These days, video editors have many postproduction tools and techniques at their disposal to create the most visually stunning screen experiences possible. Some have existed for as long as the first cinematic shorts; others are much newer as technology and equipment have evolved over the last 120 years. The jump cut is one technique that’s just as effective now as it was in the days of cutting celluloid with a razor blade and splicing images together. It is a popular video editing technique often used as an efficient and visually arresting way to denote the passing of time, emphasize emotion, or increase tension.
A jump cut is an obvious, abrupt transition from one scene to another. Unlike other editing techniques that create seamless visual continuity, the jump cut does not maintain the illusion that there isn’t a director and an editor deciding what the audience does and does not see. The subject, rather than the camera position, moves around the frame; if the camera does move, it is only a fraction.
French illusionist and filmmaker Georges Méliès is credited as the “inventor” of the jump cut after accidentally discovering the effect in the late 1800s. “While filming in Paris, his camera jammed and, a moment later, it started up again,” explains Mark Cousins in “The Story of Film.” “When he viewed the printed results, he noticed that since no film was exposed during the jam, streetcars suddenly jumped forward, and people disappeared.”
However, it wasn’t until French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard drew attention to this stylized film language in “Breathless” that jump cuts were elevated to a purely aesthetic choice. In this scene, the image of Jean Seberg’s pixie haircut dappled with sunlight in a convertible car is shown more than 10 times, with each jump cut basking in the beauty of the passenger. Rather than being overly concerned about breaking the visual flow, the jump-cut editing makes it clear that Godard has dropped the neo-realism trend of the mid-century.
Jump cuts are used in editing to purposefully break the rules of continuity to emphasize a point, elicit an emotional reaction from the audience, or avoid monotony, especially when depicting the passage of time. (The latter can be rather dull, and a jump cut edit can depict months, even years, in seconds.) All genres can use this technique for practical and artistic reasons, including:
Horror employs jump cuts as a tool to put an audience on the edge of their seat, particularly when paired with a jump scare. A jump cut can push the terror closer to the camera without giving the viewer a chance to look away, heightening an unsettling atmosphere. Another example is when a character has limited time to complete a task—jump cuts can make it feel like they have even less time to achieve something.
In Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining,” Danny Torrance’s (Danny Lloyd) exploration of the seemingly empty Overlook Hotel offers a memorable sequence, which switches between long shots and close-ups when the murdered girls ask Danny to play. Jump cuts are used to show the bloody massacre and the twins as they once were, which makes it even more terrifying for both Danny and the audience.
Showing the passage of time
Methods to showcase how long someone has been in one place or one physical state (such as an injury or pregnancy) vary, but the montage is a tried and tested solution. Filmmakers can deploy jump cuts to show a training montage (such as Peter Parker testing out his new superhero skills) or people interviewing for a job. A primary example that shows the passing of time and how it impacts the overall mood comes from “Little Shop of Horrors” in this scene starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, and Vincent Gardenia. The drum roll acts as punctuation to each cut and reveals how score can elevate this editing tool.
Emphasizing changing mental states
There are various methods that can be used to highlight a character’s mood; a jump cut is an extremely effective way to illustrate how quickly someone goes from joy to sorrow, or across another range of emotions and/or mental states. Increasing confusion, nervousness, or showing an unpleasant mood without lingering too long is one benefit of this tool.
In “Trainspotting,” Danny Boyle utilizes the axial jump cut (in which the perspective jumps) to reinforce Spud’s (Ewen Bremner) drug-addled state and increase the tension—and humor—during his attempt to get a job while on amphetamines.
Adding special effects
This is a tried and tested way to increase scares by removing or adding something to the frame, as it’s disquieting for both characters and audiences. In the climactic moments of “The Ring,” Gore Verbinski uses a jump cut to make it appear like the spectral Samara Morgan crosses the room in an instant.
According to director and film professor Alexander Mackendrick, in his book “On Film-making,” specific choices in the editing room are “a motive for a move within space and time,” with the camera and cutting bench “able to manipulate” both efficiently.
“Every cut in action is always something of a disorientating shock for the audience,” Mackendrick writes. And though jump cuts are often meant to disorient or surprise, if used incorrectly or inappropriately, they can be distracting. While a jump cut is far from the only tool in the video editor’s arsenal, there is a time and place for the technique.
Today’s technology is more advanced than when Mackendrick was active, and editing is a digital process that allows for experimentation without having to physically cut celluloid and splice it together. Free editing programs such as iMovie and Windows Movie Maker (and, of course, industry-grade Adobe Premiere Pro), allow the addition of jump cuts to footage. There are also many tutorials demonstrating how to get the most out of these programs when it comes to editing a jump cut.
Another option to aid a transition with a jump cut is to add a cutaway or insert shot if you are trying to avoid the viewer noticing objects that have moved or a slight shift in time. In a documentary, you can cut to a shot of what the subject discusses for this continuity purpose.
One example of how a jump cut is shot and then edited is the trailer scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” that shows Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) spiral on set.
Editor Fred Raskin told ProVideo Coalition that they did this in four takes, all from one wide shot. The jump cut emphasizes Rick’s frustration while also being the most economical way to convey this moment. “There was really no way to put that together other than jump-cutting it—unless we were literally to just hold on a shot for five minutes of a guy freaking out,” says Raskin. Rick also immediately contradicts himself about giving up drinking, which makes the scene comedic and stops the audience from sinking further into this character’s despair.