Blog Home Filmmaking Film Editing 9 Essential Cuts Every Video Editor Needs to Know

In this video tutorial, check out some of the basic cuts every editor should know before tackling their next video project.

Top image via fedota1.

To outsiders and beginners, editing is perhaps one of the most misunderstood elements of filmmaking. Many assume that editing is nothing more than removing the bad and shortening clips. On a surface level, that may be true, but when we turn those assumptions into questions, we get closer to the art of editing. What is a bad moment? How much do I shorten that clip by? These core questions, and ultimately, the answers, will alter how the media is digested. 

Whether you’re editing on Premiere, Final Cut Pro X, Resolve, or Avid, editing is littered with important decisions that will benefit your story in significant ways or become a huge detriment. These are storytelling techniques, not technical details for specific software. They are fundamentals that will help your project find its voice and make it stand out from the crowd. Let’s look at the must-know basics every editor needs to know.


Standard Cut

In a sentence or two: The fundamental start to editing is the standard cut. This is the cut between two different clips next to each other.  

Standard Cut
Diagram made with elements from Polina Strelchenko.

Think of it as “shot, reaction shot.” It’s merely the end of one action and the beginning of another. This could be during the scene or from scene to scene. There’s not much added meaning here, but it’s essential to know when a cut like this can be useful — or even necessary. If you’re cutting a commercial or a corporate video, you’ll most likely just be conveying basic information in a very structured way without any flare or fuss.  

While the practice of editing software can be taught (you can learn DaVinci Resolve here), the notion of when to cut somewhat can’t. To an extent, it’s an intuitive feeling. And like drawing, it takes time to master. However, I recommend a book by famed editor Walter Murch titled In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing. Throughout its 146 pages, Murch, the editor of Apocalypse Now and Jarhead, runs through the fundamentals on the feeling of when to cut, and how you can help nurture your editor’s intuition. 

Well, on a certain level there’s always the basic question of “How do you put the shots together?” Like every editor, I have to find ways to choose the right material, and to cut to the right shot at the right time, and be on the right character at the right moment, and make action scenes dynamic and interesting, and come in on schedule, and all that kind of stuff. But those are not primary issues for me any more. I suppose it is a little like learning how to play a musical instrument: Once you get past the issues of fingering and learning how to read a score, you don’t think about them so consciously.

Walter Murch on the problems found in editing. From a Peachpit.com interview.

J-Cut

In a sentence or two: A J-cut will have audio from the proceeding video clip enter the next shot before the first shot has finished.

J-Cut
Diagram made with elements from Polina Strelchenko.

The J-cut is an absolute must-use edit for tying scenes together. Sometimes, you may find that your edit feels abrupt, even though it’s practically sound. This could be an edit that joins a beachscape to a car’s interior where two people are having a conversation. Even though a standard cut is appropriate, the juxtaposition from the calm beach to the noisy car interior can feel sharp. Using a J-cut, you could make this edit less intense by moving the audio under clip 1 and have it slowly fade to full volume until it reaches the start of clip 2. This is a J-Cut.

Additionally, a J-cut (& L-cut) would be used in a conversational scene to tie in audio from the proceeding clip to make the conversation appear natural. If we only cut to the character when they are speaking, the scene may feel mechanical.

As noted in the diagram, the J-cut takes its name because the audio from clip 2 shifts under clip 1 before clip 1 has finished and creates an J shape.
The idea here is to lead your audience into the next shot with the audio. It’s a simple-yet-obvious effect that will make a world of difference when you see and hear it in action.


L-Cut

In a sentence or two: An L-cut has audio from the first shot bleed into the second shot.

J-Cut
Diagram made with elements from Polina Strelchenko.

There’s not a lot to say about the L-cut, and that’s because I’ve explained everything under the J-Cut section. Yes, the L-cut is just like the J-Cut. But instead of the audio from clip 2 entering clip 1, the L-cut drags the current clip’s audio into the next shot—and creates an L shape.

Outside of conversational scenes, even though this effect is the opposite of the J-cut, it can have a much different impact on how people hear and see your scenes play out. Using the example from the J-Cut, hearing the audio from the car first invites us into the next scene. If we were to use an L-cut, and have audio from clip 1, the beach, follow us to clip 2, the car. It would promote a sense of melancholy or nostalgia about that location. The character is still mentally at the beach, while physically in the car.

For more on J & L cuts, check out our tutorial below.   

The three cuts above lay the foundation for the majority of edits, and outside of a few transitions, there’s not a lot of other arrangements for your media. However, what can change is how your edits are perceived, and this will be dictated by what you edit next to the active shot.

Let’s look at a number of techniques used by the pros.


Jump Cut

In a sentence or two: A jump cut is where a single shot is cut ahead into itself, making the subject appear sporadically through the frame. Usually used to signify a shift in time.

The jump cut offers a fast and entertaining way to keep your audience hooked. The technique is simple: take a long clip (long take) and cut it up, letting your characters jump around in time. It’s a jarring sight, but thanks to comedies and YouTube vloggers, the jump cut has been engrained into our collective subconscious as a viable way to speed up a scene.

Jump Cut

Due to the intrusive nature of the jump cut, it’s not a technique we often see employed in television or film,. That’s because it makes us aware of the edit. When it has been used in film, it usually serves for comedic effect.

However, as noted by filmmaker David F. Sandberg (Shazam), it also has purpose for trying together practical products in horror and action movies.  


Montage

In a sentence or two: The montage is a series clips that display a change in time, person, or location.

The montage has appeared in some of the greatest action films, comedies, and even horror movies in a cinematic staple. The montage shows the passage of time and captures character development in the smoothest way possible.

Used in action films, or in movies trying to evoke the nostalgic resemblance of an 80s action montage, this cut is typically used in showing the protagonist training for the next big thing. While Rocky wasn’t the first film to use a montage, it’s hard to dispute the impact the boxing film had with the popularity of montages, especially with the superstar theme of “Gonna Fly Now.”

Ever since Rocky, the training montage has been used in countless mediums from stop motion to anime.

You can create a montage in several different ways. Whereas the jump cut depends on location and scene, the montage is a sequence. Slap a catchy song over footage of your characters attempting to accomplish a goal. Chop it up, keep it at the right length, and you’ve got a successful montage. For long passages of time, be sure to transition clips with a cross dissolve

If you’re filming a training montage, be sure to incorporate the following for a more elaborate montage sequence:

  • Multiple costumes
  • Various times of the day
  • Various weather patterns

Cutting on Action

In a sentence or two: Cutting on the action is where you would cut from one shot to another angle that fluidly matches the first shot’s action

Perhaps the most significant and well-known cut is “cutting on action.” So what is it? It’s just that: cutting in the middle of a character performing some action, such as moving, turning their head, kicking, jumping, running, etc. It’s just a seamless way to take the audience’s eyes from one shot to another without realizing there was ever a cut. This cut is only possible if you have sufficient shot coverage, including wide, close, and medium shots. This will give you more to work with when you’re editing.

Cutting on Action
Video from The Stockyards.

In the example above, the cut on action follows the baseball players swing. As the cut matches the action from the prior shot, it holds a sense of kinetic energy.

Watch at least sixty seconds of the main fight from the Captain America: Winter Soldier sequence below. Cutting on action helps promote a sense of energy with the edits.

Action, by nature, is kinetic. You throw a rock at a window, the window will smash, and the stone will fall through the other side. However, watching that as a bystander is passive, and filmmaking allows you to make these moments active. In filmmaking, action shouldn’t only be seen; it also needs to be felt.

However, the term action doesn’t define something action-orientated like a brick thrown through the window. It could be as simple as a detective opening a briefcase filmed at a medium shot, and upon the case being halfway open, we cut into a close-up. But the action of the case opening remains consistent throughout, maintaining the kinetic energy of the movement.


Cross-Cutting

In a sentence or two: Crossing cutting is a form of editing that establishes two sequences at separate locations to be occurring at the same time.

While it seems more challenging than it is, cross-cutting is a perfect way to tell two stories simultaneously. Usually, these two narratives are playing out simultaneously, so you will cut between them both. The technique is as simple as showing one character doing something, then cutting to another character in another location doing something else, then cutting back to the first character. Perfecting the timing and narrative “play clock” can be difficult, but it’s an excellent way to tell two stories at once. The point of cross-cutting is to build suspense and create a sense of scope — a world big enough worth watching.

One of the most notable examples of cross-cutting is Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Toward the end of the film, the characters are displaced through several layers of “dreamworlds,” and each world’s events are felt within one another. Throughout the final act, we are continuously cutting back and forth between timelines.

Due to the nature of cross-cutting, it only works with meticulous planning. If you’re thinking about creating a story with cross-cutting involved, a quick tip would be to assemble both edits first, then edit the compiled sequences together. 


Cutaways

In a sentence or two: A cutaway is the suspension of a continuously filmed sequence by cutting away to a shot of something else. 

Hide Footage Errors with Cutaways
Cutaways are useful for covering issues in your footage. Image by BoxBoy.

Serving more as filler than anything else, cutaways are shots inserted into a scene that helps the viewer understand the characters’ environment. You can do this by pulling from B-roll on location. Cutaways can be wides, close-ups, or medium shots. Just make sure you don’t cutaway in the middle of a substantial line or moment.

Video from sebra.

In the clip above, there’s, unfortunately, camera shake mid sequence. However, if we cut to an insert, we can mask the (fictional) operator error.

Video from sebra and Gorodenkoff.

There’s not much information that needs to be explained about cutaways; they do exactly as titled. I often find that cutaways can serve as a band-aid when there’s an issue with the footage, but we still need the audio. Perhaps someone kicks the tripod, and the camera abruptly shakes, or the talent moves too far out of focus. If so, use a cutaway to mask the mistake. Of course, as noted, you can only do this if the material has already been recorded.


Match Cut

In a sentence or two: A match cut is an edit that uses elements from the previous shot to transition the next scene. The proceeding scene is usually wholly different from the first scene.

Perhaps the most visually arresting cut, the match cut lets you transport the viewer’s eyes into the next shot before they realized that it’s happened. The idea is simple: you cut as your character moves or does something and finishes the movement in another place or with another character in the next shot. This creates a fluid motion that keeps your audience’s eyes moving in whichever direction you want.

The match cut isn’t used often as it calls attention to the edit; it becomes noticeable when you want the edit to remain invisible. However, when used, and when used correctly, the match cut has ended up producing some of the most memorable cuts in cinema. Arguably the most notable example is in 2001: A Space Odyssey with the bone to space station match cut.

While it’s primarily used with visuals, a match cut can also be implemented with sound. A quick example would be a villain in hiding about to fire his gun towards the protagonist, and just as he pulls the trigger, we cut to the dong of a church bell in a different location. As the dong of the bell and the gun’s bang share similar loud audible properties, the cut will match seamlessly.


For more on editing tips and tricks, check out some of our past coverage here: