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Filmmakers use a number of editing techniques in order to compress time or provide a visual break for the audience. One popular editing technique is known as a cutaway, primarily because it cuts away from the main action for a short time. A cutaway shot is not necessarily the same as a flashback or flash forward, in which the timeline of the film is moved backwards or forwards. A typical cutaway shot usually takes place at the same time as the main action sequence, showing the audience other plot points occurring simultaneously.
During a chase scene in an action/adventure movie, for example, the director may set up the action by showing two cars in hot pursuit of each other. After a few minutes have elapsed, the scene may suddenly cut to a shot of children preparing to cross a busy street. The scene then returns to the car chase, but the audience now knows a potential disaster now exists. The purpose of the brief cutaway shot was to establish a sense of suspense as the two cars race towards that same busy intersection. Because the director chose to cut away from the main action, the audience gets a heightened sense of anticipation.
The cutaway shot can also be used to fuse two separate plot lines together without taking too much focus away from the main scene. In order to create a sense of tedium during a classroom lecture scene, there could be several brief cutaways to a clock moving forward several hours. If a phone goes unanswered during a hostage scene, a brief cutaway shot could show the caller listening to his cell phone and hanging up. Many action movies feature cutaways in which law enforcement officers surround a building or a sniper takes up his position. The characters in the main sequence may not be aware of these developments, but the audience does.
Almost all cutaway shots are relatively brief, because they are only intended to provide a snippet or two of additional information to the audience. Watching a long chase sequence or lengthy monologue without a visual break could easily become monotonous for the average film or television viewer. Through the judicious use of cutaways, the director can continue to present the main storyline while simultaneously controlling what additional information the audience receives.
Famed suspense director Alfred Hitchcock once explained the power of a cutaway shot by describing a scene between two actors. If the two actors are shown having a normal conversation at a table and then a bomb explodes, the audience receives a ten second shock. If the camera cuts away to the bomb beneath the table first, however, the entire scene becomes much more suspenseful, since the audience is now aware of the impending explosion. This is one reason why many film and television directors use cutaway shots to aid the storytelling process.