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Arts & Entertainment

How to Use a Smash Cut Transition When Editing a Film

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: May 7, 2020 • 2 min read

In a film or television show, transitions are the glue that binds scenes together into a cohesive whole. One of the most powerful transitions—for both dramatic and comedic purposes—is the smash cut.

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What Is a Smash Cut?

In screenwriting and film editing, a smash cut is a sharp, abrupt cut from one scene to another. Smash cuts occur at an unexpected moment, sometimes even cutting off a character’s dialogue mid-sentence. Screenwriters indicate a smash cut in a screenplay by writing "SMASH CUT TO" between the scenes on either side of the cut. Ultimately, though, the decision to use a smash cut lies with the director.

3 Ways to Use a Smash Cut

A smash cut is perfect for contrasting the tone between two scenes, ending a scene in mystery, or creating comic irony.

  1. To create tonal contrast: The impact of a smash cut is strengthened when it juxtaposes two scenes with wildly different tones. For instance, horror films often use the jarring nature of a smash cut to transition from a gruesome in-progress murder scene to a happy or peaceful moment. A good example of a tonal smash cut is in Ron Howard's Apollo 13, in a scene where astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) is removed from the mission due to his potential exposure to measles. First, we see backup astronaut Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) receiving the news that he'll be flying the mission in Mattingly's place. Swigert gleefully celebrates, but then the film smash cuts to Ken Mattingly, who's distraught and sitting in silence after receiving the same news.
  2. To end a scene in mystery: When a smash cut transitions from the middle of a scene’s crucial moment to a new scene, it prompts the audience to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. This technique is common in thrillers and mysteries. For example, in a scene where a detective enters a suspect's house and suddenly appears shocked by what they see inside, you could abruptly smash cut to a new scene so the audience is left wondering what the detective discovered.
  3. To heighten irony: A common type of comedic smash cut was popularized by the television sitcom Gilligan's Island and has since been dubbed the "Gilligan cut." A Gilligan cut is when a character confidently states a prediction that’s instantly shown to be incorrect by smash cutting to a new scene where the contrary happens, often to the character's embarrassment. While comedic smash cuts are common in television sitcoms, they're also useful in other mediums. For instance, in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is released from prison and assures his friend Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) that he'll stay out of trouble. Immediately after Henry's promise to refrain from illegal activity, the film smash cuts to a close-up of Henry handling cocaine.
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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.

  • 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.
  • 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.

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