shots to reveal visual information.
- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): When George (Jimmy Stewart) asks Mary (Donna Reed) if she “wants the moon,” director Frank Capra cuts to an insert of the moon before returning to the amorous couple.
- The Big Lebowski (1998): As lovable sidekick Donnie (Steve Buscemi) bowls a strike, director Joel Coen inserts a shot of the pins falling, which emphasizes the triumph of the moment — triumph that’s heightened when we return to Donnie’s giddy face.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001): In part one of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings epic, Frodo tumbles and drops the Ring of Power into the snow. First, we see Frodo (Elijah Wood) looking concerned as he knows the Ring is missing. Jackson then cuts to the Ring (with Frodo seen in the background in soft focus) to emphasize its power and majesty. Jackson then returns to Frodo, which concludes the insert shot. Then a twist comes: the insert shot of the Ring transforms into a principle shot in its own right when we cut to Boromir (Sean Bean) holding it and confessing his fantasy of wanting the Ring for himself.
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