A cut is by far the most versatile, graceful
transition in your repertoire of edit types. It’s how most of us start editing, and it’s the best way to get from
scene to scene in a video.
As proof, study the edits in popular feature films and TV programs; more than 90 percent are cuts.
Fancy visual tricks like dissolves, wipes and digital effects happen rarely.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them. In the right places, those edits can turn a milquetoast cut into
magic. The secret is knowing when and how to use those dazzling effects in a video.
That’s what we’ll cover here: a quick study of different edits and how they can improve your work. For
those of you just starting to edit, this is a good place to learn how to get more from your system. If you’ve
already edited a few projects, this guide may give you some new ways to use standard edits like the
The cut got its name from early motion picture editing. To edit movies shot on film, editors physically
cut out the scenes they wanted to keep and joined them together with strips of clear tape. For many years,
editors and producers who wanted to tell stories on film could only use cuts.
Technology changed over several decades, but jargon didn’t. Today the basic video edit is still called a
cut, despite the fact that no physical cutting ever happens.
On screen, a cut appears as an instantaneous change from one scene to another within a program. Your
mind reacts to a cut the same way it reacts to your eyes blinking.
An eye blink clears the image in your mind and prepares it to process a new one. Stop reading for
moment and look around the room. Notice how your blinks punctuate the visual study of things around
The cut mimics that behavior. It lets you control where and how an audience focuses on the story in
your video by using a visual technique they react to naturally.
While cuts are the oldest and most primitive of edits, they remain the most popular tool to get from
scene to scene within a program. The reason: the cut itself is invisible.
You may recognize cuts as transitions in a video, but cuts themselves have no tangible, measurable
characteristics. At one moment you’re watching a shot, 1/30th of a second later, you’re seeing another.
Because the cut is hidden, it’s less aesthetically intrusive, and perhaps less likely to distract the audience
from your story.
Note the word perhaps in that last sentence. While the actual cut isn’t visually disruptive, the
relationship between the scenes you join can occasionally create a disturbing transition.
In these cases, the cut may amplify the abruptness, and your audience may end up feeling jolted.
Thankfully, decades of editing experience have taught us a number of ways to avoid jolting audiences
with bad video edits.
Variations on the Cut
Early editors discovered that cutting certain types of scenes back to back left viewers confused and
unsettled. The most obvious of these editing eyesores is the jump cut.
Two things cause most jump cuts: 1) cutting from one camera angle to a similar shot of the same event,
or 2) cutting straight from a shot where the subject moves in one direction to a shot where the subject
moves in the opposite direction. Both cause the subject to “jump around” inside the video frame, hence the
Until the last decade or so, editors and producers considered jump cuts taboo in videos and motion
pictures. Visual tastes and perceptions have changed, however. Some producers now purposely use jump
cuts to create a sense of urgency, or to starkly compress time. Still, it’s best to avoid jump cuts unless you
want to leave your audience feeling tense or agitated.
Unfortunately, you’ll probably face a few jump cuts when you edit virtually any video project. In a
wedding video, for example, you may want to cut out moments in a shot where your camera bobbled. In
most cases, editing out the unsteady section will leave a jump cut in the program.
The easiest way around a jump cut jam like this is a cutaway. As the name suggests, cutaways leave the
main visual storyline for a moment to show details about a different but related storyline.
Although cutaways interrupt the visual flow of the main story on screen, they don’t disturb the story in
the viewer’s mind. What happens in a cutaway appears to happen simultaneously with the main story.
In the wedding video, for example, you can cover a jump cut with a reaction shot of the bride’s parents.
The audience won’t think the wedding suddenly stopped when you cut away from the bride and groom. As
long as your cutaways stay short, (usually less than three seconds), you can hide jump cuts and still keep
the story moving.
You can also use cutaways to tell the audience more information about your story. To illustrate, look at
your watch or a clock for a moment and then look back at this page. You’ve just performed the real-life
equivalent of a cutaway. By looking at your watch, you learned what time it is, which is something
separate from what you learn reading this article. A cutaway can do the same thing for your audience.
Either way you use them, cutaways help remove jump cuts when the camera angle doesn’t change.
The Neutral Cut
Let’s change pace a little bit. Instead of a wedding video, pretend you’re editing a video of a local bicycle
race you taped this past summer. At a number of places in the tape, you have to join shots where the bikers
move across the screen in different directions. They round a big corner moving from right to left, and then
cruise down a straight-away moving left to right.
Jump cuts like these will leave the audience confused about which way the bikers are riding, or which
direction leads to the finish line. Ease their angst with a technique called a neutral cut.
In a neutral cut, also called a z-axis or “head-on” cut, you cut from a shot where the subject moves
across the screen, to a shot where the subject moves either toward or away from the camera. The words
“neutral” and “z-axis” refer to the fact that the subject has no lateral or side-to-side movement in the
Aesthetically, the neutral cut diffuses the jolt of a directional jump cut. It lets you cut scenes with action
moving in different directions without disrupting the action or confusing the viewers.
If you sandwich a two or three-second shot of bikes heading away from the camera between the shots
where the bikes change direction, the action will appear continuous, moving in the same direction.
A more complicated way to smooth out action-related jump cuts is the match cut. In a match cut, you
cut from one view of an event to another view of the same event taken from a different camera angle.
Match cuts perform the opposite function of a cutaway. Instead of cutting away to another part of the
story, match cuts reveal more of what’s happening in the main action. They’re so named because the action
in the second shot “matches” what’s happening in the first shot.
To illustrate, imagine the bike race video again. If you have an edit that joins two similar shots of bikes
gliding past you from left to right, you could use a short close up of a biker’s legs cranking on the pedals to
bridge the jump cut. As long as the biker in the match cut moves from left to right and at about the same
speed, the edit will maintain the action. At the same time, it gives the audience a better look at how quickly
the bikes are moving.
Ideally, the only thing that should change in a match cut is the camera position or angle. The subject
should be in roughly the same place, moving in the same direction and at the same speed in both
To make a match cut, you obviously need a shot of the same action or event that suitably matches the
shot you’re cutting from. Finding such a shot can be tough, especially if you didn’t shoot one on
Don’t get stressed if a decent match cut eludes you. You can probably fall back on tricks like cutaways
and neutral cuts to eliminate ugly jump cuts.
The Split Edit
Technically, cutaways, neutral cuts and match cuts are the same. If your edit system can make a simple cut,
you can use those three edits in your videos.
You’ll need more advanced technology, however, if you want to use more interesting, creative
One of these is the split edit, also called an “L-cut,” or a leading edit. In most traditional cuts, the sound
and visuals from a new scene appear at the same time. The moment the new image pops up, the new sound
comes with it. This style works fine for most editing scenarios.
In split edits, the sound from a scene cuts in either just before or just after the picture. Edits with sound
first are called an audio-lead-video split. Those with picture first are called video-lead-audio.
You may recognize the split edit technique from news programs and documentaries on television. In
them you often hear the voice of an interviewee a moment before you see their picture. Hearing their voice
first smoothes the transition from the narration to the interview segment. It’s a slick technique and
documentary videomakers use it regularly to get back and forth between interviews and narration.
Split edits can also hide minor flaws on your raw footage. If you interviewed the biker who won the
race and your camera bumped around during the first few seconds, an audio-lead-video split will solve the
Start the edit with the sound of the winner answering your question. Have your video come in only after
the camera stops bouncing. On your master tape, you’ll have a short gap of a few seconds where you don’t
have any video. Cover it with a cutaway of the winner finishing the race, or accepting a trophy after it’s
over. The result: a smooth transition into the interview that eliminates the minor camera bobble.
More Technology-based Edits
In addition to cuts, some edit controllers and switchers let you use more elaborate visual effects to
transition between shots in a video.
The most common is the dissolve: a gradual blending of two images as they transition from one to the
Dissolves most often mark the passage of time or change of location in a video. They’re also a way to
eliminate jump cuts. Scenes that would normally create a jump cut may look just fine joined with a quick
Dissolves can last as short or as long as you like. We often measure short dissolves in frames, longer
ones in seconds.
The duration of a dissolve will affect how the audience reacts to it. Longer dissolves will slow the pace
of the video, shorter ones will keep it moving quickly.
Fades are a type of dissolve that typically mark the beginning or end of a scene, often denoting a large
passage of time. Fades have roots in theater, where stage lights turn on and off to signal the start and end of
acts in a play.
Fading from a scene “down” to a black screen commonly ends a sequence. Fading “up” from black to a
scene often starts one.
Wipes give you another way to gradually move from one scene to another. Instead of blending them
together, wipes move patterns across the screen to get from one image to the next.
The patterns come in simple and complex variations. The simplest wipes are horizontal, vertical and
diagonal. In them, the edge of a horizontal, vertical or diagonal line “pushes” a new image over the old
More complex wipes involve shapes like stars, ovals, louvered blinds or rotating clock-like movements.
Wipes can even use “organic” patterns like fire, water or smoke.
As transition devices, wipes work best when they accent action in a scene. In the bike video, consider
using a vertical wipe that follows the cyclists as they leave the screen to reveal the next shot. A circle wipe
that originates from a spinning wheel and expands to reveal the second shot might be another.
You can also use wipes the same way directors use curtains in the theater: to mark the beginning and
end of a segment.
The digital special effect is a transition truly unique to film and video editing. It’s named rather
ambiguously because it describes an incredible variety of visual transitions. Things like slides, squeezes or
picture-in-picture transitions are common examples of special effects.
When to Use Them
As a rule, cuts are the best edits. A fancy visual effect every now and then in a video is good, too. Keep in
mind, however, that wipes, dissolves and other special effects leave a mark on your program and in the
mind of your viewer. A barrage of slick edits may look flashy, but may also draw attention away from your
story and toward the edits themselves. Use those flashy transitions to accent a particular moment or event,
and use cuts everywhere else.