When starting out in film and video editing, it can be kind of hard to unlatch your brain from the idea that the only way to cut between two shots is a standard cut.
However, once you learn enough to know that shots can be cut, transitioned, and edited to blend together in a variety of ways with different video editing techniques, your true editing journey can actually begin.
One of those helpful concepts early on is the idea of “J cuts” and “L cuts” as a way to talk about editing both video and audio together— (and in many instances, counter each other. But what are these crazy lettered video cut types? And, of course, how do you actually use them?
To truly unleash your non-linear editing brain, let’s take some time to explore what J and L cuts are, how they work, and ultimately how you can harness their overlapping audio and video powers for your own film edits and video projects.
What are J and L Cuts?
Before we dive in too deep, let’s go over some basic definitions first. J and L cuts are what professional video editors sometimes call “split edits,” and are used as a way to cut between two video clips where the video and audio transition at different times.
These video cuts are usually done as a way to further immerse a viewer into a scene, or as a way to simply make the transition easier to expect or follow. You see this technique quite frequently in film and television, especially in scenes with lots of dialogue.
The name J cuts and L cuts come from how these types of edits look when using a standard NLE (non-linear editing) software. You can also remember the names by thinking about the shape the connected video and audio files make on a timeline. Let’s look at specific examples for each below.
J Cut defined
Let’s start with a J cut first. From a basic definition standpoint, a J cut is a type of split edit where the audio from the second scene overlaps the video of the first scene. From a viewer’s perspective, you would begin to hear the audio of the next scene before the video actually cuts to it.
The overall effect of a J cut is one where the audience begins to consciously or subconsciously anticipate what is about to happen in the next shot. A J cut is also sometimes referred to as an “audio advance,” an “audio under,” or an “audio lead.”
L Cut defined
Moving on to an L cut next: From a basic definition standpoint, an L cut is a type of split edit where the audio from the first scene continues underneath the video of the second scene. From a viewer's perspective, you would still be hearing audio from the preceding scene while watching video that has already cut to something else.
The overall effect of an L cut is one where the audience (consciously or subconsciously) still lingers with the last scene while still focusing on what is happening in the new shot.
The names for both the J cut and the L cut come from how they appear when using an NLE software’s timeline where the audio clip either protrudes to the left (for a J) or the right (for an L) from underneath the video clip.
Examples of J and L Cuts in film
Alright, so now that we’ve covered the basic definitions and concepts of J cuts and L cuts we can move on to the fun stuff: Editing in action. It’s kind of hard to express the overall effect of these types of split edits without seeing the results on the screen in the same scene.
And by looking at some of the examples in the video above, you can see just how powerful these transitions can be. I like the two selections used in this video essay because they highlight the specific difference between J cuts and L cuts.
For J cuts, we see a clip from The Wolf of Wall Street where we hear the audio of Matthew McConaughey’s iconic chest thumping song before we even see it. This is a J cut because the audio comes in before the image.
The overall effect is one of awkwardness and perhaps unease, which we share with our protagonist whose face we see in the first shot.
For the L cuts, we get a clip from The Tree of Life where we hear the audio from the scene of the boy counting that continues over to the next scene. This is an L cut as the audio is placed under the video of the next clip.
The overall effect is one where we feel like we’re still connected to the last scene as it lingers in our mind, just as the boy must still be subconsciously thinking about the punishment even as he’s consciously moved onto the next interaction with his father.
Those are just a few examples though. Once you understand what J and L cuts are and how they work, chances are if you watch any film or TV (or content online for that matter), you’re more than likely to see plenty of examples of both.
And once you recognize them, the trick becomes how to use them in your own projects.
Tips for using J and L Cuts
When looking at actually working with J and L cuts, there are a few things which you should keep in mind. Here are some basic tips for editing with J cuts and L cuts.
Split edits should be short: Unless you’re trying to make some grand artistic statement, J and L cuts work best when they are usually only a few seconds or a few frames.
Try to remove unnecessary beats: J and L cuts can be very helpful for cleaning up messy dialogue scenes by removing awkward or unnecessary moments or beats.
It’s OK to bend space and time: J and L cuts are already breaking some of the rules of continuity. That means you can also use them in ways you wouldn’t normally because the audience is already suspending some disbelief — but don’t get too carried away.
However, the rules of editing still apply: Try to follow most of your editing rules and guidelines like cutting on action, match cutting, and other techniques that make for seamless edits to avoid awkward transitions.
Choose the right clips: By far the most important tip to keep in mind is to simply pick the right clips for your J and L cuts. This will help you use these cuts to make your thematic connections and tell your story at the same time.
Now let’s look at some specific tutorials. These will help you learn how to actually edit J and L cuts in different video editing software options.
Working with J and L Cuts in Premiere Pro
As you can see in the tutorial above, working with J and L cuts in Adobe Premiere Pro really isn’t too hard to figure out.
However, for those used to just dragging and dropping their clips onto a timeline and quickly cutting things together, you do need to know a few additional tricks to unlock connected clips and really start experimenting with split editing.
Working with J and L Cuts in Final Cut Pro
By the same token, working with J and L cuts in Apple’s Final Cut Pro is another similar process, but it’s also unique for this NLE’s workflow. In many instances, it can be annoying to edit video and audio separately, which is why you need to follow a few steps to disconnect these two elements from some of your standard clips.
However, once you really move into higher levels of video production, you’ll get comfortable with audio and video that operate separately (and at times quite independently) of each other. And the same is eventually true in the editing process because your choices of when and where to cut audio will not always be the same as your video edits.
Hopefully these definitions, explanations and examples of J and L cuts have helped unlock your mind from any previously conceived notions about how video and audio should (or shouldn’t) be connected in your edits.
If you’d like to check out some more editing and post-production resources, check out these additional articles on the Soundstripe blog:
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