Picture the quick-cut transitions and comedic editing style of any Edgar Wright movie (the work of editor Chris Dickens, usually), the flash-bulb cuts and freeze frames of Martin Scorcese films (editor Thelma Schoonmaker), or the frantic and fabulous opening scene in City of God (editor Daniel Rezende). These are all different types of creative editing techniques and cuts that one can make when putting together a story.
Once you master the edit types and learn why each one is important in different circumstances, you can make your projects more entertaining and your editing more efficient. You can create a whole editing style of your own that reflects your creative side. But first, you have to learn them. Here are the different types of cuts (and a couple of transitions) you should know.
Check out 13 of the editing techniques we’ll cover in the video below!
This is the basic cut (also known as a hard cut) that combines two clips, connecting the last frame of one and the beginning frame of the next. This is the most common cut and doesn’t really invoke any meaning or feelings, as others do.
This is a cut that pushes forward in time. It’s normally done within the same frame or composition, and often it’s used within montages (see below). Here’s an example of jump cuts in the Pond5 “Create with Us” spot, at :13 and :20 seconds in:
A montage is an editing technique that, again, signifies the passage of time or helps to give an overall context to the story with quick cuts. You will often see athletes training or preparing for a big match in montages (Rocky IV has EIGHT!), but it can really be used for almost any transformation by any character(s) and is normally underscored by music.
A cross dissolve can serve several purposes and motivations within the story. It can signify a passage of time or use the overlapping “layers” or dissolves to show multiple stories or scenes happening at once but shot at different times. The most famous example of this is probably Apocalypse Now, but my favorite is from Spaceballs.
*Tip: most editors don’t use cross dissolves for standard editing. There should be motivation behind the dissolve.
A wipe is a transition using an animation (mostly digital these days) that “wipes” the first scene away into the next scene. There are basic wipes (Star Wars), and there are more complex ones (The 90s TV show Home Improvement is coming to mind), but they can be seen as corny or cheesy, depending on whether you’re a snob or not. I’ve used star wipes, but only as a joke. Take these ridiculous wipes from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job. They work as a funny transition:
This transition is pretty self-explanatory. You fade out one clip and fade in the other. This eases a viewer into a particular scene, shows disparate imagery back to back (more of a “dip” in/out), or most often implies a passage of time. This can be a night-to-day switch or someone falling asleep but can be a bit jarring if not used properly. Nearly every modern movie trailer employs this fade in/out technique. It’s a way to push a story forward and increase the drama without showing every detail, bouncing around between various visual elements of the story. You don’t really want to use this type of cut for standard applications, as the fade can imply more than simply transitioning between different shots within a scene.
Remember that a fade in/out is typically black, but plenty of filmmakers fade/dip to white when transitioning to somewhere bright or the afterlife. Horror movies can even fade/dip to red because, you know, blood.
J or L Cut
J and L cuts are incredibly common. They get their names from how the clips line up in the editing software. An L cut is used when you want audio from clip A to continue when clip B comes in. The J cut is the opposite, where the audio from clip B comes in when we’re still seeing clip A. Pretty much every documentary interview you’ve ever seen uses J and L cuts throughout. This video on Brooklyn Brewery is pretty much all J and L cuts.
Cutting on Action
This is what it sounds like. You cut at the point of action because that’s what our eyes and brains naturally expect. When someone kicks open a door, we expect to see the change in angle when the door is kicked, not after it’s flown open and swaying for a moment. The bathroom scene from Pulp Fiction is an example of pretty much every cut being on the action (other than the cutaways, but more on that next).
Cutaways are shots that take viewers away from the main characters or action. They give extra context to the scene and can create more tension and foreshadowing.
If you watch that scene from the last step again, you’ll see the cutaway shots that bring the whole thing together. The most important cutaway is at the end (which is only a couple of frames), when the pop tarts are popping out of the toaster. Tarantino cuts away to the cabinet to show the pop tarts, then to the gun, then to the bathroom door, all to give us the context and tell us that ‘there’s a dude in there!’ Then we forget about the pop-tarts until BAM — they pop out, and the shots are fired.
Cross Cut, aka Parallel Editing
This type of editing is when you cut between two different scenes that are happening at the same time in different places. It can be great for adding tension (heist movies use a lot of parallel editing, like showing someone breaking into a safe while a security guard walks toward their location). The quintessential cross-cut example these days is Inception since there are four levels of (un)consciousness all happening at once — but this scene from Lord of the Rings is a good example as well.
A match cut is an edit that gives context and continuity to the scene and pushes it in a certain direction without disorienting the viewer. You use it to either move between scenes or move around a space while keeping everything coherent. A very basic version is shooting someone opening a door from behind and then cutting to the opposite side as they walk through it. The most famous examples of match cuts are 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia (coincidentally when he blows out a match), but Tree of Life also contains match cuts (and many other types described previously) in the eternity scene.
If you’ve got a loud scene that immediately goes to a quiet scene or vice versa, this is where you’d use the smash cut. You want to use it when you’re transitioning between two completely different scenes, emotions, or narratives, and you need to make an abrupt transition. This is used a ton when people wake up from dreams, and it’s also used quite often in comedy — it’s also referred to as a “Gilligan Cut” because the television show Gilligan’s Island often employed this edit. It’s when a character vehemently disagrees or is 100% confident about their stance, and then you cut to them doing exactly the opposite.
You can really prove just how creative you are as an editor (or how organized you are in pre-production) by adding some invisible cuts in your video or film. These types of cuts aim to keep the shot looking like one continuous take. Invisible cuts were used to nab Oscar Gold in Gravity, and are the main reason Birdman appears to be seamless. You can replicate this by filling the end of one frame entirely with something black or low-lit (or of a similar color in general) and blending it with the beginning of the next clip or doing something like a whip pan (a staple of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films).
Another way to create invisible cuts is by using a light leak or lens flare, or a foreground object to fill the frame and transition to the next clip or scene. Here’s a quick example I did using a couple of Pond5 clips:
Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur clips by fuzzfocus
This technique is a bit different than the previous ones because this is utilizing audio to start or end a transition rather than visually manipulating the video layers in the timeline. Sound bridges can be music, sound effects, or even dialogue that “bridges” the gap between shots or scenes. Think of a scene where a character is in a dream sequence, and they hear an alarm clock going off (J-CUT) that gradually gets louder and louder until (SMASH CUT) they wake up in their own bed as the alarm is ringing. Interstellar utilizes dialogue (J-CUT) to build up and eventually transition to the rocket taking off around the 3-minute mark here:
As you can see in the parenthesis above, these are usually paired with one or more of the other transitions on this list, adding an audio component along with the story’s visual language. This allows an editor to add even more depth to a transition and can also be a way to simply ease a cut from one shot to the next.
This technique is a bit different than all the others because it’s not necessarily a “transition” in the traditional sense of the word. The basic idea is to scale, crop, mask, or overlap different shots into one panel. These different panels can be something as straightforward as 1 actor playing 2 people (The Parent Trap, et al.), additional angles of the same shot, or they can be something much more complex. For instance, split screens can portray two characters going about their day in different locations, ending up in the same location, and ending the shot with a motion-controlled camera rig with a seamless transition. Check out the shot here in The Rules of Attraction:
Additionally, split screens have been used to show different realities of the same event, like in (500) Days of Summer:
Another quite common use of the split screen is to give additional context to a scene. Essentially you’re creating a (cross-cutting) montage that doesn’t have to move “off” of one shot into the next. You can show the progression of one shot while bringing in other panels to show what else is happening around it. The TV show 24 was notorious for this, while Ang Lee’s Hulk also did something similar.
As for making it a “transition” like the others on this list, you can do it in a few ways. Editors can scale one panel to fill the frame after the split screen, or they can show shot A, then shot A+B together, then do a straight cut to shot B. Think of a phone conversation between 2 or more characters. This allows an editor to go to any location within the phone call and instantly change the scene. Our friends at Premium Beat have a great piece all about Split Screens and is absolutely worth a read. This clip from Mean Girls also shows how to move around with tiles (and also: LANDLINES).
The last thing I’ll say about types of edits is that you can experiment and create extra layers to your story by using multiple techniques simultaneously. You can use a match dissolve (someone turning into a monster or creature), a matching cross cut (twins experiencing a feeling at the same time in different places), smash cut-j cut (someone wakes up from a dream and their partner off camera asks them if they’re okay), etc., etc. A good example of all kinds of cutting techniques is in the film Spring Breakers:
If you want one last example of all the types of cuts, let our friends at Rocket Jump Film School help.
Feeling inspired?! Put your skills to the test and try these new techniques using complementary assets from the Pond5 Free Collection. You’ll find unique, beautiful, and high-quality stock footage organized by popular categories and a large selection of stunning photos. Grab the perfect soundtrack to complement your project in the wide variety of free stock music choices spanning multiple moods and genres. Now get to cutting, and don’t be afraid to experiment!
Top image: Vintage 8mm Movie Editing Desktop with Reels and Clapper by fabiopagani