Learn about the advantages and disadvantages of classic insertion in film and video. Let's explore the basics and see some famous insert recordings.
There are many elements of great films and cinemas that make them memorable. For some people, Martin Scorsese might be using immersive long take tracking footage to get you into the action. For others, it might be how Terrence Malick works miracles by circling his actors in a wide angle shot with a sleek steadicam.
But by far one of my personal favorites is how Joel and Ethan Coen (a.k.a. the Coen brothers) seem to have mastered the almighty and important insert recording to provide crisp clarity and mostly comedic relief. However, it's not just the Coen brothers who use this cinematic staple. While it seems simple and self-explanatory, it is actually one of the oldest tricks in the book that you can use to tell a story in your movies or videos.
Let's cut it short enough for a moment to examine these critical insert shots and how you can master them for your film projects.
What is an insert shot?
Before we dive into insert shots, let's first define them in their simplest terms. Screenwriting.io defines the inset shot as "… a shot – often a close-up – that focuses on a particular detail."
These "inserts", as they are often called, help cover actions that have already been shown in an alternate or master shot, but are intended to highlight another aspect or element as represented by that alternate design.
In filmmaking practice, insert shots – sometimes called cutaway shots – are any shots that you add to add additional visual information to help you with your cinematic storytelling needs. These are often close-up shots that show certain information such as newspaper headlines, items, weapons, or other small items such as door handles.
Technically, however, insert shots aren't all close-ups. They can include any number of shot styles or techniques for any of the standard shot types. The key element is that they are edited or "pasted" into a scene to provide further thematic clarity.
Famous insert shots in the cinema
While insert shots are standard in nearly every area of video production, they are often most notably and memorably used by famous directors like Quentin Tarantino, as you can see in the video above. Using these examples from Pulp Fiction, you can see how Tarantino uses insert shots to focus key details (e.g., driver's licenses for names) on thematic elements (e.g., characters trying to wash their hands before violent acts ).
But not only in modern filmmaking and cinematography do we find insert recordings. The practice dates back to the earliest days of cinema. Along with other film clips like the shot reverse shot, we can see examples of inserts in famous settings like the "Rosebud" release in Citizen Kane.
We can also see highly stylized versions of insert shots over the course of the careers of filmmakers like Wes Anderson, who have found new and playful ways to work with inserts as part of the set decoration and overall aesthetic of a film. And I'm sure, as Anderson's longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman will tell you, a well-shot and well-timed insert can be hugely powerful in creating a world of kitsch and wonder.
How to shoot an insert shot
Proximity operations in the same way as any other close-up. As mentioned earlier, missions often focus on small objects and highlight very specific details. This means that inserts by shooting with long lenses lend themselves to flat compositions.
Also, insert shots on paper seem a bit easier than other types of shots, as they're often static and shot with macro lenses. Still, as you can see in the video above, they can be challenging. After all, the key to a good insert isn't just showing information. It's about displaying information in a compelling way.
Recording insert shots provides the opportunity to experiment with different and unique lighting conditions, add subtle movement for movie effects, or find creative ways to undermine audience expectations by potentially providing more or less information than they might expect .
When and how to edit inset recordings
It's also important to realize that making insert shots is only half the battle. An insert recording is only truly successful if you use it at exactly the right time in your editing to advance your story. Cutting on a side dish too early or lingering too long on an insert can damage both the story and the flow of your project.
Insertion recordings must follow the same basic rules for composition and editing. You should also use techniques like eye line matching to make sure viewers understand where these inserts came from and why they are seeing them.
You can also consider other transition techniques to add greater impact to your stakes. Cuts like jump cuts, J and L cuts, and other cutting basics are a good place to start. Also consider more stylized cuts like Smash Audio cuts. However, don't be too complicated. Make sure that only information relevant to the time and location of the scene is shown on the insert.
Cover image of The Lord of the Rings via Warner Bros.
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