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Video creators are always coming up with creative ways to play with the dynamics between sound and imagery to enhance the mood, immersion, and storytelling capabilities of the medium.
One of the earliest ways of doing this was by using what's called a J-cut.
In video editing parlance, a J-cut is a type of split cut that you’ve definitely seen, assuming you’ve ever watched a movie or TV show! In the simplest terms, it’s a type of transition where the audio from the next scene starts playing before the video from that scene starts.
J-cuts are used for emotional effect as well as in smoothing transitions, keeping attention, and helping with pace. While on the surface the concept seems simple, they’re an extremely powerful technique if used effectively.
The technique gets its name from the way the footage and audio appear in video editing software.
With the video stream on top and the audio stream down below, the audio starts before the scene, which creates a “J” shape in your editing timeline.
Meet J-Cut’s inverse twin—the L-Cut
We can’t really talk about a J-cut without at least mentioning its sibling, the L-cut. An L-cut is essentially the opposite of a J-cut in that the audio from the first scene keeps going once the second scene starts.
L-cuts are also incredibly useful for enhancing mood and setting pace, albeit in slightly different ways. And as you might imagine, they get their name from the “L” that’s created in your editing timeline.
When to use J-Cuts?
J-cuts are a powerful technique that can do everything from making dialogue flow effortlessly to giving otherwise bland openings a gripping and alluring effect.
You can probably think of more than a few examples where you hear audio playing while the opening credits are still rolling in. Done well, this creates a very impactful opening sequence where the viewer is hooked into the scene before the video even starts rolling.
An excellent example is the opening to Jurassic Park. The moment the Universal logo appears silently on screen, you’re transported deep into the Costa Rican jungle by sounds of insects buzzing and distant birds calling out. The ambiance pulls us along into the infamous opening scene of the iconic movie.
Express urgency in your story
Depending on the context of the scenes, you can use a J-cut to give a sense of urgency to your story. Take, for example, a scene that ends with an unanswered question still up in the air. A well-done J-cut begins answering that question while the scene is finishing, making the viewer wonder what, exactly, is coming next. A veritable hook in your storytelling.
Dialogue in storytelling
J-cuts can lend transitory moods to your film or videos, and they’re good for keeping dialogue between characters more natural. In fact, most movies make use of J-cuts (and L-cuts) to help smooth out dialogue; one person is talking in a scene, their dialogue finishes, and the audio of the next person speaks before the scene shifts. This gives the video a sense that you’re there taking part in the conversation rather than watching a rigid back-and-forth.
By contrast, the scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta and Uma Thurman get to know each other at the diner has no j-cuts or l-cuts at all. The entire sequence is rigid and cold, which works well for this particular moment in this particular film, but it’s not something you’d want to replicate for dialogue in every movie.
Narrations would be nearly impossible without both J-cuts and L-cuts. Any scene or sequence that has narration is inherently going to have both types of cuts, otherwise, the entire sequence would seem rigid and emotionless. An invisible talking head describing each scene as it starts does not for good storytelling make.
How to make a J-Cut?
The technicalities of how to make a J-cut vary depending on the software you’re using but the principles are the same.
Since the idea is to start the audio from the following scene before the previous scene ends, you’ll need to cut a bit from both scenes and adjust the audio accordingly so that it overlaps the previous scene.
How far into the previous scene you’ll want to push the preceding scene’s audio will depend on the scenes themselves and on the kind of effect you’re going for. For slow-building tension, you can try longer J-cuts. For more abrupt attention grabbers, you can try something shorter. And somewhere in between is probably best for most scenes involving dialogue between two or more speakers. But again, it all depends on what you’re trying to achieve and your creative vision—experiment and be creative!
Get started with using J-cuts in your videos
Both J-cuts and L-cuts are handy techniques that should be in every filmmaker’s toolkit. They can help move your story along, create urgency, enhance mood and make dialogue flow smoothly and effortless. Used together, they can take your video to the next level. It’s one of the techniques in editing that’s obvious once it’s pointed out but completely oblivious to the average viewer. Done well, split edits leave your viewers entranced by your vast editing proficiency and gripping storytelling, and they won’t realize why!
While split edits are incredibly simple in concept, like most things in video editing, they’re a subtle art that takes some practice and refinement to get right. That said, they’re definitely worth the effort, given their substantial potential for impact. After all, what are we editing video for, if not impact?
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