Editing Digital Video

This chapter includes information about:

  • Common video editing terms and techniques
  • Vocabulary and definitions for different types of video shots
  • Resources for how to approach video editing

The technology of video editing has advanced significantly in the past two decades, but many of the principles of successful video design have remained the same since before the digital revolution. The following terms and resources will help you think about video editing and discuss your Video Story choices. Also, keep an eye out for these techniques next time you’re watching TV or web video — even 30-second ad spots often use complex editing to catch and hold your attention.

Video Editing Terms & Techniques

B-Roll

Footage used to enhance the visuals of a video story, especially so the audience has something new to watch during interview segments or narration. The term comes from the days of editing with actual rolls of film, where an editor would use two rolls of film — the A-roll and the B-roll — to alternate between scenes and visuals. B-roll is often used for a cutaway, a shot that goes to something outside the main action of a scene. This can be used to cover a cut in an interview or to provide continuity in an action sequence.

Jump Cut

A jarring, abrupt cut from one shot to a very similar one, which creates the feeling that the subject has jumped forward in time. This can be used artistically in some cases, but should otherwise be avoided by using shots from different angles or distances. From the Vimeo blog: “[Jump cuts] draw attention to the process of filmmaking and editing, which can take the audience out of the story, so traditionally they are viewed as something to be covered up. However, it’s also because jump cuts draw attention to what is otherwise supposed to go un-noticed that they can be used in strategic and creative ways.”

J-Cut and L-Cut

A J-cut is where the audio for a particular clip comes in before the video. This is particularly common for interviews, where the audience hears the voice for several seconds before we see who is speaking. An L-cut is where the audio for a particular clip continues after the visuals have moved on to a new clip.

This Vimeo guide on J-Cuts and L-Cuts is a great resource with examples and how each can be used.

On the left, a J-cut has a clip's audio come in before the visuals. On the right, an L-cut moves on to a new image while the audio continues.
On the left, a J-cut has a clip’s audio come in before the visuals. On the right, an L-cut moves on to a new image while the audio continues. The footage resembles a “J” and an “L,” which is where the name comes from.

Establishing shot

A quick, wide shot used at the beginning of a video or scene to establish the setting. This is often a shot of the exterior of a home or building, even if all the action happens inside.

Talking Head

A standard interview shot framed to include just a person’s head and shoulders. Because it is typically uncomfortable to have an interview subject look directly at the camera, talking head shots often make use of the rule of thirds, with the interview subject slightly off-center and looking across the frame. In the past decade, reality TV and faux-documentary TV shows have popularized the “confession cam” shot, which creates a sense of intimacy by having the subject centered and looking directly at the camera.

On the left, two traditional talking heads with the interview subject looking across the frame. On the right, a "confession cam" talking head.
On the left, two traditional talking heads with the interview subject looking across the frame. On the right, a “confession cam” talking head where the subject looks directly into the camera.

Lower Third

The text or graphic used to identify people, companies and places in video stories. They most frequently appear horizontally in the lower third of the frame, hence the name. For creating effective lower thirds, this Videomaker post offers good tips.

Bug

A small graphic typically placed in the corner of the video frame to brand the program, network or company. This is most commonly seen on TV, where networks will leave a logo bug on-screen almost all the time to identify the network for viewers who are surfing channels. Bugs are also used frequently in web video, where they’re used at a slightly larger size to compensate for small screens.

Montage

A type of sequence that uses quick cuts to condense time, distance or information, and often set to music. A common use is the training montage, where quick shots show an athlete’s fitness regimen as they progress from out-of-shape to competition-ready. A montage can also involve superimposed images in the style of a collage, though this style tends to look dated since it isn’t very popular anymore. From Videomaker.com: “A montage gets its power from presenting a collection of diverse images to the audience all at once, so that the overall impression is much richer than simply showing a single image or element.”

Timelapse

A video sequence shot over the course of hours or days from one camera position, used to convey the passage of time. Whereas lifelike video is typically shot at 24 or 30 frames per second, timelapse video may be shot at 1 frame per minute or less. The prevalence of smartphone apps and digital cameras equipped with timelapse settings has made these sequences more popular.

Split-screen

Displaying two or more separate video clips at once, often split down the middle, typically to imply that actions are happening at the same time. Watch split-screen examples in this post from And So It Begins, a filmmaking blog.

Dissolve

Transition where one visual fades into the next, which implies a change in time or place. This is often used between scenes in TV sitcoms. The length of a dissolve can change how the audience perceives its meaning.

Fade to Black

A dissolve to no image, which signals the end of a scene or video.

Additional Resources

These resources are optional but highly recommended for thinking further about editing and story design.

In this video, Ed McNichol, video professional, discusses different ways of approaching digital video editing. This was recorded at a University of Washington storytelling workshop.

Sequencing: The foundation of video storytelling
In this blog post, Colin Mulvany from the Spokesman Review discusses the importance of properly setting up sequences in video stories.

Cut of the Month
This archives of editing examples explains and reviews various approaches to sequencing and transitions.

Editing Tips for Video Storytellers
This website provides a succinct review of the types of digital editing tools we cover at the beginning of the Premiere Tutorials, with a comparison of how the ripple, roll, slip and slide edits work.