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Edits and transitions (punctuating the film)

To quickly recap a film is multi-layered narrative composed of a series of ‘shots’ (or ‘clips’) that combine:

  • Moving images (action)
  • Sound
  • Music
  • Dialogue
  • Titles, inter-titles, graphics and other text on screen

The narrative can be driven either by a narrator or presenter as in many types of documentary or what the characters do.

Though it is easy to see how a narrator can control and explain the flow of images in factual films, drama uses the pictures and sounds – and the audience’s natural curiosity - to pull the viewer through the film. Each ‘shot’ reveals information about what is going on – but crucially also sets questions or builds expectations that are answered, or partially answered, by the next ‘shot’.

So when we are talking about editing we are not simply talking about the work of the editor whose job it is to assemble and fine-tune the film, but the logic of the shots and the flow of the narrative that will have been planned from the screenwriting and story-boarding phase.

Cuts and transitions are the equivalent of written punctuation in films. As we have already discussed camera movements are equivalent to commas, semi-colons and colons, but cuts are the equivalent of full-stops, paragraph breaks and chapter breaks that provide real narrative structure.

Here's a list of edits and basic transitions that lists the key audio-visual function of each:

Edits (Cuts)

Passive Match Cut – here the editor uses the audience’s curiosity about a specific aspect of the scene to motivate a logical bridge to the next clip e.g. the silhouette of a man’s face is seen; cut to a medium close-up of his face from another angle to tell us who he is.

Active Match Cut – here the editor cuts on the most compelling usually obvious question to pull us through the narrative at pace, e.g. a man pulls out a gun and looks ahead, and we think who is he going to threaten, cut to the terrified face of the cashier. Most often these cuts are from action to action (see below); however, they can also be from scene to scene in a logical sequence e.g a man crosses the finish line (but has he won?), cut to the stadium's big screen for the slo-mo action replay.

Jump Cut – this is a cut that excises time or space to focus the viewer’s attention even more keenly on the narrative or to remove unnecessary distractions (e.g. why show someone getting into a car? Simply show the person leaving the house. Then the mum waving goodbye. Then the car driving away). Here are examples of each type:

Cutaways – these are cuts to new lines of action that are used to increase suspense by showing the approach of an interloper. They are equivalent to a paragraph break and are often accompanied by a change in music.

Cross Cut – these cuts are often used in action or romance films to cut quickly between two or more lines of action in action sequences or move between separated characters as they go about their separate business in a romance sequences (NB. the use of the cross cut suggests that at some point soon the two lines of action will converge or collide).

Sound Bridges are used to link disparate images or weld the audiovisual experience by creating a unified sound beneath disparate images. Generally these are divided into visual breaks that come before a sound break, 'J Cuts', and sound changes that come before a visual break 'L Cuts'.

Musical montage sequence (a.k.a. a series of shots to music) – here soundscapes and music are used to help unify longer sequences of clips, e.g. the clichéd series of shots used to show two characters falling in love

Music cuts are used to alert the viewer to the introduction of a new character within a scene, or a change of chapter or a new sequence so that we are not confused (they tell us that though we don’t recognise or understand the image yet, we will very soon)

Title cards (or inter titles) and text on screen help bridge spatial, temporal and logical gaps in the action

Voice-over from a narrator can be used helps bridge spatial and temporal gaps in the action.

Transitions

Fade In (a.k.a. Fade Up) where the frame lightens the frame from black.

Fade Out (a.k.a Fade to Black).

Dissolves show the picture dissolving and then reforming and are often used to signify a flashback or dream sequence (as in the example below).

Cross-fade between two frames.

Wipe: Shot A replaces Shot B by means of a boundary line moving across the screen, wipes one image away while bringing about a new one.

In addition to the types of deliberate cuts and transitions, editors also need to consider the length of the clips and sound elements that they use as these will also influence the pace and rhythm of the completed film.

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