Tricks for J and L Cuts

So … you now know how to shoot video, light a scene, direct actors – you even know how to write up a model release. What’s the next tool that can add extra life to your productions and carry you just that much higher in your video producing realm?

I’ve often thought that I’d be happy with an editing software package that did titles, dissolves, multiple audio channels, J and L cuts and nothing else. I don’t need barn door wipes, and I can get by without nested timelines, but I need my J and L cuts. Wait – you’ve never heard of J and L cuts?! Nobody in this room? If they’re so important, you may ask, why don’t more people know about them?

Before we had access to all of these computerized editing software programs, often called non-linear editors or NLE for short, nobody called this style of transitioning J and L cuts – these monikers only make sense if you’re looking at these cuts on a timeline on a computer screen. In ye olden days, they were called “audio advance” or “video advance” cuts – an audio advance cut means that the audio starts before the video; a video advance is the other way around. On an NLE screen, they sort of (but not really) look like the letters J (audio advance) and L (video advance).

When to Use A/V Advance Cuts

Among other things, J and L cuts are the workhorses of news reporting. Imagine you have a medium shot of a reporter holding a microphone. He says, “Bob, I’m here at the scene of a nine-alarm fire at the Chico Match Factory. Smoke was seen coming from the building earlier today….” And then he continues to describe what happened. After the establishing shot, nobody wants to look at the reporter anymore – they want to see the fire. So you edit video of firefighters extinguishing the blaze over the top of the rest of the reporter’s audio. This is an L or video advance cut, because you’re bringing the video in and leaving the audio. On your video editing software screen, the lower track (audio) trails off to the right, not really looking very much like an upper case letter L but enough that someone started calling it that. The opposite transition, a J cut, might show a raging tornado running through a wheat field, while the viewers hear a reporter’s voice stating, “Bob, this was the scene earlier today when a tornado ripped across this area.” Then the news report usually cuts to the reporter, who finishes his story.

Straight-Cut Confusion

These types of cuts appear too frequently; as a result, what we’re listening to isn’t always what we want to be watching. Imagine a conversation between two people with video that cuts every time a character speaks. It would be maddening. There’s a scene in the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show that features fast-paced dialog with a cut to each character who speaks – “Janet!” “Dr. Scott!” “Janet!” “Brad!” “Rocky!” “Huh?” – eighteen cuts in as many seconds. This is sometimes called “ping-pong” cutting, because the viewer feels like a ping-pong ball being smacked back and forth across a table. Of course, in a style and cult classic like The Rocky Horror Picture Show it works; for most of us, it looks amateur.

Instead of using a frenetic pace, the editor can use J and L cuts to keep the audio from one take and cut in visuals or reaction shots from the second camera. This slows down the pace of a scene. Fast, frantic cutting is a bit unsettling and works well to keep people engaged during action scenes, but during calmer scenes we want fewer edits and longer shots.

Teasing the Unexpected

You can also use J and L cuts to startle the viewer. In the 2003 film Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, editor Nicolas de Toth uses a J cut to startle viewers who are watching Claire Danes put bottles on a shelf. When he leads the audio from the next scene in by a second, we are surprised to hear the loud blast of a truck horn – an unexpected intrusion into the quiet room. We jump in our seats, confused, and then the video cuts to a truck passing outside a bar, miles away.

Verna Fields used this tease more subtly and to greater effect in the 1975 classic Jaws. Faced with a killer shark chewing up tourists on his beaches, police chief Martin Brody, played by the recently departed Roy Scheider, bullies the mayor into hiring Quint, the crusty shark hunter played by Robert Shaw. As Scheider walks down the hall after the confrontation with his boss, we try to read his face – intense, serious, whirling with responsibility. While we study Scheider, Fields uses a J cut to intrude Quint’s dialog from the following scene. This incongruity – the voice of someone who’s not in the scene – gives viewers a slight jar and thrusts us into that next scene, compacting time.

While T3 tried for an easy scare, Fields’ reasons were more complex and ultimately more compelling. Nicolas de Toth got a few people to jump in their seats; Verna Fields won the Oscar for best editing.

How to Do It

Usually when making a cut, you want to keep the audio and video together. Making a J or L cut requires that your video editing software be able to separate the audio and the video and move them independently. Unlocking your video from your audio track can cause major havoc to your scenes by throwing your audio out of sync with your video. Many applications lock audio and video together by default, so that when you make a cut and move a clip to a different position in the timeline, your audio stays with your video. Most editing software allows you to unlock your tracks, but they all do it differently – you may have to go into a pulldown menu, right-click on the selected clip or unlock the entire track via a shortcut button. Check your video editing software’s documentation for “unlocking” audio and video. Because it’s not always easy to later re-sync conversations, remember where you are on the timeline when you unlock your tracks in order to keep your audio in sync with lip movements.

The Savvy Viewer

J and L cuts are used very subtly to move the viewer into a scene change, either by trickling in audio from the next scene for a second or two before the video enters or by cutting to the next scene’s video while the audio lingers under a bit. These overlaps make the transitions less jarring and are so effective that the viewer is rarely aware of them.

You can use J and L cuts to play B roll over someone talking, or you can use them for unusual transitions between scenes. Either way, they can be powerful additions to your editing tool chest. As homework, try using one, with either some existing footage or something new. And, from now on, look for them in movies and on TV, and watch how the pros are using them. Be forewarned, though: once you recognize the style, you’ll always be on the lookout for the J or L cut, and, although you’re now in a unique group of knowing viewers, your viewing pleasure might be tainted by searching for technical expertise instead of sheer movie enjoyment!

Contributing editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.