Watch: 4 Reasons to Use Match Cuts (and Why You Might Avoid Them)
Everybody loves a good match cut, but they can be overdone. When should you use one?
You've seen match cuts. Here's a famous one, featured in this gorgeous video by Celia Gómez: an ape tosses a bone into the air. It rises, in slow motion, twisting, turning, until...we cut to a shot of a space station. Cue Richard Strauss' waltz An der schönen blauen Donau. You're watching the beginning of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. How did they do that? How did they even think of doing that? It's tempting to use such a cool effect in your own films, but proceed with caution, or at least with intention.
Kubrick wants us to see the link: today, a bone. Tomorrow, we journey through outer space.
Match cuts—shots in which one image replaces a similarly shaped image from a preceding scene—are eye-catching and can add considerable zip to a film. And yet, it's good to use them cautiously, making sure you've thought through the purpose of the cut before you use it. That way, when the time comes for a viewer to really think about your film, and how it works, they won't be left clutching at straws. You don't want them straining to analyze the cut, rather than focusing on your story.
On the other hand, match cuts can serve various purposes. They can help to make a symbolic connection within a film; they can speed a transition between the parts of a story; they can make a subtle, wordless comment on a character or scenario. Or, they could do all three at once. Gomez's essay shows us several ways the technique has been be used.
Here are four good reasons to use the classic technique:
1. Symbolic leaps
Let's take a look at that bone/spacecraft shot for a second. The bone in question has just been used as a rudimentary tool by one of the primitive humans who inhabit the opening of 2001. When the bone is tossed in the air, we can view that as both a sign of agitation caused by the gigantic black obelisk that has just landed in the primitives' midst (if you're not following, because you haven't seen the movie...well, here) and a gesture of triumph, symbolizing the kind of energy that is needed for the type of innovation that could lead to the development of a vast spacecraft. Kubrick wants us to see the link: today, a bone. Tomorrow, we journey through outer space.
2. Storytelling transitions
A match cut can explain what has happened in the world of a story with shorthand that is both moving and beautiful. When, for instance, Dustin Hoffman's Ben Braddock leaps for the pool float in The Graduate and lands, instead, on top of Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson (to be blunt), we're meant to understand that at this point in the story, his affair has gone full bore—and what's more, the feeling of abandonment with which he flings himself shows the level of his engagement in the affair.
3. Wordless commentaries
In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, young Silvia Neary runs to her television to gaze at the structure that has risen following the arrival of aliens on Earth, and Spielberg cuts to a shot of Richard Dreyfuss' Roy Neary, her father, doing exactly the same thing. Thus, we imply that the presence of intelligent life from other planets renders all minds, mature, and not so mature, equally fascinated. And also, perhaps, that there is more than a little boyish overdetermination in Neary's obsession with the extraterrestrial visitors.
4. Pure imaginative explosions
What are we meant to think when, in Luis Bunuel's Un chien andalou, we see a shot of clouds passing across the moon lead into a knife slicing an eyeball? This is a little trickier. Here, the chief value in the cut is the spark that happens when the two images are placed next to each other. The mind pops, finding possible associations where they might not have existed before. This sort of reaction is at the heart of Surrealism.
Do these match cuts spark your imagination for your next edit? What are your favorite classic examples? Share in the comments.