An invisible cut is a type of scene transition in movies where filmmakers stitch one take into the other. The result is one long, continuous and smooth scene that seems to run on for a little longer than usual. An invisible cut, as its name implies, is meant to be disguised and hidden.
Filmmakers usually sneak it into the shot in moments when our vision is briefly obstructed by an object in the film, among other instances. In some movies, viewers can pick up when an invisible cut has occurred, especially if the transition pattern becomes repetitive.
Typically, it’s a film transition technique, that when done correctly, viewers don’t even know it has happened. It is executed in the post-production phase, and it’s rivaled by the jump cut. The jump cut, conversely, is an unmissable cut that occurs during shots to signal a passage of time, among other purposes. It is purposefully meant to make it known to audiences that it has occurred.
There are several things to consider to successfully merge two separate shots into one without your audience being any the wiser. The first is aligning camera movements, and the motion of action as well, to maintain a continuous flow, in terms of pace and direction. Cinematographers also commonly use establishing shots and blocking techniques to create scene bridges.
Alfred Hitchcock gets credit as one of the first filmmakers to use hidden cuts. He pulled off a “one-shot” feature for his thrilling crime film, Rope, using only 10 invisible cuts. What makes this accomplishment even more impressive was the fact that he made audiences believe it was a one-shot film in 1948.
This coming at a time when filming technology meant film reels could only last up to 10 minutes. He plays off the darkness in the backs of characters’ jackets to hide his transitions and maintain continuity.
It is physically impossible to shoot an entire movie in actual real-time. Hence the invisible or hidden cut is as close as viewers get to the real deal.
The invisible cut is meant to give audiences the feeling that what they’re watching on screen is real, and happening right now, right there, right then. That what they are witnessing is happening in their world as well.
That entails a real-life passage of time that works to keep us in the moment with the characters. It makes movies feel more like a stage play that’s happening right in front of our eyes.
A conspicuous break in scenes, such as jump or L cuts, usually sends viewers back into reality. It makes them aware that what they’re watching isn’t real, and so the next scene has to start from scratch to draw audiences into the story once more.
A great example of the invisible cut in making scenes organic would be the aforementioned movie. Hitchcock’s Rope lasts about 80 minutes, which is about the entire length of the dinner party it focuses on.
The camera takes us from one conversation to the other. We get to met guests and witness how they put two and two together to figure out the tragic crime that’s happened right under their noses. Invisible cuts anchor the organic passage of time as we wonder how long the perpetrators can pull off the act before they get caught.
10 years on from Rope, came Orson Welles’ film noir masterpiece, Touch of Evil. The opening sequence is inspired by Hitchcock’s invisible cuts, which the movie frequently uses as a tool of suspense.
The film keeps us biting our nails from the offing, with an especially long opening scene mixed with dread and panic. A ticking time bomb is in place as a couple rides around in the busy streets of a US-Mexico border town. We feel the minutes agonizingly tick away with each passing moment. Invisible cuts join up what would have been several takes. They flawlessly fuse story transitions from the couple in the car to prosecutor Vargas and his wife enjoying a night stroll in the street on their honeymoon.
There’s one great detail about the scene and how it benefits from the resulting long take that’s particularly noteworthy. A faceless figure sets the timer on the bomb for three-and-a-half minutes. The entire scene, in between the couple getting in the car and the bomb going off, plays out in roughly the same amount of time.
Only the audience is aware of what’s about to happen. We feel every heartbeat as the tragedy closes in while everyone else remains unaware of the danger. The invisible cuts help squeeze as much suspense out of the nervy moments between the explosion.
Invisible cuts can prolong the action unfolding on screen, and as well keep the tension going without giving viewers a break. In epically tense scenes that highlight a major point in the conflict, hidden cuts allow the anxiety to build, and the action to continually boil over.
Case in point, the soccer stadium scene from the 2009 crime drama The Secret in Their Eyes. The establishing “helicopter” shot gives us an aerial view of the stadium, which has been packed to capacity in light of the match going on. Hidden cuts gracefully transition into the next scenes. They settle us into the crowd, identifying the protagonists as they close in on their target.
An enthralling foot race ensues, with the pursuit pouring out into the field, where the suspect runs into a player and ends up in a Dutch tilt on the grass. Invisible cuts blend all this action into one don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it sequence, with the tension never dissipating at any moment.
Beyond tension, suspense, and time depictions, filmmakers may use hidden cuts to introduce a new character or place. An extended scene of a backdrop can get us into the mood of the location. Meanwhile, invisible cuts leading into a long take can establish a character’s personality, thereby creating a loveable, or loathsome, persona depending on the story’s goal.
Watching the British War epic 1917, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the entire movie is just a continuation of one really long scene. Like Rope, this 2019 war film was made to look that way by some clever cinematography and invisible cuts.
Director Sam Mendes desired a WWI feel that didn’t break away from the horrors of war, and stayed with the suspense of tense moments as a critical mission played out in real-time. Cinematographer Roger Deakins was more than up to the task. He won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his efforts in 1917.
Corporals Schofield and Blake take on the arduous journey in-between enemy lines to relay an important message to the British army. The Germans have feigned a retreat to set a trap, aiming to overwhelm the opposition with artillery at a new base point. The two soldiers must deliver the message for the British not to give chase, otherwise, the lives of 1,600 men stand at risk.
Invisible cuts help make this movie the masterpiece that it is today, and so did extremely long takes. Actors had to prep for about 4 months to ensure everything went according to plan to avoid retakes. Hidden cuts meanwhile hand off these long takes to each other, sewing a compelling sequence of chaos and tension.
Film blocking and actor movement were integral to the convincing one-shot appearance. Invisible cuts, specifically the match cut, were employed severally to stitch the actions. When a soldier was running across the frame, hindering view, another character would take up the running, opening up into a new scene. The baton was consequently passed in between these movements.
The post-production team would also slide in a hidden shot when a foreground object passed through the frame. E.g. when a pillar or tree strategically flew past the lens. This tactic is akin to how Hitchcock using similar deception by dollying in and out of the backs of jackets to enable invisible transitions in Rope.
All the locations in 1917 were built on a single massive set to further pull off the illusion. Light camera work was also vital to enable long takes that wound up in difficult terrains across a very realistic WW set.
Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman has proved a revolutionary piece and one of the stand-out movies of the past decade. It makes use of countless technical tricks to achieve its smooth flow, one of those being hidden cuts or edits.
Every actor seems to be taking the action in his stride, the timing appears to be so on the money, and the narrative stream seems to not take any break at all. All that happens courtesy of the many false long takes that slip by our attention.
Darkness is often a cover to disguise the cuts that would otherwise seem like a jump cut. You’ll notice how the camera sometimes goes in for a closeup as a character is moving through a door. The brief moment of pitch blackness usually coincides with the dim lighting in a room. When fully visible, the scene seems like it had never gone anywhere. The instances of darkness are usually brief and fleeting so viewers don’t get suspicious.
One impressive scene makes the camera appear to stay on the roof overnight as the characters get their slumber. It’s actually a montage of still images that are condensed into one with hidden cuts, thereby speeding up an event that would have taken hours into seconds.
Another way Birdman’s production team achieves the invisible cut is through panning, and specifically, the motion blurs that result from it. By manipulating the shutter speed in between story fragments, or through VFX motion blur, we get deceptive long takes.
Other times, the cinematographer uses identical frames to connect old and new scenes. For example, in one scene, the camera follows a glass as it crashes into a wall. The next scene begins from that very wall and into a different office, creating the illusion that no time has passed in between both events.
Even if you know what you’re looking for, the hidden cuts in Birdman are as hard to spot as a needle in a haystack. That goes to show just how skillfully they were executed.
This 2011 horror features a defiled woman on a vengeance spree against her uncle and father. Her dissociative identity disorder sees her pose as both the victim and the villain, as she stalks two men who took advantage of her in her childhood.
So good were the hidden edits in this movie that the marketers used it as a marketing strategy that had many fooled, and forgivably so. The plot mostly takes place in a dark, gloomy house, as most slashers do. The scenes are made to look like they played out in real-time, with the story events starting at 5:52 pm and concluding 86 minutes later, parallel to the film’s runtime.
Marketed as a documentary, truth and fiction often merge thanks largely to the relentless scare that builds up over hidden cuts. Blankets of darkness fill your screen now and again, providing countless opportunities for Igor Martinovic to sneak in his invisible cuts. And there are plenty.
The most notable series of hidden cuts occur when the power is out and Peter and Sarah rely on a camera flash for light. With each shot, we get a glimpse of figures in the dark, in between separate scene takes. The brief pauses in the absence of light allow the DoP to interweave separate segments into one complete piece.
One of the more noticeable hidden cuts comes toward the end of the movie during the big reveal. Her father has discovered that Sarah and the killer are the same person. As her killer persona fades and she returns to her senses, a facial close-up aids an invisible cut. When it opens up again, the fragile victim emerges once more.
This indie film thrives undoubtedly because of its ability to terrifyingly keep viewers in the moment thanks to skillful hidden cuts. It’s also bailed out by Elizabeth Olsen’s magnificent performance as Sarah.
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