Like its close relative the J-cut, the L-cut is a technique commonly used by video editors to enhance a film’s narrative experience. But what exactly is an L-cut, and how can you best apply the technique in your own film editing? This article answers all your most piercing L-cut questions.
The L-cut is a film editing transition that sees the audio from one scene or shot overlap onto the visuals from the next. The visuals change, but the audience still hears the audio from the previous visual. This can be as simple as the end of a line of dialogue, or an entire voiceover. For example, look at how Michael Peña’s “Ant-Man” character starts recapping his story in one location, and his rapid-fire delivery carries over into the ensuing montage.
Why is it called an L-cut? The term stems from the “L” shape the technique makes when placed into video editing software.
L-cuts in film are used for a variety of purposes: They can extend a feeling or emotion, show the passage of time, or create more seamless dialogue (particularly when used in tandem with the J-cut).
Extend a feeling
The L-cut can produce a feeling of continuity between scenes or narrative perpetuity at the end of a film or TV show episode. This makes it an ideal edit to use to imply a postmodern open-ended narrative or to lure viewers into watching another episode. Because it encourages viewers to consider the previous scene while they encounter the next, the L-cut invokes a sense of lingering emotion or even nostalgia.
In “The Mist,” for instance, the L-cut into the credits depicts David’s decision to kill his friends and son to save them from the monsters of the titular mist—only to show the mist receding as the military shows up to fight it.
David’s wails of despair fade into the credits, leaving viewers devastated with a similar persistent, all-encompassing feeling of despair. The ending even impressed Stephen King with its bleak revision of his novella’s ending—and a cut that impacts the King of Horror is a sharp cut, indeed.
Passage of time
The L-cut is fantastic for voiceovers and montages. For example, the opening scene of “Dark Red” introduces a young boy speaking into an audio recorder.
Visual changes take place as the voiceover continues, which propels the audience forward to the next part of the narrative while still considering the previous scene.
In a scene that has two or more characters speaking to each other, the L-cut is used to avoid ping-ponging between them, which can feel jarring. It also allows for more emphasis on reaction shots; by switching to Character 1 before Character 2 is finished, we can see Character 1’s reaction.
Watch this scene from “No Country for Old Men” and pay attention to how often it cuts to the gas station employee’s face while Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is still talking. This sells the tension of the scene.
L-cuts and J-cuts both use split-edit video editing techniques and are often used in close proximity, particularly during dialogue scenes. The difference just lies in the sequencing. With L-cuts, the audio of a scene or shot bleeds into the next image. In a J-cut, the audio from the preceding scene extends into the image before it.
These two videos illustrate the difference between the two similar cuts:
Creating an L-cut means doing a cut to the visual of the next scene before cutting to the audio. On non-linear video editing platforms like Adobe Premiere Pro, Audacity, or iMovie, you can achieve this by:
- Place the first clip before the second clip on your timeline, ensuring that the matching audio is underneath them.
- Cut the first clip so it ends where you want the visual transition to the second clip to take place.
- Then, extend the audio of the first clip into the audio of the second clip, past the visual transition.
- Voila! You have an L-cut. If you want to make a montage, from here you add multiple B-roll footage clips after the first clip.
Using L-cuts along with J-cuts can help make your film feel more natural, engaging, and visually compelling. Other cuts regularly used in film editing include:
- Jump cut: an abrupt shift between two shots that are visually similar
- Match cut: a less sudden switch between two similar shots
- Cross cut: quickly moving back and forth between two shots
- Cut away: a cross cut that has an insert shot added between the primary shots
- Smash cut: an abrupt cut, usually used for shocking effect
- Invisible cut: a seamless cut that relies on shadow to obscure the transition
- Cutting on action: a cut that switches between angles but follows an action from beginning to end
- Fade: a cut that fades out to black or white, often used at the end of a film
- Dissolve: a cut that overlays one clip on top of the other so that the second image slowly appears as the first one disappears
- Iris: a transition that uses an iris shape to move from one shot to the next
- Wipe: similar to the iris, except this cut uses a different shape for the transition
No matter which other film editing technique you’re pairing it with, to use an L-cut effectively, focus on its primary uses and see how to incorporate it into the film you’re working on from there. Does your film include a scene that you want to make the audience keep feeling even after the visual disappears? Should the film include a sweet montage scene reminiscent of the many (many!) montages in “Rocky”? Do you need to depict an ongoing flow of dialogue? The L-cut technique can help achieve all these and more.