Types of Cuts
Many different types of cuts are available when you hit the editing board. A cut isn’t just a cut, unless it’s what’s known as a hard cut. When choosing the type of cut to use at any given time, your decision will depend on four things: genre, length, style, and pacing. Some genres favor certain types of cuts, which are covered in the following sections.
The thing to remember is that there is never really a right answer. After all, editing is an art form, and you can go in whatever direction you choose. I can only offer guidelines on choosing the types of cuts that follow the pattern of where editing is today. Fifty years ago the trends were much different.
A standard cut, or hard cut, means simply cutting from clip A to clip B as shown in Figure 4.3. You can see here that a hard cut in the middle of this conversation would be seamless. There’s no question about where we are. However, if you want to transition to another part in the story, because of the jarring hard cut that its name suggests, it doesn’t give a viewer much time to acclimate to the new scene. This is why most hard cuts are contained within a scene and not used to go from scene to scene.
FIGURE 4.3 In a hard cut, the most commonly used type of cut, you cut from clip A to clip B.
Hard cuts are quite commonly used, especially in television. Usually, they are used when going from scene to scene. Often a transition isn’t needed to make a smooth cut to another moment in your film. The main advantage of hard cutting is that it gives the viewer zero time to process or question.
I always weigh the use of a hard cut based on what I’m trying to achieve in the viewers’ response. If I want them to be in moment A, and then instantly be in moment B, I use a hard cut. To make this work, you’ll obviously be depending on the audience members to transition themselves to that moment. If you’re traveling to a different time in the story, a hard cut isn’t a good idea because it’s perceived to be the same time period. I discuss the concept of time in Chapter 6.
The exception to this recommendation is if you’ve established the jumping around in time in advance. In that case, a hard cut is useful because the audience knows instantly where they are and the story moves much faster. Using a hard cut is entirely based on the context.
A jump cut cuts from a frame in a clip to a later frame in the same clip—or to a clip that looks very similar. The two shots in Figure 4.4 show what a jump cut looks like.
FIGURE 4.4 In this example of a jump cut, the frames look similar because they’re from the same exact clip. The image on the right, however, comes from much later in the clip.
In most cases, I don’t recommend jump cuts. If a scene has someone giving a speech on a stage, you wouldn’t just cut to a later point in the speech in the same shot. You need to cover the cut with a B-roll shot or cut to a different angle of the speech to keep the visual fluidity. However, at times you can use a jump cut for stylistic purposes. That’s something I tend to do quite a bit.
In the stylistic format, a jump cut can mean one of two things:
- Passing time
- Repetition over time
Let’s start with the idea of passing time. Say that a girl tells a boy, “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” The girl exits, and the camera fixates on the boy as he waits. The point of your story is that the girl takes forever to come back—or maybe doesn’t come back at all. You need to give the viewers the impression of time passing, without forcing them to sit there and watch him wait in real time. This is an ideal time to use a jump cut.
One way to create this type of jump cut is to lock your camera down and never move it. Then, have your subject run through a variety of actions and poses that are associated with waiting. Maybe he twiddles his thumbs. Then he paces back and forth. He does a few jumping jacks. He stretches. He lies on the ground. You record all that in one long clip, make cut points in the parts you don’t want, and then condense the long clip down into its many parts. In the playback, it looks like the subject moves around doing all these different actions, but the shot never moves. This trick gives the audience the impression that a lot of time has passed, but it only took you a small amount of time to do it.
Another way to do a jump cut involves repetition over time. This is the exact same idea, with less need to lock the camera down. Personally, I would still lock it down for seamless purposes, but it’s totally acceptable and even trendy to give it a fly-on-the-wall look. Let’s say this same boy goes into a clothing store to find an outfit for the big night. You set up your camera over his shoulder as he looks in a mirror and tries on 20 different outfits. You record one long clip and then cut out the dead space. It’s the same idea as the other jump cut, except the camera isn’t locked down. You might use this same technique in a dialogue setting when a character is doing a repetitive dialogue delivery. Maybe it’s a series of jokes or funny faces. The point here is that a character repeats an action in a variety of ways, and you choose to showcase them all, one after the other.
L-Cut and J-Cut
Editors also need to master L-cuts and J-cuts. A J-cut occurs when the audio from the next clip is heard before the video. An L-cut is when the video switches before the audio. The names of these cuts come from the shapes they make on the cutting timeline:
- J-cut means you hear the audio before you see the video that matches with that audio. It doesn’t mean you’re staring at a black screen. It just means you’re looking at clip A while hearing the audio from clip B.
- L-cut means you’re still hearing the audio from a shot but you’re seeing a new shot. The viewer is looking at clip B while still hearing audio from clip A.
Here’s an example of a J-cut: A character says his line, and the other character starts to say his line—but the camera remains on the first character. Then, in the middle of the other character’s response, it cuts to that second character. The J-cut is the key to creating good conversational dialogue. (Remember, conversations are the foundation for all of editing.)
A good way to practice editing is to take a conversation between two characters and try to edit it together in the most seamless way possible. You can’t do that without L-cutting and J-cutting because they make things more conversational. You are accustomed to seeing J-cuts and L-cuts because every drama show on television uses these techniques.
The question isn’t really about whether you should be L-cutting or J-cutting—it’s about the timing. You can find clues to the timing in the conversation’s grammar. When do you cut from one character to the other in a conversation? Listen to the dialogue and try to find the punctuation (such as commas) and beats in what they’re saying.
For example, look at this sentence: “I drove to the store, and when I pulled in the parking lot, guess who was standing right there?”
That sentence has two break points delineated by commas. You could use one or both commas as cut points. You might cut once at the first comma, and cut back at the second comma. Doing so offers a conversational flow to the scene and includes the character who is not talking as part of the response. If no natural commas occur in the dialogue, try to find the pauses in the dialogue. Use those moments as your cut points.
Remember these three things:
- For cut points, you can use multiple commas, one comma, or none. If you’re cutting to another character during a sentence, use the commas as your reference point for cuts.
- Cutting to the other character’s reactions is what adds conversational flow and reminds the audience that this is a conversation. By cutting to an expression, you’re creating the conversation. This is why the conversation is the foundation of editing. There doesn’t even need to be a response. By simply showing that other character, you have created the response. It’s so important to practice this because you do it in editing all the time.
- Not every piece of dialogue offers this opportunity. A character saying “Hello!” does not offer this same technique. You would never want to cut in the middle of a word. That situation is where popcorn cutting comes into play.
All the types of cuts are used in all genres, but drama is where you’ll find L-cutting and J-cutting used the most.
Popcorn cutting, which is generally reserved for comedy, is very simple: If a character is talking, they are onscreen. There are no reaction shots while someone else is talking. An extreme version of popcorn cutting is that to show a character’s reaction at a key point in the middle of the dialogue, you show the reaction, break the dialogue, and then cut back to the character speaking. Popcorn cutting is also sometimes used in fast-paced dialogue.
Pacing is an ever-changing phenomenon. It changes with the times, and can change right in the middle of a scene. The most important thing is to learn to be able to tell the difference between right pacing and wrong pacing. Once you know that, it’s a matter of trial and error.
Cutting on the Action
Considering the story arc and conflict are at the top of the list of important things in editing. This is not because they’re so utterly important to the actual craft of an editor, but because they’re important to the decision making of an editor. It’s also because they’re overlooked by most editors. Cutting on the action is the single most important technique when it comes to making films visually seamless.
The best kind of cut is one the viewers don’t see. Of course, you can see every cut, but some you notice and some you don’t. Cutting on the action is the best way to hide a cut. Cutting on the action is exactly what it sounds like: When action spreads across two or more clips, the editor makes a cut in the middle of that action.
Note that action is just another word for movement. For example, Figure 4.6 shows a man drinking. Your eyes go directly to the movement (you’ll have to imagine the movement in the still image). Always remember that in film: The viewers’ eyes go to movement. So when viewers watch the completion of an action across two clips, they don’t pay attention to the cut.
FIGURE 4.6 Notice how your eyes are drawn to movement—the man drinking. Cutting on the action means making your cut points in the middle of movements such as this.
Here’s the best example I can give: Consider a pitcher’s wind-up in a baseball game. Say you are filming with two cameras (or maybe one camera and you film the same scene twice). Your ideal cut point is in the middle of the pitcher’s release of the ball. As soon as his hand gets to the top of his release, that’s when you cut from one clip to the other. The hand motion is happening so fast that your eye is trying to find the finishing of the movement. The searching for movement across clips occurs instantly.
You can use this method on any type of shot. If you have a wide shot of a man setting a glass on a table, you can cut to a close-up of the glass as it hits the table in the middle of the movement. The movement can be fast or slow, big or small. As the editor, try to find the action and use that as a basis for cut points while factoring in everything else, and your cuts will be seamless.