by Sonal D'Silva
Enhance your videos with editing techniques that put audio at the center of the transition
When editing a video project, keep in mind an important guiding principle from legendary director George Lucas who once said that “sound is half the experience”. As you craft scene transitions using the visuals as a guide, listen to the audio that goes along with the visuals – and make it a key tool in your editing process to achieve impactful edits that enhance the storytelling.
Let’s take a look at some popular types of scene transitions where the audio takes center stage.
When the audio of the upcoming scene starts under the tail end of the current scene, you have what is commonly referred to as a J-Cut. This transition provides an auditory lead-in to the next scene before the new visuals begin.
The name ‘J-Cut’ comes from the way the transition looks in the editing timeline–the audio starts first and the connected visual layer comes in later, forming a J shape in the timeline. The J-Cut propels the story forward, creating anticipation and momentum, using the audio to lead the way.
The L-Cut is the opposite of the J-Cut: it is a transition in which the audio of the current scene continues to play under the opening visuals of the next shot.
The name, once again, comes from the shape the audio and video layers make on the timeline. With the use of an L-Cut, the first scene transitions into the next, leaving a lingering impact through the audio.
Both a J-Cut and an L-Cut are types of sound bridges–they lead us smoothly from one scene to the next and amplify the connection between the scenes, either by creating anticipation and propelling the story forward, or indicating that certain interactions continue to have an impact on the character even after they’ve moved to a different setting or situation.
When you want to emphasize contrast in your story, a smash cut is the technique to employ. For instance, let’s say the story involves a young teenage boy who has a crush on his neighbor but is too shy to ask her out. She texts him, out of the blue, to ask if she can come over that evening; he’s over the moon and spends all day preparing. He answers the door with a big smile on his face. Smash cut to the next scene: our hero looks decidedly glum. The reason? His crush came over with her new boyfriend to ask for help with a video for the boyfriend’s TikTok because she knows our hero is really good at video editing.
The visual edit for this scene would be sudden and abrupt–cutting from a smiling face to a gloomy one; perhaps the lighting would change too. The audio in this smash cut might involve a hopeful track being played as our hero answers the door, and then a hard cut to dead silence as we see his new situation.
This technique works well across genres and is especially useful in horror, thriller, and comedy, with a lot of room for creativity in the sound edit that accompanies each smash cut.
A match cut is a transition that highlights the similarities between two shots. There are several ways to do this: your character is holding a gun in the first shot, and just as he is about to fire you cut to the next shot–a quiet suburban street where a car suddenly backfires. The effect is jarring and plays on audience expectations. The audience was expecting the gunshot and they instead got a loud, startling sound with a completely different context. There also remains an element of mystery–was the gun ever fired? You’ll have to watch the rest of the movie to find out.
Match cuts are also used to highlight visual symmetry–for example, going from the visual of a figure skater twirling to that of a tornado swirling across a field; a close-up of a spinning bicycle wheel going into a Ferris wheel rotating at high speed; a hand waving a sword in the air to a letter opener slicing through an envelope. These are just a few possibilities, and using audio to enhance the match cut makes it even more kinetic.
A jump scare is the sudden, unexpected appearance of something (creature, person, object) on screen, accompanied by an equally sudden, jarring sound.
This technique, beloved by horror and thriller editors, never gets old. No matter how many times you’ve jumped out of your seat because of a jump scare, you will most likely do it again if the edit has been executed well.
Half the success of a jump scare is derived from the audio that accompanies the moment–it’s loud and dissonant, with a fast attack and designed to catch you unawares. Design your own jump scares with some source material from our horror libraries.
A montage is a segment composed of quick shots, most often used to indicate the passage of time. Popular examples include the classic training montage, a favorite in sports films; the makeover montage where our character goes from drab to fab; and the planning montage where the characters pore over documents and diagrams to plan A Big Thing (usually a heist).
The montage is typically set to music, giving it a dynamic and exciting feel. Sometimes it is set to sound design and uses dialogue, like in the movie Rules Of Attraction where rapid-fire narration enhances the chaotic nature of the character’s whirlwind European holiday.
Sound is critical to an effective montage–whether it’s choosing the right track or designing a sound effects bed. Without the correct sound to tie it all together, a montage would be just a series of visuals that might pause the narrative instead of moving it forward.
Cutting To The Beat
This technique relies on the beat of the music to dictate the rhythm of the visual edit. In the simplest version of this technique, the editor places a new shot on each accented beat.
Trailers for movies and TV shows use this technique often. Sometimes it enhances the already dramatic–a fist-fight cut to the beat. Other times it makes the domestic seem more cinematic, like when the mundane routine of making breakfast is cut rapidly–toast pops out of the toaster, a teaspoon clinks against china, juice pours into a glass and a knife slices fruit open. Cutting to the beat can add rhythm and improve the pacing of a scene.
Viewers are sensitive to the audio component of filmed entertainment – and you can use that to your advantage by letting the audio lead the way to propel the story forward. Using the techniques described above, connect the audio and video layers in your timeline in a variety of ways to enhance your edit.
Sonal D'Silva is a freelance sound editor and designer with a decade of experience working with music, dialogue and sound design elements for video projects. She also composes and produces music and is an alumnus of the Berlinale Talent program and the Red Bull Music Academy.