The Secret of Invisible Cuts: Everything You Want to Know About It

Understanding invisible cuts in film and video
The psychological mechanics of film montage | © Pixabay

One of the most fascinating phenomena in montage are invisible cuts. They do not refer to transitions between settings, which should be hidden with clever montage.

Filmpuls explains in this article how invisible cuts work and shows you how to use them correctly and successfully to communicate film and video.

You need to know

  • Invisible editing is a phenomenon that has to do with the way we humans perceive things.
  • Our brain is programmed to always and everywhere look for connecting lines and connections. This also happens when viewing video footage. If there is a cut within a scene, this is usually not consciously perceived.
  • Invisible cuts always work if the 30 degree rule is observed. Here, a paradox is revealed: more strongly differing angles of view are less strongly recognized as such, while similar shot sizes and camera perspectives are perceived as image jumps.

Invisible cuts

Invisible cuts are the pure opposite of jump cuts, match cuts or morphing. In editing, the invisible cut transitions are something of the tricks of skilled sleight-of-hand. They couldn’t be more obvious. And that is precisely why they are not noticed! Therein lies their simple elegance and outstanding beauty.

Director Frank Capra has been quoted as saying that “in filmmaking there are no rules, only sins – and the greatest sin is ignorance”. This article about the phenomenon of invisible cuts is a declaration of love for one of the most important and at the same time most fascinating rules in film editing ever.

Who invented it?

From 1895, 122 years ago, the first commercial cinema screenings took place. Just five years later, first empirically and then scientifically proven, insights emerged into how the emotionality of the viewer could be optimally captured with moving images.

So invisible cuts are neither a novelty, nor a specialty, nor a secret. And not an impossibility either. They have always been used not only in big Hollywood productions, but are the standard in every professional and effect-oriented film and video production.

Invisible cuts are so called because they are clearly visible and recognizable to the eye and brain (unlike hidden cuts), but are nevertheless unnoticed by the viewer. That is why their importance is enormous.

The brain does not like discontinuity and therefore builds bridges

The secret of invisible cuts is the fact that the viewer is more willing to believe in continuity when he sees in the cut an obvious discontinuity in the sequential flow. This is why recognizable cuts paradoxically have a far less disturbing effect on the viewer’s perception than (re-)cuts. Because these contain only a small difference in the image information.

Synonyms for invisible cuts are the French découpage classique and, outside the German-speaking world, continuity editing.

Figure 1: Classic camera arrangement

Graphic 1: The phenomenon of invisible cuts in film and video

For the invisible cut phenomenon to work, compliance with the infamous 30-degree rule is essential. It states that a cut is not recognized as disturbing only if the settings are clearly different from each other.

For different images, this is not a problem. The situation is different if the image content remains identical.

30 degree rule

When changing the point of view with the same object or subject in front of the camera, it looks different. If the content and structure of the film or video image differs only minimally, the cut is perceived as an error. The image then appears to “jump”. The invisible cut does not take place. Because objects in front of the lens with the same background suddenly seem to be shifted a few meters.

Due to the laws of optics, the background changes less than the center and foreground when the camera is moved.

That’s why the misapplication of the 30-degree rule is always everywhere and especially prevalent when it comes to interviews and testimonials and conveying information.

First, invisible cuts fail due to ignorance on the part of the director or camera person. Second, because later in the edit, the editor changes the shot size (enlarges the image to mimic a zoom or close-up).

Graph 2: The 30 degree rule

Graph 2: The phenomenon of invisible cuts in film and video

Unlike comics, this jumping of the moving image within a shot has an irritating effect. That’s why, because the viewer can’t explain the motivation of the jump. On the one hand, from the point of view of the changed image content, cutting is admittedly less radical than when the complete image content is changed. On the other hand, however, clearly more visible, not to say disturbing.

The rookie mistake

The image jump resulting from the disregard of the 30-degree rule does generate a certain amount of attention. This observation is correct.

But unlike a correct cut, which changes from close-up to close-up, for example, in accordance with the content of the statement, and thus may clarify a core statement, the viewer is unable to link the twitching cut with the content. Invisible cuts are not.

Changing camera lenses without changing the camera location leads to the same irritation with almost identical focal lengths and thus perspectives.

Visible image jumps instead of invisible video editing

Especially in CEO videos and video testimonials, such faulty jumps (not like invisible cuts) seem as if the executive speaking on camera is slapping his listeners hard on the dog-ears with the flat of his hand every few seconds to keep them listening attentively. Honestly, who would want to learn from such a speaker? And worse: Who wants to bet that such behavior is able to increase the sympathy values of the?

Only the originators of such machinations seem to be convinced of this. Cutting videos means more than blows to the back of the head to maintain attention.

Difference to Jump Cut and Match Cut

A faulty change of perspective should not be confused with the so-called jump cut. It is caused by a few seconds being missing (“cut away”) within a shot. Jumps are, in a sense, an alternative to time-lapse without time-lapse in the editing of film and video. The jump cut is a cut in time in unchanged space.

The jump cut stimulates the viewer’s subjective perception because it intentionally emphasizes the gap between the two seemingly connected shots.

Match Cuts are “cutting jumps” in space while the film time seems to remain unchanged according to the viewer’s current state of knowledge in the film.

Match cuts can be combined with jump cuts (cut in time while the room remains identical).

The jump cut occurs either in appearance (other than invisible cuts) as a connection or editing error (see the previous notes on CEO testimonials) or by design in highly artistic feature films, where it is intended to express a discontinuous plot or to emphasize the drama of events with extreme and dynamic jumps into or out of a scene. But beware: Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi. Without Godard, neither Ms. Seberg nor Mr. Belmondo, not to mention cinema audiences, would have been “Out of Breath” in 1960.

Invisible cuts in the practice of film editing

The invisible cut works:

  • in the gradual transition of setting sizes
  • for dialogue scenes that are recorded as a shot/counter-shot
  • with preservation of the axis ratios (no axis jump)
  • in elliptical narration
  • if the camera changes its angle of view by at least (!) 30 degrees in the identical room and the same subject
  • when not the angle of view of the camera, but the distance of the camera to a person or object in the center of the image changes significantly.

In the words of science:

In terms of the psychology of design (what a word!), “within the system of continuity, there must be a difference between two shots that is vivid and concise for human perception” in order for a cut to become invisible as an appearance in editing and montage.

Non-visible cuts: understood literally

Film is communication, film is an economic good and … – film is art. Artists are allowed to do (almost) anything. And art has not stopped at editing in its search for the true meaning of film. However, well-considered, well thought-out and rarely just as an end in itself.

Graphic 3: Normal Cut, Match Cuts, Jump Cuts

Graph 3: The phenomenon of invisible cuts in film and video

Invisible cuts in the literal sense of the word are cuts from one close-up to another, usually combined with a camera movement, when the image information of the two close-ups appears to be identical.

Here is an example: a tracking shot ends on the back of a person wearing a red jacket. The next ride begins on another person’s red jacket, which then moves away from the camera. The hidden cut takes over the navigation and connects one event to the other.

Related to invisible montage, but usually more recognizable in their design intent, are

  • Wiping screens (so-called wipes)
  • the notorious match cuts (German = zusammenfügender Schnitt in eine Bewegung zweier räumlich und zeitlich getrennten Handlungseinheiten) beloved by film students and fans of genius Stanley Kubrick
  • Morphing (computer-calculated transitions between two settings)

Invisible cuts: Further reading

Invisible cuts in the technical literature, in alphabetical listing

  • Aumont, Jacques. A quoi pensent les films. Paris: Ed. Ségnier, 1996.
  • Bazin, André. “Montage interdit”. In Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? Paris: Les éditions du cerf, 1994.
  • Beller, Hans. “Film Spaces as Free Spaces. On the scope of film montage”. In Onscreen/Offscreen. Boundaries, Transitions and Change in Cinematic Space. Edited by Hans Beller, Martin Emele and Michael Schuster. Stuttgart: Hatje Cantz Verl., 2000.
  • Bordwell, David; Ian Christie; Karel Reisz; Donald Richie; Alain Robbe-Grillet; Kristin Thompson. Time, invisible cut, space. ed. and introduced by Andreas Rost. Frankfurt a.M.: Verl. of the authors, 1997.
  • Daney, Serge. “Le travelling de Kapo”. In Traffic n° 4. Paris: P.O.L, 1992.
  • Gribbin, John and Mary. Space & Time. What we know about the universe: from the earth as a disc to space-time in four dimensions. Translated from English by Eva and Hans-Jürgen Schweikart. Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1995.
  • Hickethier, Knut: Film and Television Analysis. 4th ed. J.B. Metzler, ISBN 978-3-476-02186-1.
  • Hölling, Joachim. Realism and Relativity. Philosophical contributions to the space-time problem. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1971.
  • Koebner, Thomas (ed.): Reclams Sachlexikon des Films. 2nd, updated. Circulation. Reclam, ISBN 978-3-15-010625-9
  • Konigsberg, Ira: Complete Film Dictionary. Plume, 1989, English, ISBN 0452009804, page 1
  • Rauger, Jean-François. “Sexe, violence et politique”. In Le siècle du cinéma. Hors-série des Cahiers du Cinéma. Coordinated by Antoine de Baecque. Paris, November 2000.
  • Thompson, Kristin. “The formulation of the classical style, 1909-28.” In The classical Hollywood Cinema. Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. Bordwell, David; Staiger, Janet; Thompson, Kristin. London: Routledge 1994 [1985].
  • Tillich, Paul. “The Contradiction of Time and Space.” In ders. The conflict of space and time. Writings on the Philosophy of History. Collected Works. Volume 6: Evangelisches Verlagswerk, 1963.
  • Zeyfang, Florian. “DV is called Dziga Vertov”. In Starship No. 4. Berlin, Fall 2000.

Invisible cuts summarized

Bert Brecht, at least as far as the mechanics and methodology of film editing are concerned, gets it half right for once when it comes to cutting and editing film:

For some are in the dark and others are in the light. And you see those in the light, you don’t see those in the dark.

Bertolt Brecht

Obvious, obvious re-cuts in full daylight, thank the 30 degree rule, are far less disruptive to the flow of the plot and viewers. The same goes for invisible cuts. They don’t have to hide in the murky depths of talentless cinematic ineptitude.

Film editing is dead. Long live the editing and film montage and, at least as important: the precise camera work.

This article was automatically translated into English using AI. If you would like to help us improve the quality, we would be happy to hear from you.

Pavel Sokolov
About Pavel Sokolov 49 Articles
Pavel studiert Film Editing. Er mag François Truffaut, Terrence Malick, Dr Pepper, seinen Thermaltake View 71 TG, Musik von Seeed und alle Dinge, die mit der Farbe Rot zusammenhängen, aber keinem Lebewesen Schmerzen bereiten.

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