When watching a movie or TV show, the type of cuts used should be the furthest thing from your mind. In fact, as editors, our job is to hide our work, allowing a continuous, unbroken narrative for the viewer. Behind the scenes, however, there is a vast range of film cuts available to editors, each with its own purpose and storytelling use. We will walk you through the 10 most used film cuts in the film and television industry.
Part 1: Top 6 Essential Film Cuts to Make Great Videos
Editing techniques can be divided into two broad categories; those that are used for narrative flow and storytelling and those that are used for a stylistic reason. Let’s look at the 6 most used narrative film cuts.
The match cut is a tricky edit to get right and involves a little planning in your filming. The popular and cinematic style edit is created by matching elements of one shot to the next; while the technique of this effect is a straight cut, it is what is in the shots that turns it into a magical match cut.
Match cuts take a specific element of the first shot and pull it through to the second; this could be the position of a performer, prop or setting, or even the emotional reaction of your actor. A well-known example of a match shot is when Indiana Jones (The Last Crusade), as a young boy, is first given his hat; the actor’s head tilts downwards before cutting to present-day Jones looking back up. In this example, the hat matches the cut, while the location and actor change.
Generally used to give the audience an indication of a familiar element moving in time or space; in Titanic, we see the ruins underwater cut to a polished ship riding the waves, taking the audience back in time. Match cuts are also helpful for cutting from fantasy/dream sequences, such as the cuts between cars in Greased Lightning from Grease.
Jump cuts are used primarily to give the impression of moving through time, but they can also be used as a remarkable effect in music videos and sports content. A jump cut involves removing frames from the sequence, so the camera and location remain still, but the characters jump around the frame.
Jump cuts are used to significant effect in horror films, as the disjointed nature of the editing creates a supernatural and eerie effect. The movements that make Samara so disturbing in The Ring are emphasized beautifully with the use of jump cuts.
They can also be used for emotional context, with many films using a combination of jumps cuts and crossfade to show a journey taken. Jump cuts can also be used for emotional context, or to display a period of time passing. In the Little Shop Of Horrors, jump cuts show the passing time and growing boredom of the characters; the shot composition remains the same while the characters appear in different positions in the frame.
L Cut & J Cut
L and J Cuts are probably the most common cutting methods in TV and film; you will see it in everything you watch and won’t even notice it. An L cut is when the audio of your first shot continues over the second. A J shot is when the audio from your second shot begins over the end of your first.
The purpose of L and J cuts is actually to hide the editing involved. When filming a dialogue scene, for example, you will likely have a shot of each performer saying their lines. When you cut the sequence together, straight cuts can result in a rigid scene with a stammering conversation. By overlapping the audio with the previous shot, the conversation can feel more natural and fluid.
Cutaways are supplementary clips that are edited into a video to give additional context to the dialogue. Cutaways are mainly used in interview and documentary scenarios to show what the interviewee is talking about to add context.
You might hear cutaways referred to as B Roll, B Reel, and intercuts, but they all do the same thing; they show the audience what is being discussed. When editing an interview or documentary, it is essential always to start and finish on the interviewee; the cutaways allow you to cut away from your main subject and show the audience a little more.
Cut on Action
Cutting on action is a staple of editing in films and TV, using the action as a point to cut to the next shot. A fantastic example is a character entering a building; the first shot shows them opening the door before we cut to the inside of the building.
The cut-on-action edit is such a popular method of moving your viewer through the scene that it can feel a little odd when you don’t cut on the action. While cutting on a character entering a door is a simple edit, you can build a complex movement in a scene with this method. Action films, for example, often develop their fight sequences by cutting on the action. However, it is possible to overuse cut-on-action, such as Taken 3 which features a sequence where Liam Neeson climbs over a fence. There are 15 edits in this 6-second shot!
Cross-cutting is a term that does not necessarily relate to how you cut between shots but rather how you cut between scenes. Crosscuts involve editing back and forth between two scenes, matching pace and context.
Cross Cuts are mainly used for showing events that are happening simultaneously, either in different locations or involving different characters. You can also use the cross-cut effect across time where the scene’s context is the same, such as repeatedly cutting to flashback scenes/shots of a character telling a story.
Christopher Nolan is a huge fan of cross cuts, and he uses them frequently as a storytelling device. The Prestige uses cross-cutting to the extreme to tell a complex and interwoven story across different points in time, from multiple character perspectives.
Part 2: 4 More Creative Film Cuts Editors Need to Use
Sometimes you do want your editing to stand out a little; this is common in horror and comedy films, where the editing is used for emotive purposes as well as narrative ones. You should be careful how often you use these cutting styles in a movie, as too much can become distracting.
Dynamic cutting involves editing your shots in a super fast-paced fashion. While cutting your clips together to zip through them seems like a simple method of editing, there are a lot of aspects to achieving a dynamic result.
The key to dynamic editing is understanding how much information the brain can understand in just a few frames. When using dynamic cuts, you want to reduce the amount of information that changes between your shots, so consider the lighting, composition, and focus area of your clips.
The focus area is the part of the screen the viewer will keep their focus on, and it is vital to ensure all the essential information is within the same focus point of each shot. If you are dynamic cutting between people, ensure they are in the same space on the screen. The viewer will register the change of person but not pay attention to anything outside of the point of focus.
Smash Cut/Contrast Cut
Smash cuts are pretty much the opposite of match cuts, the intention of them being to shock or disorientate the viewer. When using smash cuts, the scenes you edit between should contrast the action, sound, or theme of the shot.
Films like American Psycho use the smash cut to darkly comic effect, cutting from blood-soaked murder scenes to the serene calmness of Bateman’s life. Smash cuts are often used to contrast violence or action with peace and tranquility or to take the audience from a heightened emotional state to one of safety.
Whip Pan Cut
The whip pan cut is an edit that uses a particular camera movement and requires planning and intention when filming. The method involves whipping the camera to the left or right at the end of the scene, and in the opposite direction at the start of the next. These are then edited during the motion blur whip to give the impression of the camera traveling from scene to scene.
Whip pan cuts are often used to move the viewer between scenes that are happening simultaneously. While there are examples of whip pan edits in other genres, they have found a home in comedy movies and sitcoms like Scrubs and How I Met Your Mother as a comedic device in itself.
Filmmaker Edgar Wright has been a fan of whip pan cuts since his early days with Spaced to all three Cornetto trilogy movies, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. The quick whip of the camera allows you to insert asides or punchlines visually that would otherwise need explaining.
The Invisible Cut is a demanding technique to pull off but has been made popular by the advances in CGI. As the name might suggest, the point of the invisible cut is to hide any editing from your viewer.
A fantastic example of the invisible cut is the New York fight sequence at the end of The Avengers, where we follow the scene from character to character. Aided by amazing digital effects, the sequence appears to have no cuts in it at all, creating a seamless stream of action.
The types of film cuts you use will depend on the subject and themes of the film you are making. All films will use a mix of these editing techniques to tell a story; it is a vital skill of an editor to know the right time to use which type of cut. Now you know how to use these incredible film editing techniques, think about how they can be incorporated into your projects to improve the storytelling for your audience.