Close up photo of a computer screen showing a timeline in Adobe Premiere

How and when we change from one image to another in our video projects is very important to not just the style of our projects but how we move the story forward, what tone we communicate, and how the audience understands the meaning of the work. You can change between images using simple cuts. When what we need from one video clip ends, add another clip after. When we choose to end one clip and begin the next, though, can make a big difference in the resulting understanding.

To begin, let's make sure we’re all on the same page with the basics, namely, what’s a “cut?” A cut is the moment in a video where we change from one video clip to another. If we place two clips on our timeline, one directly after the other, the switch between the first and second clip is a cut even if we haven’t done any editing of the clips or touched any of the tools within the software itself. Cuts are changes that move a video forward. They might be a change from a close-up shot of one person to a close-up of another person. It could be a change from a wide location shot to a medium two-shot of people in conversation. Any time we stop playing one clip and start another, that's a cut.

Changing from one video clip to another is the basic concept behind the cut, but that’s not all there is to it. There are a variety of different ways to approach your cuts that can help to convey information differently and move your story forward in different ways. Here are five examples of cuts used in most films, television shows, and professional videos

  1. Cutting on Action is one of the first approaches to cutting that many editors will learn and get comfortable with. It’s one of the most fundamental ways to do what is usually the goal of a great edit: hide the edit. Cutting on action relies on similar movement occurring in two clips. Typically newer editors only think about larger movements and actions when they cut on action. This may be the opening or closing of a door. Showing a close up of someone grabbing a door knob and twisting and pulling it and then cutting to a wide angle shot of the same door as they’re pulling it open. That’s common and is a great example of cutting on action, but it does not have to be that big of an action to be effective.

    The key to cutting on action is the continuity of movement. A similar action moving in the same direction in the two videos at the point you cut. You could use something as relatively small as someone taking their wallet out of their pocket. In a wide shot show the person reaching down to their pocket, then cut to a close up of the pocket and their hand going in and coming back out, then cut to a medium shot of the person lifting their wallet to chest level to open it. That’s two cuts on action. You don’t even need to cut at moments that match. The hand doesn’t need to reach the pocket in the wide before you show it go into the pocket in the close up. The wallet can have barely left the pocket in the close up before you cut to them lifting the wallet to chest level in the medium shot. What’s important is that the movement is continuing. Downward movement to the pocket is continued between the wide and the close up shots. Upward movement of the wallet to the chest level is continued between the close up and the medium shots. It is the broad action of the cut on action that makes for a good cut not the specific details.

  2. Cutaways are any cut that interrupts the action by taking the audience away from the scene they’ve been watching and to a new scene. We literally “cut away” from one shot to present the audience with an entirely new scene. For example if a character in a film or television program has a flashback or is reliving an old memory and we cut from the scene we were watching them in to a new scene depicting the flashback or memory, that’s a cutaway. The cut from reality to a memory or fantasy is a frequent use of the cutaway technique. In a documentary, if we cut from someone describing an event to footage of the actual event, that’s another example of a cutaway. 
  3. J Cuts & L Cuts are very commonly used cuts where the audio from one video clip is used as a way to bridge the cut between two clips and create a more seamless experience. In your video editing software you can independently change the length of the audio and video associated with the clip. Consider a cut between two clips in the timeline. The L cut will extend the audio from the first video clip so that it continues even though the video of the second clip has started. The J cut will extend the audio from the second video clip so that it starts while the video from the first clip is still playing. They’re called J and L cuts because when you look at them in your video editing software they actually look a little like a J or an L. The most common use of J and L cuts are conversation scenes in narrative film and television. When cutting between two close ups of two characters having a conversation you may continue one line of dialogue over the close up of another character so you can emphasize their reaction. Alternatively, you might start a line from a character not in a shot before cutting to them in order to show surprise, make a line feel more like it’s interrupting, or just stay on the reaction of the character already on screen, because that is most important to the story. 
  4. Montage cuts are used to convey information or story almost exclusively visually in a short period of time. This may be a rapid succession of actions showing how someone prepares for their day. First them sitting up in bed, then pressing the start button on the coffee maker, then putting toast in the toaster, then pouring their coffee, then buttering their toast, then brushing their teeth, then buttoning their shirt, and then finally walking out their door. All very short clips of maybe only two or three seconds at most that the audience absorbs and quickly understands. Montage cuts will also often be used to convey a significant amount of work or activity that takes place over a long period of time. They are particularly popular for showing a character training in stories centered around sports. Montage cuts are also popular for showing a makeover for a person or the repairing, repainting, and decorating of a house. Ultimately, what the montage cuts are doing is compressing time. Almost like a highlight reel. Taking something that might take a long time to watch in real time and showing us just enough for us to understand what happens in a short amount of time. A great example of using montage cuts  is the beginning of the Pixar movie Up, which begins with a  montage of a man’s life from being a young boy, to being an adult and marrying the love of his life, to his old age and losing her.
  5. Match Cuts are when editors strategically choose a moment to cut between two clips that emphasizes a similarity between the two clips. This can greatly help with the flow of the cut and helping the audience to feel a connection between the two video clips. One example might be a close up on the flame of a candle and then cutting to a sunset that is the same or similar colors to that flame. One of the more famous examples of the match cut is the transition from prehistory to the future in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the end of the scene showing the dawn of mankind one of the prehistoric humans throws a large bone into the air. The camera follows the bone up into the sky and then follows it down as it falls. Suddenly the film cuts to a satellite that is about the same size and shape as the bone also moving down the screen like the bone was. This creates a visual and thematic connection between these two time periods. If you thought “that sounds like cutting on action,” you’re right! Sometimes a cut can use more than one of these techniques at a time.

    Match cuts don’t have to be visual, though. You can also use audio in a similar way. For example you could have a scene that ends with one person saing “Please be quiet, I don’t need any…” and then the  audio in the next scene starts with “... noise, we want more noise!” It could even be using the expectation of a loud noise to connect the scenes. You could have a character slamming a door in the first scene but cut just as the door closes without using the sound of the door slamming. Then in the second scenes someone drops a big pile of paperwork onto a desk and it makes a loud slamming sound. Using the similar sound creates a connection between the two shots. A match cut is using elements of the two clips, whether visual or audio, to create an aesthetic or meaningful cut.  

As content creators, we are constantly looking for ways to create visually appealing, dramatically enticing pieces of work. These five cuts can help us accomplish just that goal. Whether you’re making your videos at home via TikTok or using professional editing software like DaVinci Resolve or Adobe Premiere, your choices throughout the editing process are critical to the understanding of your story and your intention in any video.

For more information, tips and tricks visit www.mnn.org/learn for free workshops, professional courses, filmmaking bootcamps, and more resources to make sure your productions are successful.