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Arts & Entertainment

How to Use a Match Cut Transition When Editing a Film

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: May 7, 2020 • 3 min read

Many of the best filmmakers shoot to edit, meaning they meticulously plan their shots in advance to ensure that they get all the footage needed for the editing process. A powerful editing technique that requires this kind of planning is the match cut.

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What Is a Match Cut?

A match cut is a film editing transition where visual elements at the end of one scene are matched, either visually or aurally, with elements at the beginning of the next scene. In the film Lawrence of Arabia, the cut from a shot of a burning match to a shot of a sunset is an iconic example of a match cut. Even when two scenes are in different locations or time periods, a match cut has the power to add thematic subtext and a sense of fluidity to the scenes.

How to Use a Match Cut

When editing a film, use a match cut to suggest a connection between scenes that otherwise appear to contain unrelated subject matter. Match cut between shots that, though different, have some visual, kinetic, or aural similarity that links them.

You can also use a match cut to illustrate the passage of time. For instance, say you wanted to transition from a scene in a house to another scene in that same house years later. You could match cut from a painting on the wall in the first shot to the faded outline of where that painting used to hang in the second shot. This not only illustrates the passage of time, but it also eliminates the need for an establishing shot of the house because it's clear the new scene takes place in the same location.

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3 Types of Match Cuts

Most match cuts are classified into one of three categories:

  1. Graphic match cuts: Also called a “visual match cut,” a graphic match cut links two different scenes together through the use of aesthetically similar elements like shapes, colors, or patterns. A notable example of a graphic match cut appears in Alfred Hitchock's Psycho (1960) during the infamous shower scene; after Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is murdered, Hitchcock dissolves from a close-up shot of blood flowing down the circular shower drain to a close-up of Marion's lifeless eyeball.
  2. Action match cuts: A subcategory of graphic match cuts, action match cuts occur when two consecutive scenes are matched through similarity of motion. A famous example is from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) wherein a primate throws a bone up into the sky and the shot cuts to a similarly-shaped spaceship soaring among the stars. This action match cut conveys the progress achieved by humanity in the time period between both scenes.
  3. Audio match cuts: Also known as an audio bridge, an audio match cut is when matching sound effects or dialogue overlap on both sides of a transition. A famous sound effect match cut occurs in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) when the sound of whirring helicopter blades during a battle continues into the next scene, where Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) lies in bed beneath a spinning ceiling fan. Matching the sound of spinning helicopter blades to the spinning ceiling fan suggests Willard’s inability to escape his memories of war. An example of a dialogue match cut occurs in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) when a young Charles Kane (Buddy Swan) receives a sled for Christmas from his guardian Thatcher (George Coulouris). Kane wishes Thatcher a "Merry Christmas..." before the film cuts to a much older Thatcher in the future who completes Kane's greeting by saying "... and a happy new year." This match cut seamlessly indicates that many years have passed.

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Smash Cut, Jump Cut, and Match Cut: How Are They Different?

Each of these three editing techniques serves a different purpose.

  • Match cuts cut from one shot to another shot that contains similar-looking action or subject matter, smoothing the transition from one scene to another.
  • Smash cuts are unexpected cuts that highlight a dramatic tonal contrast between two shots.
  • Jump cuts cut between the same exact shot, creating the effect of briefly jumping forward in time. Jump cuts can show the passing of time in a montage or add speed and a sense of urgency to a scene.

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