The phenomenon of invisible cuts in film and video

I spy with my little eye...

The phenomenon of invisible cuts in film and video The phenomenon of invisible cuts in film and video

The fascinating phenomenon of invisible cuts in films and videos – as opposed to what its name might suggest – doesn’t refer to the type of transition from one take to another, which is hidden or made invisible with clever editing tricks. Jump cuts, match cuts or morphing in editing are like the tricks of a versed magician. Invisible cuts are the complete opposite. They couldn’t be more obvious and that’s precisely why no one notices them. Therein lies their elegance and outstanding beauty.

The director Frank Carpa is famously quoted for saying, that there are no rules in filmmaking, only sins – the greatest sin being ignorance. This article about the phenomenon of invisible cuts is a declaration of love to one of the most important and simultaneously most fascinating rules in film editing.

After 1895, 122 years ago, the first commercial movie theatre screenings took place. Not long after that, at first empirically, then scientifically proven knowledge was gained, like how the emotionality of the viewer can be best captured with moving image.

Similarly dramatic as the victory parade of cinema back then, is today’s digital democratisation of moving image production. Nowadays it’s no longer seen as rocket science, to record and edit a technically clean, cinematic image.

A welcome evolution, which gives many budding talents a chance to manifest their abilities in sequential storytelling with moving image. But in the same way the gravity since the invention of film has remained unchanged, the fundamental mechanics of perception have also seen a lot fewer changes than one might think. Even though the laws of perception today are often and unfortunately – consciously or not – ignored, they’re validity remains unchanged.

The phenomenon of invisible cuts

Invisible cuts are called invisible, because even though they are clearly visible and recognisable for both the eye and the brain (in contrast to hidden cuts), they do however go by unperceived by the viewer. They are no secret. They are not only implemented in big Hollywood productions, but are also THE standard in professional and effect-oriented film and video production.

The phenomenon of invisible cuts in film and video chart 2: Classic camera assembly

Classic camera assembly

For this kind of cuts (also known as découpage classique or continuity editing) “to work”, it is impertinent you stick to the so-called 30-degree-rule. This rule states that a cut is only perceived as non-disruptive, if the takes on either side of the cut clearly differ from one another. That of course isn’t an issue if the two images are completely different. But when it comes to changing camera angles with the same object or subject in front of the lens, it’s a whole different story. If the content or set-up of the film or video takes only differentiate slightly, the cut will be perceived as a mistake. It makes it seem as if the image were “jumping”. Either because the object in front of the same background suddenly moved a few meters (by the laws of optics if you move the camera a few metres the background changes slightly less than the middle and foreground.)

The phenomenon of invisible cuts in film and video chart 1: The 30-degree rule

The 30-degree rule

This jumping of the moving image in a sequence is annoying, because the viewer can’t explain the reasons for the jump. The cut is thereby much more visible and disruptive and unnatural than if it were cutting from one image to another completely different image.

This faulty jump in perspective under 30 degrees should not be confused with a jump-cut. That will be explained in the second part of this article and results when a few seconds within a take are missing (are cut away).

Incorrect usage of the 30-degree rule can be found anywhere and anytime, especially when it comes to interviews and testimonials. It’s wither down to the cameraperson’s or director’s ignorance or because the editor later changes the shot settings (increases the size of the image to imitate the effect of a zoom or close-up).

The jump in images that happens if you don’t respect the 30-degree rule, does nevertheless grab your attention. For all the wrong reasons. A correct cut or transitions, that in accordance with its content might switch from a medium shot to a close-up – for example to bring across a core message – the viewer won’t connect the jump in editing with the content.

Especially with CEO-videos and video testimonials, these type of cuts have the effect as if the person talking to the camera, is slapping his viewer across the face every couple of seconds to make sure he has their full attention. Who would want to listen to someone like that? Or worse: Who could think such behaviour could increase sympathy values?

Invisible cuts do work:

  • in gradual transitions from one image setting to another.
  • in dialogue scenes shot in shot-reverse shot.
  • when maintaining the axis ratio (no jump in axis).
  • in elliptical storytelling.
  • if the camera within the same space and in front of the same subject changes its angle by a minimum of 30 degrees.
  • if it’s not the angle of the camera, but the distance of the camera to the person or object in the centre of the image that changes significantly.

In the words of science: Gestalt psychologically (what a mouthful!) speaking “within the systems of continuity there must be a clear and concise humanly perceivable difference between two takes” for the cut to become invisible.

Literal application

Film is communication, film is a commodity and … – Film is art. Artist can famously do whatever they want. Art thankfully also plays a big part in editing. It does however have to be deliberate, well-thought-out and not just for the sake of it.

The phenomenon of invisible cuts in film and video chart 3: Normal cuts, match cuts, jump cuts

Normal cuts, match cuts, jump cuts

Invisible cuts in the truest sense of the word can for example be the transition from one close-up to another, mostly connected by a camera movement, if the image information of both close-ups seem to be almost identical. An example: a camera movement ends on the back of a person, who is wearing a red jacket. The next movement starts on the red jacket of a different person, who then proceeds to move away from the camera.

Similar – but often more easily definable when it comes to artistic intent – are:

  • Wipes
  • the infamous match cuts, adored by film students and Stanley Kubrick fanatics (where the cut matches two shots in a movement that coincides with the logic of the action)
  • Morphing (computer-calculated transitions between two takes)

Match cuts are often associated with jump cuts. The jump cut often comes across as an editing mistake (see the above mentioned example of the CEO testimonials) or is done on purpose in highly-artistic fiction films, where it purposely expresses a discontinuous action or is used to emphasise the drama with extreme, dynamic jolts connecting one scene to the next. But be careful: Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi. Neither Seberg, nor Belmondo, let alone the audience would have been left “Breathless” in 1960 if it weren’t for Godard.

Cut to: Conclusion

Berthold Brecht for once – when it come to the mechanics and method of film editing – is only half right:

There are some who are in darkness and the others are in light. And you see the ones in brightness, those in darkness drop from Sight.
Bertolt Brecht, the threepenny opera 

Obvious and clear transitions in bright daylight – thanks to the 30-degree rule – are much less disruptive for the flow of action and more visible for the viewer than cuts, that hide away in the gloomy abysses of talentless cinematic impotence.

Further Reading (in alphabetical Order)
  • 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. “Filmräume als Freiräume. Über den Spielraum der Filmmontage”. In Onscreen/Offscreen. Grenzen, Übergänge und Wandel des filmischen Raumes. Hg. von Hans Beller, Martin Emele und Michael Schuster. Stuttgart: Hatje Cantz Verl., 2000.
  • Bordwell, David; Ian Christie; Karel Reisz; Donald Richie; Alain Robbe-Grillet; Kristin Thompson. Zeit, Schnitt, Raum. Hg. und eingeleitet von Andreas Rost. Frankfurt a.M.: Verl. der Autoren, 1997.
  • Daney, Serge. “Le travelling de Kapo”. In Traffic n° 4. Paris: P.O.L, 1992.
  • Gribbin, John und Mary. Raum & Zeit. Was wir über das Universum wissen: von der Erde als Scheibe zur vierdimensionalen Raumzeit. Aus dem Englischen von Eva und Hans-Jürgen Schweikart. Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1995.
  • Hickethier, Knut: Film- und Fernsehanalyse. 4. Auflage. J.B. Metzler, Stuttgart 2007, ISBN 978-3-476-02186-1.
  • Hölling, Joachim. Realismus und Relativität. Philosophische Beiträge zum Raum-Zeit-Problem. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1971.
  • Koebner, Thomas (Hrsg.): Reclams Sachlexikon des Films. 2., actual. Auflage. Reclam, Stuttgart 2007, ISBN 978-3-15-010625-9
  • Konigsberg, Ira: Complete Film Dictionary. Plume, 1989, english, ISBN 0452009804, Page 17
  • Monaco, James. Film verstehen. Kunst, Technik, Sprache, Geschichte und Theorie des Films. Aus dem Englischen von David Lindroth. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988.
  • Rauger, Jean-François. “Sexe, violence et politique”. In Le siècle du cinéma. Hors-série des Cahiers du Cinéma. Koordiniert von Antoine de Baecque. Paris, November 2000.
  • Rother, Rainer: Sachlexikon Film. Rowohlt, 1997, ISBN 3499165155, Page 165.
  • 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. “Der Widerstreit von Zeit und Raum”. In ders. Der Widerstreit von Raum und Zeit. Schriften zur Geschichtsphilosophie. Gesammelte Werke. Band 6. Stuttgart: Evangelisches Verlagswerk, 1963.
  • Truffaut: Mr. Hitchcock, wie haben Sie das gemacht?. Heyne, Munich 1973, ISBN 3-453-86141-8, p. 149 f
  • Zeyfang, Florian. “DV heißt Dziga Vertov”. In Starship Nr. 4. Berlin, Autumn 2000.

Since the beginning of the year Videothink is now available on smart phones in the new Google-Mobile-Standard AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages). Videothink is now also accessible for free on Facebook Apps in News as Instant Article, in its test version. The legibility of charts and tables is still not at its best on said platform, due to technical difficulties. We appreciate your understanding.

© filmpuls, translated by Nina Kaelin

About Kristian Widmer
Kristian Widmer (49) is Executive Producer and CEO of Condor Films Ltd. He has been advising customers on film and video for 23 years.


  1. I think the 30 degree rule (or the 30% rule I use, pictures jar if there is less then a 30% difference in information) is only one part of the story. WHEN you cut is also vitally important – you can easily catch a viewers eye if you cut at a strange time. I believe you need to mimic how the brain processes information in real life and try to cut when the brain expects a cut eg allowing time to process a complicated shot change… a subject I could deeply explore. You can also confuse the viewer with a bad sequence of shots and that can awaken them to seeing cuts. Ie if you break the 180 rule or break the laws of physics. The art of editing is to be invisible. If the viewer sees you, you’ve failed. Well that was before reality Tv … now none of that matters.

Leave a comment

(Your email address will not be published.)