Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Edits and Transitions
Author: Todd Billings
Once you have recorded and collected the shots, footage and interviews you need for a video project, it’s time to start the process of editing. Over time, like in any art or medium, the rules, styles and approaches to film and video editing have constantly evolved. In the early days of cinema, filmmakers used the continuity system of editing which was based on the principle of making their cuts as unobtrusive as possible. Their philosophy centered on the idea that the best cut is one that audiences don’t notice. Other film movements (such as the Soviet Montage movement of the 1920’s and early ‘30’s) were built on the belief that the power of film came from the editing process, specifically the juxtaposition of two images to create a third meaning, so they drew attention to their cuts.
Regardless of your approach, there are only a few ways to cut clips together, so let’s take a look at the types of cuts you can use and how they can help tell your story.
This is the main type of cut used in editing and will account for 90% of all the edits you see. The straight cut is simply placing clip B next to clip A with no transition added.
So named because it involves a “jump” in time and often a “jump” with the image. In the early days of cinema, this type of cut was considered a mistake, and something to avoid, but as times have changed, so have the rules for editing. It is frequently used in Youtube videos where subjects are addressing the camera and they cut out any pauses or mistakes in their delivery. The result is a series of “jumps” where we see the subjects’ position in the frame move from cut to cut.
The J and L cuts get their name from the general shape they make on the timeline. Both of these cuts help keep the viewer engaged and provide a better “flow” to the video than just using straight cuts the entire time. In the J cut, the audio portion (audio is usually on the bottom of your editing timeline) of clip B is extended to start while clip A’s image is still being displayed. For example, let’s say a person is being interviewed about burritos. (Yum!)
The video shows an image of a (delicious) burrito; first we hear the subject’s voice waxing poetic about burrito goodness while we continue to look at the burrito, then we cut to the onscreen image of the interview subject finishing their thoughts (or licking their lips).
The opposite of the J cut. In this instance, the audio portion of clip A continues under clip B. Our interview subject provides more information on burritos, and we cut away to show an image of a burrito being wrapped as we continue to hear the audio of the burrito expert from clip A.
Cutting on Action
Also known as “Match on Action”, this is putting two clips together in which an action started in the first clip is finished in the next. For example, a character walks towards a door and reaches for the handle in clip A. Clip B finishes the action by showing the door opening from a different angle.
This type of cut is different from cutting on action as it often connects two clips that are from different scenes entirely. This cut connects clip A and clip B with a similar visual element or movement found in both clips. A famous example is found in 2001: A Space Odyssey in which director Stanley Kubrick uses a match cut of a slow-motion bone tossed in the air by an early human to a floating spaceship. Both the bone and the spaceship are similarly shaped, and the slow-motion of the bone tumbling in the air is mirrored by the low gravity movements of the ship. They are completely different images from vastly different time periods, but the match cut effectively connects the two images to communicate to viewers that time has passed and humans have evolved.
Cross Cutting/Parallel editing
Cutting from two different scenes/locations happening at the same time. For example, person A calls person B in another state. As we watch their conversation, cutting from person A to person B’s response is cross-cutting.
Any cut which interrupts the continuous action of a scene. Often it is used to highlight plot points or otherwise inform the audience. For example, a person is resting on a couch, ready for a nap when we hear the phone ring. Cut away to a close-up of the ringing phone. Cut back to the person on the couch looking annoyed.
A series of cuts, often of images that condense a large chunk of time into a relatively short duration of screen time. For example, in the film Rocky when the title character is shown training for the big fight and finally makes it up the steps.
A purposefully abrupt, unexpected cut that calls attention to itself. For example, there could be a sudden cut from a very noisy scene to silence.This can be used for dramatic or comedic effects. If you watch the TV comedy 30 Rock, you’ll see the smash cut used frequently.
These are elements added between cuts to give them some visual and emotional depth. Some are subtle, while others can be quite gimmicky, so use them carefully and sparingly!
Clip A and B are overlapped just a bit and as clip A’s opacity is diminished, clip B’s opacity is brought up. This makes the transition softer than a hard cut between two shots.
This is the fade to black or fade up from black we often see at the beginning or ending of films and videos.
This is an old school cinema transition where a circle closes in on an image, often turning it into a black screen. (Think early Warner Brothers cartoons.)This effect was originally made in-camera with the operator adjusting the circular iris of the camera to close in on a subject to focus the audience’s attention or to signal the end of a scene. Nowadays this highlighting zoom-in can be done with other shapes, such as hearts or stars. But beware of the cheese factor!
This is another old school transition that “wipes” clip A from the screen from one direction to another, replacing it with clip B. Wipes can be from any direction and from almost any shape. George Lucas used a lot of wipes in Star Wars as an homage to his childhood movie experiences.
The camera quickly, abruptly moves so that there is motion blur. Cut to clip B which also starts with motion blur (in the same direction as the previous clip) so it appears as if we have magically changed locations during the whip.
Hidden Cut/Invisible Cut
Filmmakers have long toyed with the idea of having no cuts, or one continuous take, but the technology hasn’t always been available to do so. Alfred Hitchcock attempted this with the film Rope, but the longest scene he could shoot was twelve minutes due to limitations of the amount of film a reel could hold. His way around this was to use “Invisible or Hidden Cuts”. The way he hid the cuts was to have the camera move across or hold on dark areas of the scene or close-ups on character’s backs every ten minutes or so, stop recording, re-load the camera and start again from the last spot they filmed. Cinema magic at its best!