May 26, 2021

The Three Basic Cuts in Film Editing

Joe Dante, director of Gremlins, famously said “film editing is where movies are made or broken. Many a film has been saved and many a film has been ruined in the editing room.”

It’s true! An editor has enormous power over the final look and feel of a film. Many films change drastically in the editing room, such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which was panned upon release but later hailed as one of the greatest films ever made after an extensive recut. You need look no further than the online trend of cinephiles recutting classic trailers to change a film’s genre. A movie is not a movie until it’s been edited.

Today, we’ll look at some of the most important film editing techniques to give your movies energy and tell your story in novel ways.

The Invisible Cut / Continuity Cut

Film editing is an art that is designed to go unnoticed. If an audience watches your movie and doesn’t notice the editing, consider that a resounding success! The average movie contains over a thousand cuts… some go on for minutes, while others last for just a fraction of a second. You don’t want your audience to notice every single time you change camera angles, as it would detract from the story! Your goal should be to make the vast majority of these cuts unnoticeable, to flow freely from one shot to the next in a way that feels natural. It may look effortless on screen, but every frame must be perfect to make your edit seamless!

You can create invisible cuts by cutting on motion (for example, having your subject begin an action on camera A and cutting to camera B as they finish the action). You may also elect to space out your cuts rhythmically, alternating between short and long takes based on music or the mood of the scene. There are many other methods to create invisible cuts; try experimenting to see what works for you!

Film editing can be a long and complicated process.

The Smash Cut

Unlike the previous method, this is a film editing technique that calls a lot of attention to itself. Smash cuts smack the audience in the face with an image that is shocking, or deliberately contradicts the scene preceding it. Imagine a scene where a teen boy is telling his parents that he absolutely will not host a party at their home while they’re away on vacation. Smash cut to: the boy crowd-surfing in their wrecked living room! You’ve probably seen similar scenes in films, as a smash cut can be a great tool to transmit comedy or surprise to your audience.

A smash cut is best used when the audience isn’t anticipating it. Consider adding a few seconds of silence, or “dead air” before your smash cut, to subconsciously prime them for the surprise. This is a technique that is commonly used in horror films – some movies like The Conjuring deliberately extend this tense silence for minutes on end before surprising the viewers with a loud jump scare!

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Split Edits

This type of film editing is a bit more complicated but goes a long way in making a film flow from one scene to another. Split edits are cuts between shots where the audio and video transition at different times. For instance, imagine a scene where a woman looks up at a clear sky. The audio transitions to the sound of a heavy thunderstorm, before the image cuts to the woman inside her home watching the rain. The sound of the storm prepares the audience and forms a link between the two scenes.

This technique can also work in reverse: picture another scene where a man is driving a racecar and swerving wildly. The image transitions to a shot of him in a full-body cast in a hospital room, while a loud crashing sound is heard. This time, the sound from the previous scene masked the transition. These types of cuts are also referred to as L-cuts or J-cuts, because the structure of the audio and video tracks form these shapes when viewed in an editing program. 

These are just 3 of many kinds of film editing that can be used to make your movies engaging. Learn more about film editing and post-production through the Digital Filmmaking & Video Production course at F.I.R.S.T. Institute.