It’s such an elegant little modifier: split. Psychology has the split personality, baseball the split-fingered fastball and the rest of us are left balancing our waistlines against the caloric lure of the sublime banana split.
In video, the term takes on a new meaning when you sit down to craft a video program. Here we enter the realm of the split edit, a technique that, once mastered, can add new levels of interest and audience engagement to your video editing efforts.
A Split What?
A split edit is nothing more than a transition to a clip that brings its audio and video in at different times. The edit point of one is offset relative to the other, so that your audience members either hear something before they see it or see something before they hear it. The power of this simple technique is its ability to present your audience with a change while maintaining your flow and continuity.
Let’s imagine we’re making a video about fire prevention. It might be for a company that makes fire prevention equipment, for a local fire department or even a local history video about a particular fire that happened to a historic building. We have interviews with some victims of past fires, and plenty of great B-roll shots of everything: from fire trucks racing to a fire scene to individual firemen battling similar structure fires.
One approach would be to slap a title up front and simply start right in on the firefighter footage with some appropriate music or nat sound (ambient audio from the source video). Or we could start with an eyewitness account. Or we could spice it up with split edits.
We’ll start the program with a traditional split edit.
- (We see a black screen but hear a woman’s voice over distant sounds of sirens and firefighters working.) "They told me the fire started because of some bad wiring in the basement."
- (Slow fade up on the face of a woman in an interview setup.)
- "We lost everything. Family photos, birth certificates — it took us years to piece things back together."
The split edit here adds dramatic emphasis. It forces the viewer to concentrate solely on the description carried by the voice for a few moments, allowing the scene to be set in their minds before they ever see the character speaking. The story itself precedes any impression the viewer might make about the person telling that story.
For just a moment, the story is universal. It’s anyone’s story. As the viewers, we’re free to imagine the fire in our minds. If the audio track continues to be compelling, we have lots of choices. We could easily fade up on the face of the person speaking in traditional interview style as described above, but the fact that we’re telling the story without needing to see the sync video also implies permission to leave the audio story running and provide our viewers with even more supporting video information before we reveal our main character.
Perhaps there are historic photos of the fire itself. Maybe we just have generic footage of fire fighters in action. In any case, since our audio and video are no longer locked into their original marriage, we’re free to spend some time setting the scene for our story with whatever imagery we’d like.
At some point, we will likely choose to introduce the video that accompanies the audio we’re using, showing the image of the person who’s been narrating our story all along. The whole point of the split edit is that your edit decisions don’t have to be directed at both your video and your audio stream simultaneously.
Splits on TV
If you watch newsmagazine programs you’ll find plenty of examples of split edits. The technique is often used there in interviews. We’ll see a shot of the reporter or interviewer introducing the piece at the anchor desk. The video cuts to a shot of the interviewee but the reporter’s audio continues under the new shot. This technique is frequently used to prevent jump cuts from appearing in the final package.
- Reporter: "Minister of Commerce Arthur Baker reports that copper production coming out of the region has been at record levels during the past year."
- (Over this voiceover, we see a medium shot of the Minister with a traditional lower-third identifier superimposed over it. At this point, the split audio switches to the incoming clip and, in perfect sync, we dive into a two-shot of a sit-down interview with the minister.)
- "Copper production has not only reached record levels this year, but will expand by 15 percent to 20 percent next year."
Accomplishing this edit is simply a matter of taking the full interview clip and the clip that contains the reporter’s voiceover and putting them on the timeline next to each other. Then unlink the audio and video tracks of both clips. This allows you to shorten the audio track of the incoming video clip to allow space to extend the voiceover under the footage of the sit-down interview.
Since the two-shot still has its video and audio linked, the transition to its synchronized audio and video feels relatively natural.
The split edit isn’t useful just for informational videos: the technique is equally at home in dramatic or comedy dialog.
- Scene: a family breakfast table.
- Girl: "But Mom–I NEED a cell phone."
- Mom: "Look, honey, we’ve been over this a hundred times. Who are you going to call anyway? You can’t use a phone during school–I pick you up and drop you off every day–and besides, cell phones are expensive. How many times have you left your GameBoy somewhere and we’ve had to go retrieve it later."
- (Mom continues on the audio track but the video track changes briefly to show the unhappy girl before showing Mom again.) "If you leave your cell phone somewhere, what’s to stop someone…."
The brief cutaway shot of the girl is a video-only insert over the mom’s soundtrack. The clip that starts with Mom speaking while we see the girl and ends with us both seeing and hearing Mom is an audio-leading-video split edit.
Yes, split edits are that simple. Now that you understand the technique, you’re ready to look at the transition between the clips in your timeline in a whole new way. Instead of thinking about a transition to incoming audio-video clips in one step, train yourself to look at it as having three distinct possibilities: (1) standard edit where the audio matches the video, (2) delaying the audio transition with respect to your video or (3) letting the audio from your incoming clip lead your audience into the incoming video.
The reason split edits are so effective is that they provide a higher density of change to the viewer. Instead of one edit where the audio and video cut at exactly the same point, the split edit gives the audience a chance to absorb a new juxtaposition of elements: established audio with new video following or established video with new audio fading in. These may seem like small distinctions, but, like adding a spoonful of sugar to a cold glass of iced tea, a split edit is another sure way to sweeten your communication with your audience.
Well, I guess it’s time for me to split!
Contributing Editor Bill Davis owns and operates a video production company in Arizona.
Sidebar: J-cuts and L-cuts
Split edits have been around so long they even have their own hip edit jargon you can use to impress your peers. If you cut just the video track and replace the downstream pictures with other images leaving it’s original audio in place, but allowing room for new video material, you’ve made a "J-cut." Allow the audio to come in before the video and you have an "L-cut." See the figure for a graphical representation of what we’re talking about.