No video transition is so simple and inexpensive as the cut. And none is so powerful.
Ever been to a party where the soft-spoken guest who hangs out in the corner turns out to be more interesting than the loud guest who tries to impress everyone?
Two weeks after the party, you probably remember the loud guest for being exactly that–loud.
You remember the quiet one, however, more for what he said than how he said it.
The cut edit has much the same effect in your video as the soft-spoken party guest. It’s an edit
that’s always around, but it rarely draws immediate or undeserved attention from an audience. Its simple,
understated nature helps keep your viewers focused on what your video is saying. It is one of the most
popular editing tools in your videomaking arsenal, and one of the most versatile.
Luckily, even the most basic editing systems allow you to make cut edits. That means you can
probably put cuts to work for your videos regardless of your budget.
In this column, we’ll take an in-depth look at the cut and what makes it such a powerful editing
tool. Armed with this information, you can learn how to make the most of this basic workhorse
What is a Cut?
A cut is the most basic of editing transitions. It appears as an instantaneous change from one visual
image to another on a television or movie screen. The term “cut” comes from motion picture editing, where
editors physically cut and splice different pieces of film together to make a movie.
Video editing pioneers in the late 1950’s used a similar “cut and splice” technique to make video edits.
Thankfully, electronic video editing arrived late in the 1960’s and rescued video editors from the tedious
and often inaccurate practice of editing videotape with razor blades and glue.
Now, instead of using cuts and splices to assemble scenes in our videos, we use sophisticated
electronic equipment to precisely arrange how we record a series of shots on videotape. It’s an entirely
different process from that used nearly four decades ago, but the result is the same.
The Cut’s Purpose
Walter Murch has edited many highly acclaimed motion pictures, including “Apocalypse Now.” In his
book, “In the Blink of an Eye,” he talks about the purpose and meaning of editing stories on film. Among
his many insights is the idea that the cut edit is the filmmaking equivalent of the discovery of flight. You
might wonder why anyone would consider something as simple as the cut to be so important.
The fact is that cut edits allow us to break the laws of time and space in our videos. As humans,
we’re locked into obeying the Earth’s “rules”–as videomakers, we’re not. With the cut, we have the
freedom to explore and distort the dimensions of space and the passage of time as much or as little as we
With the ability to make cut edits, you can shoot your videos out of sequence, or in discontinuous
order. When you’re done shooting, you can use cuts to reassemble the pieces in the proper order, and
reconstruct the story. Most major film companies create motion pictures this way because it’s more
efficient and less expensive. They travel to one location and shoot all of the scenes that happen there. Then
they pack up the gear and head to the next shooting location. When they’ve captured the last shot, the
editors use cuts to reassemble all of the scenes into the final film. If you have the ability to make cut edits,
you can use the same out-of-sequence shooting technique to save time and money in your projects.
Since the ability to cut lets you shoot your video out-of-sequence, it also lets you present a video
that takes place in discontinuous or disjointed time. You can use cut edits to change the perceived time
(also called “screen time”) of a particular event in a video. You can make a long, dull event seem shorter
and more interesting on video by simply cutting out the boring parts. And you can extend a compelling
moment that lasts only few seconds by showing it from a number of different perspectives.
Had we never discovered the cut edit, we would have subjected ourselves and our audiences to
some excruciatingly long, boring videos. Imagine a “This is Your Life” video about an 80-year-old
individual. Without cuts, that video could last anywhere from 80 minutes to 80 years depending on how we
shoot it. Thanks to cuts, it doesn’t have to.
Just as they give us tremendous flexibility with the passage of time in a video, cuts also let us
quickly jump from one place to another. While it takes us a day to get from New York to Los Angeles in an
airplane, it only takes 1/30th of a second in a video.
Used properly, a cut can bridge a gap of any distance. We don’t need to show all the necessary
steps to get from point A to point B, like driving to the airport, checking in the bags, boarding the plane
and so on. As long as the two scenes communicate the change in location without creating a jump cut, you
can take your audience to anywhere in the world in the blink of an eye.
Why Do They Work?
As humans, our lives unfold in a continuous, linear sequence of events. We expect the sun to rise at a
certain time and set at another. We anticipate each work day to last the same amount of time, and each year
to pass one day at a time.
We know that if we want to get from one place to another, we have to travel the distance between
them. These simple facts have become second nature, to the point where we rarely think about them during
our daily lives.
How is it that something like television and video, which completely disrupt and distort the
notions of linear time and three-dimensional space, don’t leave us feeling uncomfortable or out of place?
Even more interestingly, why do we often choose to spend lots time absorbing these completely unfamiliar
representations of our world?
Part of the reason is that the cuts that help create these representations don’t actually exist.
Although we can recognize and identify what happens when we see a cut, we can’t isolate or pinpoint
anything tangible to represent the cut itself. It’s simply an instantaneous change from one image to the
next. That “invisibility” of the cut explains why we often don’t see them in a video. It doesn’t, however,
explain how our minds are able to follow a story that includes sudden shifts in visual information.
One theory that does attempt to explain it says that the constantly changing, shifting world we see
on television and movie screens isn’t all that unfamiliar. According to the theory, the experiences we
capture and create on video resembles what we see in our dreams. Since we spend as much as a third of our
lives dreaming, it’s quite plausible that we like to watch films and videos because we like to dream.
If that’s the case, then videomaking, and more specifically, editing, is a way to bring our dreams into
Another popular theory, one mentioned in Murch’s book, says that our minds perceive cut edits in
much the same way we perceive eye blinks. We tend to use blinks to punctuate how we visually absorb the
world around us. We focus on an object for a certain time, and then blink before we focus on the next. In a
video, a cut does the same thing for an audience. It telegraphs the end of one visual idea and announces
Occasionally, the relationship between two scenes joined by a cut does indeed jolt an audience.
This effect, often called a “jump cut,” usually happens because of a conflict between the two connected
scenes, and is not a fault of the cut itself.
Make Better Cuts
OK, you’ve got some background info on the meaning and purpose of cuts. Now it’s time to try to put
that knowledge to use improving your videos. You’ll learn the most about how to use cuts by actually
sitting down and editing your projects. Reading about them can only do so much. To get you started,
however, here are some ideas to help you use cuts more effectively. These aren’t rules etched in stone,
never to be broken. Instead, they’re rough guidelines to help you make decisions or get out of an editing
jam. If you find yourself compelled to try breaking one of them, go right ahead. That motivation is what
great editing’s all about.
Make a cut for a reason. Don’t cut simply because you can. Have a clear, defined motivation
for making a cut edit. Virtually anything can motivate an edit. You can cut to the beat of a song, cut when
the action in a scene finishes, or cut before the camera suddenly gets unstable. Cuts motivated by an
emotion will have the most impact on your audience. In a wedding video, for example, as the couple
exchanges vows, it might be nice to cut to a shot of the parents reaction to the moment. The motivation is
show how the parents feel, and make the audience feel the same way.
Ultimately, you should know exactly why you need to make a cut edit. Remember that we don’t
measure the quality of the video by the quantity of cuts in it.
Cut to something new. When you make a cut, make sure you show the audience either a new
idea or a new look at whatever was in the previous scene. Don’t cut to a different view of something just to
show a different view. If you do, you’ll almost always make a jump cut. Instead, cut to a view of the scene
that will give the audience more information about what’s happening.If you’re cutting from a wide shot of
something, cut to either a medium shot or a close up. Make the cut reveal more details about the subject in
Cut to move the story forward. Unless you specifically want viewers to feel as though time
and the story are standing still, make each cut turn a mental page in the their mind. Don’t show more
details about a scene than you need to. Use cuts to eliminate the unnecessary shots, and take the audience
to the next logical step in the story.
Although it’s the simplest and most primitive type of edit, the cut remains the most popular way to
move from scene to scene within a film or video. Nearly 90 percent of the edits in what we watch on
television and movie screens are cuts. Studying the edits in popular films or television shows can teach you
a tremendous amount about how cuts work. If you’ve never taken the time to do it, you should. You’ll see
first hand just how pervasive cuts are in a program. You’ll also see how professional editors use them to
tell a story. As you watch, ask yourself why editors chose to make a cut when they did, or what new details
each cut reveals about the scene or story.
Finally, when you make your videos, the goal shouldn’t be to make the audience notice your great
camera work, or clever editing. Instead, you want them to remember the story you’re telling.
Cuts are the least obtrusive editing tools available, and the easiest to use. And learning to make the
most of them can help assure your videos look the best they can.