What is a Smash Cut
A smash cut is another name for an abrupt cut. When a scene unexpectedly transitions to something else with no prior warning, that’s a smash cut. It’s done for a number of reasons, which we’ll get into later - but for now, check out one of the most famous smash cuts in history:
This cut from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a great example. The cut is immediate and unexpected. It’s done for aesthetic reasons, as the spaceship is of a similar shape and framing to the bone. The thematic idea of a leap forward in technology is reinforced. There’s also narrative implications that become more apparent as the story develops. Overall, a super efficient use of the smash cut!
In editing terms, a smashcut is no different to any other type of cut. It’s a moment where a clip transitions to another one. The ‘smash’ quality comes with knowledge of the wider project. As an editor, you should identify key moments where a smash cut could be effective - such as syncing an abrupt change in location with a slow, simple sequence.
Smash cuts don’t always have to be synced with music, either, but that can be an effective way to handle them. Instead of editing on the beat, try cutting an energetic track short into total silence, or vice versa, for example!
What are fast cuts called?
Although the smash cut transition is instantaneous, it’s not always ‘fast’. A film’s score can escalate then abruptly stop to exaggerate the smash cut, but one can happen relatively slowly, too:
Repeated fast cuts and smash cuts don’t really mix, as the moment it becomes apparent there’s a sequence of cuts, the audience is no longer surprised by any sudden changes. We recommend you read up on montage sequences, supercuts or jump cuts - these are all editing techniques associated with fast cuts!
If we’re gonna define smash cut, film usage is basically how an audience reacts. They are thrown into a new scene, very suddenly. The lingering ideas, story and visuals from the previous scene are still there in the mind, but now with a bunch of new ones. This collision is how a good film will emphasise what it wants to, via a smash cut.
What is a smash cut in a screenplay?
Screenplays will identify sceen transitions - e.g., it’s common to see [CUT TO:] when the screenwriter wants to ensure a sceen’s location or viewpoint changes. Specifying which style of cut, however, is usually left to the director, cinematographer or editing team. That’s because having specific constraints or instructions can hinder the creative process; a good smash cut should occur naturally.
That being said, sometimes they do come up in the screenplay. A scene may not function as intended unless it’s super unexpected, or a jump cut is part of the very idea of a scene. Just denote it with [SMASH CUT TO:]
Via subversion. If a smash cut is expected, it’s not a smash cut! The audience needs to be jolted into thinking about why they were just surprised - what was trying to be achieved by said cut? Usually, you don’t want the audience to think about routine cuts, but smash cuts are a way to push this onto them in a creative way!
Check out the videos above, for some good smash cut examples. You may also want to check out our article on jump cuts, to ensure you know the difference between smash cut vs jump cut. Finally, here’s a sequence from Shaun of the Dead with a mix of both, including an awesome smash cut right at the end: