Video editing techniques comprise how you select, join, and transition between different sequences of footage.
Sounds simple, right? But the decisions are not simply practical but aesthetic. And how you make these transitions has an impact on how the film is perceived by the viewer.
How can a filmmaker use video editing techniques to change the viewer’s experience?
Done right, edits help him or her to:
- stay interested
- follow the plot and feel excited about what’s going to happen
- focus on the action
- experience emotions such as fear and joy, and
- delight their senses
These days, film editing is a lot easier than when it had to be done by hand, and when the film physically ran out. Making cuts and transitions is often a matter of dragging things around on a desktop.
The technology might have changed but the principles of editing remain the same.
Video editing techniques are meant to be invisible!
As a beginner and film-lover, the problem with learning video editing techniques is that they are often invisible or overlooked.
If a viewer primarily sees the edits, then the editor has usually failed.
Because in rare cases, the edits are meant to be noticed. Sometimes, this happens in comedies when the edit becomes the film’s subject, such as these famous, quick shots (smash cuts) by director Edgar Wright.
Other times, the edit is so good that you can’t help but notice it, such as this famous “match cut” (featuring a match!) by David Lean and editor Anne V. Coates.
99% of the time, though, cuts and transitions are the invisible glue holding a movie together and helping shape a viewer’s experience.
The craft of editing is rich and complex, but the principles are simple. So, here are the best basic video editing techniques, cuts, and transitions, that every starting-out video editor should know if they want their video to stand out from the ever-increasing crowd.
Video editing techniques: Cuts
Technically, a cut is what happens (or used to happen) when you chopped up rolls of developed film and put them back together again. Obviously, this was vital because the rolls of the film ran out. It was also beneficial because you would rarely want to watch all the rushes (footage) on a roll of film.
Filmmakers quickly realized that the way you cut (edited) the film had an impact on the way the viewer perceived the film. Not only that, but it also encourages you to make assumptions about what has happened also known as continuity.
A straight cut from one subject to another will create the illusion of forward movement. But it can be a bit abrupt.
If you cut in and out of the same shot and move the subject, it will feel like time passing (a jump cut).
Here are some variations on cuts which help tell the story in the film.
Cutting in is a bit like an instant zoom. The filmmaker follows the interest in the scene, filling the frame when something changes. One of the most famous cut-ins is Tarrantino’s “bathroom killing scene” from Pulp Fiction, where the brief arrival of Bruce Willis’ toasty Pop-Tarts is the end of John Travolta.
You can cut in on the action. This is when the edit comes as something changes, helping the film’s progress feel smoother.
Close up and Cut away
The close up is the most famous shot in all cinema! It’s when we get to really study the face, particularly the eyes of the actors we often worship.
What people do with their faces during close up conveys how we perceive them. What would cinema be without Clint Eastwood’s 1,000-yard stare?
If characters blink, they are weak; if they don’t, they are strong. Furrowed brows convey resolve, and a twitchy face is nervousness. A close-up is often preceded by the establishing shot showing the context of the character.
When the close-up is of the eyes, they can be followed by a cutaway shot. These should create the illusion that we are looking at what the subject is seeing and brings in elements of what is going on outside the subject’s environment.
It can also be used as a metaphor, a foreshadowing element, or to justify a reaction by the main character. This is how the two can be used one after the other to tell a story.
Check out this scene from 300 to see how it works and the impact it creates.
The cut from David Lean we mentioned earlier is a match cut. It’s when two different scenes are linked together by a common element, either composition or action. Remember, it’s all about how you move the story forward smoothly. Match cuts can be audibly linked, too!
Everyone knows about the montage. Comedians love to parody them. Normally accompanied by upbeat or fast music, the series of short scenes feature the same characters and creates the impression of a rush of activity, perhaps over a long period of time.
The most famous – and ripped-off – montage is the Rocky IV training montage, showing how the boxer and his adversary got ready for his do or die fight.
The J-cut and the L-cut
If the words and pictures move together, it can give a jerky feel. That might work if you want to create a feeling of characters somewhat at odds or uncomfortable with each other.
But J and L-cuts create a smoother, sometimes poetic, feel.
Named for the shape of the overlaid audio and visual tracks on top of each other, these cuts, also known as split-edits, occur when either the sound or the pictures of one scene continue even as the other changes.
Much used in the news media, where we cut away to an interviewer nodding to an interviewee (often filmed after the interview has ended!), the L-cut gives the impression of seamlessness. In a movie, L-cuts are often used in a flashback as the character continues talking over what he remembers.
When the sound arrives before the image, it’s a J-cut and it often arouses our interest and perhaps momentary confusion before we see what is making the sound. Everything to keep the movie moving!
Video editing techniques: Transitions
To transition is to move from one thing to another, and it’s no different in terms of editing. Rather than a hard cut, in a transition, a shot is gradually replaced by the other.
Digital animation in digital video editing applications has made many types of transitions easier to achieve. Wavy, pixelated, spelling out your name. But, like all edits, there needs to be a reason you use it.
Fade out/fade in
As it sounds, this transition is when the image seems to disappear and then reappear. You can fade to black, which often indicates completion—a pause. If you then fade back in again, it will give the viewer the sense things are starting up again. It’s at the end of a film when you are most likely to see the slow fade to black.
If you fade out to white and fade back in again, it will unsettle the viewer. The effect is mysterious, as though we are losing and gaining consciousness. Fading to white at the end of a movie is also more ambiguous. Does the character die or start a new chapter?
Replace the black or white with the next scene, and you have a dissolve. It’s an overlap of two shots moving from one to the other and can show the end of the scene and the start of a new one. We often feel they are linked.
The slower the dissolve, the longer the period of time we imagine has passed.
Sometimes several dissolves can be used instead of a standard cut to soften the edges of the transition. The dissolve is very adaptable and can have a different impact on the viewer, depending on the context.
A wipe when the scene changes as though someone has wiped a new image across the screen, normally from left to right.
Like the montage, the wipe is a bit of a joke, these days. It can look a bit campy, stylized, or dated and was, indeed, widely used in the 1970s, such as in Star Wars. Or think of the spinning Batman wipes coming from the center of the screen.
With a wipe, we are clear that we are moving in place but things may be occurring at the same time. A sort of visual “meanwhile”.
Unlike some other transitions, a whip pan is not a cut. It’s, well, a pan in which the camera rotates or appears to rotate, only very fast. We move from one scene to another by quickly moving the camera, creating a blurring effect. It’s as if our attention has been grabbed by something more interesting taking place across a space.
Of course, we can recreate this effect digitally to exciting effect by appearing to whip between one scene and another, jumping around in time and space. It can be one of the most creative video editing techniques.
Directors can also create a whip pan which is also a cut in, simulating movement and energy following a bullet from a gun to its victim, for example.
Whip pan is a basic video editing technique but it will require some planning on set.
Constantly look for and practice video editing techniques
Video editing isn’t just a craft; it’s an art form. So, while it’s easy to describe what the techniques are (and you can learn how to carry them out on a digital workstation), describing why a director or editor has chosen them is a matter of debate.
In other words, you will need to watch a lot of great movies if you really want to get that all-important feel for how to use edits and transitions.
Eventually, you will be able to use a video editing technique, whether cut or transition, simply because it feels right. And you will bring the audience with you.