Mastering Match Cuts – A Deep-Dive Into Seamless Storytelling

Mastering Match Cuts – A Deep-Dive Into Seamless Storytelling

Everyone knows what a match cut looks like. Even TikTok kids are masters of seamless transitions nowadays. Yet, carefully constructed match cuts are much more than just eye candy for a wow effect. Throughout the history of cinema, filmmakers have used it as a powerful editing tool to push time forward, to plant new ideas into viewer’s heads, or to smoothly glue two scenes together. Not to mention that there are so many kinds of match cuts to explore! Are you ready for a deep dive into the film theory realm? Prepare to emerge!

A while ago, we talked about when to set the cut and why. In that article, we touched on how the audience’s perception works, and what principles to apply while editing. I believe it’s essential knowledge that every filmmaker should always keep in mind.

There is no doubt that the mentioned theoretic parts can also be applied to match cuts. However, this art of transition also yields other interesting effects, and we will explore them below. And what’s the best way to learn something (apart from practicing)? By watching outstanding film examples, of course!

What are match cuts, and how do they work?

If we don’t go for a long take (or even a one-shot film), then naturally, we will have to cut. The moment between the end of one scene and the beginning of another is called a transition. Cutting shots together in a particular way is a significant filmmaker’s technique to convey story information.  

A matching transition is one way to exploit this opportunity and can be achieved in an infinite number of ways. Essentially, a matching transition “matches” the outgoing shot with the incoming shot. This can also be done with sound.

From the “Cinematic Storytelling” book

While there is a great variety of match cut types, there is one thing they all have in common. Using similar elements in the frame (or in audio), these cuts make a transition soft, fluid, and sometimes even invisible to the audience. It’s a pleasing effect, and on a subconscious level, it can achieve a strong thematic connection between separate events, characters, or concepts.

The basic underlying principle that is used here is called “eye trace.” Seasoned editor Adam Epstein explains this term in his MZed course “The Cutting Edge” with the help of cinema legend Walter Murch. The idea behind this is to determine exactly where the audience is looking (the middle of the frame? The upper right corner? Any focus of interest?) and to use this knowledge to carry their attention carefully – like a cup full of water – from one shot to another. It allows editors to cut “like butter” without disrupting the viewer’s immersion. A well-executed match cut is the top tier of this technique.

Perfectly matching a visual match cut

When we talk about match cuts, the first kind that comes to mind is a perfectly matching visual match cut (please, excuse me, the wordage). It means that the character (or object of interest) stays exactly in place while everything else in the frame changes from one scene to another.

One of the latest films using this transition to the fullest extent is the Oscar-winning “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” The bizarre cinematic story consists of almost all existing match cut types and implies them as a stylized tool for jumps between the different Universes. This effect escalates toward the end of the movie when the protagonist, Evelyn, reaches her emotional climax and rushes through possible scenarios her life could have taken:

What does this effect achieve here? Match cuts give our eyes something to hold onto as we swiftly jump through countless verses. This way, filmmakers could manage a rather extreme pace of editing without making the audience’s head explode. Note how your brain starts to connect images and include even the ones that don’t make much sense. For instance, a vase, a tiny dog, or a cluster of grapes. We see them and instantly recognize them (because of the match cut effect): Yes, it is also Evelyn, but in some parallel Universe.

This type of match cut is the most seamless one. It manipulates the viewer’s attention and works as a magic trick: one minute, you’re here, and the next – you teleported somewhere else. This catches the audience off guard, releasing an emotional reaction. However, this transition is rather difficult to execute. It’s not something you can stumble upon in the editing room. To match two pictures perfectly, you have to plan, prepare, and execute it on set. Here is an example from my short film, where a character awakes from a daydream. There was a 3-month break between filming those two scenes, so just imagine how much meticulous attention this match cut required:

Match cuts based on a graphic similarity

However, you don’t have to make things that complicated. The magic of a match cut works even in “imperfect” scenarios. Thus, the sheer similarity of a particular shape in the frame will also suffice. A brilliant example here is the end of the violent shower scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho”:

First, we see the water swirling into the shower drain and then softly dissolve into the rolling close-up of Marion’s eye, put in the same place in the frame. A visual match cut usually suggests either similarity or contrast. In this case, a lot of cinema analytics is seen here as a sad metaphor for how life drains from the character’s body.

Another famous match cut, based on graphic similarity and widely taught in film schools, comes from the short film “Un Chien Andalou” by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. You can see it in the following clip (starting with 01:34):

As it is a surreal film with a lot of symbolic ideas, interpretations can differ. So, I invite you to think about the role of the match cut here. What connects a razor near a woman’s eye and a thin cloud passing in front of the Moon? Or was this cut just used to hide the practical effect afterward? Then why did they want to match two images?

Cutting on action

Another type of match cut that always works beautifully is cutting on the action. That means the visuals of one scene are matched with the visuals in the next through the similarity of the movement (speed, direction, art of motion). Can you think of a classic film example like this? I bet you can. After all, this transition from “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of the most well-known match cuts in the history of cinema:

An ancient man tosses a bone into the air. It spins and flies across the sky, and suddenly, the film cuts to a moving spaceship that continues the motion further. Spectacular, isn’t it? We travel from prehistoric times to the space era in a single match cut. We can also connect two objects thematically, seeing them as weapons that mankind has never ceased to develop.

An action match cut can also play with the audience’s expectations, bringing their attention back to the scene. For instance, in the subsequent fight between Rey and Kylo Ren from one of the contemporary “Star Wars” movies, there is a moment when she jumps into a hole in the bottom (at 01:23). We expect her to land somewhere. Instead, the editors continue the motion but cut to another scene, where the headphones fall from the table, placed on the same spot in the frame:

Happy accidents in editing

Ask any filmmaker friend or colleague of yours what match cut examples come to their mind. I’m pretty sure this one will appear among the most popular answers:

This cut in “Lawrence of Arabia” was a sensation when the film came out. Not only was it a literal “match” cut (sorry for the hackneyed joke), but also a very bold move of replacing a traditional dissolve with something like this. Adam Epstein tells in his course that this legendary transition had been a happy accident. According to the film’s editor, Anne Coates, the screenplay insisted on a “dissolve.” In digital times, it would have stayed that way. Back in the day, though, the film was first spliced together directly before applying the transition. When they saw the resulting direct cut, it worked like magic and created a fantastic feeling: This is it!

But how does it work? I believe through different layers. First, the color of the fire, in a way, foreshadows the warm tone of the sunset after the cut. Secondly, when Lawrence blows out the match, we instinctively follow the motion of the air, creating an invisible horizontal line in our heads, and when the horizon appears in the next shot, it matches this line. Finally, it’s a thematical connection. Two sources of light: one goes out, and another is about to appear.

Combining two different scenes with one idea

As you see, we don’t even need a graphic or motion similarity to create a match cut. Sometimes, it can be based on subtext (and we talk a lot about subtext here).

At the end of a hallucination scene in “Requiem for a Dream,” Sara walks into a close-up with a fish-eye lens warping her face. We observe her for a moment, and then the editors cut to a matching close-up of Tyrone, a young drug addict and friend of Sara’s son.

Do you remember what the Kuleshov effect is? (If not, head over here, please). We derive the new meaning from the ideas suggested by the juxtaposition. In this case, the match cut unites Sara and Tyrone, and we subconsciously apply the jail bars to both characters. They are, indeed, each in their own prison, both suffering from addiction.

Matching audio segue (or a sonic match-cut)

Of course, this extensive catalog wouldn’t be complete without an audio match cut. This is also a powerful tool to tie the scenes together. It can be a sound that starts in one shot and then merges into something similar in the next one, or the line of dialogue, where one character begins reciting and another one picks up. The famous Netflix show “Stranger Things” is famous for its matching audio segues, so let’s take a look at some of them:

Sound effects and music elements transport us from one scene to another.

In the best-case scenario, a seamless transition matches both visual and sonic components. As an example, here is the famous opening scene from “Apocalypse Now”:

On one plane, it plays with similar rotating components: the ceiling fan, which reminds the protagonist of helicopters during the Vietnam War. At the same time, the final match cut of the scene happens through the sound, not through visuals.

Match cut as a part of the visual style

I won’t deny that sometimes match cuts can be just a part of visual style. Pleasing to our eye and smooth in their effect, they create a beautiful journey across the cinematic realms. There are whole videos built on match cuts and other effective transitions. One example, which is already rather old but which I still love to rewatch, is “Watchtower of Turkey”:

We watch how an airplane turns into a bird, ancient buildings and streets merge, or different people change from shot to shot. This edit is based on continuous motion, similar forms, cutting on action, and yes – match cuts. I once watched an editing breakdown by the creator of the original video (sorry, I couldn’t find it because YouTube is swamped). There, he said that most of the transitions he finds and crafts during the post-production process. Of course, he thinks about them during the shoot but never has time to be over-precise. So, the major magic happens in the post. Here, this style feels absolutely appropriate and, yes, works wonders.

Areas of application

Match cuts are everywhere: you will see them in TikTok trends, documentaries, and animations. They help to underline the similarity of two elements or set contrast, compress time, show characters at different points in their story, or create a bond between various ideas. If there is one thing I would love you to have as a takeaway from this long read, it is that every cut has a meaning and specific impact on your audience. So, don’t set them randomly. Always think about why.

Interestingly, even a disrupted match cut works on us subconsciously. This means that when two visually rhyming images are separated by a middle shot, the audience will still continue to forge a link between the two. Be aware of that! Use match cuts as your additional editing superpower and not just a fancy trick.

How do you feel about match cuts? Do you use them often? When is the best moment to create a match cut? What’s your favorite film example that I didn’t mention? Share your answers with us in the comments below!

Feature image: film stills from “Everything Everywhere All at Once” by Daniels (2022) and “Lawrence of Arabia” by David Lean (1962).

Full disclosure: MZed is owned by CineD

Additional source: “Cinematic Storytelling” by Jennifer Van Sijll, 2005.

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