Post Production POSTS

When to Use the Dissolve

This is the second most common transition used in motion pictures, and, unlike most straight cuts, it attracts attention to itself on purpose. The dissolve is defined as a gradual change from the ending pictures of one shot into the beginning pictures of the next shot. This is traditionally achieved via a superimposition of both shots with a simultaneous downward and upward ramping of opacity (visibility) over a particular period of time. As the end of the first shot “dissolves” away, the beginning of the next shot emerges onto the screen underneath it at the same time. You get to see the images overlapping. A dissolve may also be referred to as a “lap dissolve,” a “lap,” and sometimes a video “mix.” The standard default duration of dissolves in editing software is one second, but this can be easily changed to the length required by the given variables at that particular dissolving point in the story.

The dissolve is most often used where:

-There is a change in time

-There is a change in location

-Time needs to be slowed down or sped up

-There is an emotional component to the subject in the story

-There is a strong visual relationship between the outgoing and the incoming images

A good dissolve is achieved when as many as possible of the following elements are addressed at the point of transition:

  1. Information – Much like a straight cut, the new shot should contain new information for the viewer to digest. Whether the dissolve is condensing time over a long, continuous event, changing time periods or locations, or joining disparate concepts through matching imagery, the second shot into which you are dissolving should offer something new to both the viewer and to the narrative of the motion picture.
  2. Motivation – As with all transitions, there should be a precise motivating action or narrative need to apply a dissolve. This could be moving backwards or forwards through time, or into or out of states of consciousness. Because dissolves happen across certain durations, they are usually associated with slowing the rhythm of a scene.
  3. Composition – The two shots dissolving together should each have compositions that overlap easily and avoid a visual “mess” – particularly at the midpoint when both images are, typically, at 50% opacity. You may dissolve opposing compositional frames (shot one has its subject frame left while shot two has its subject frame right) to unify the images in one, momentary yet well-balanced dissolving frame.

You may also create a match dissolve where the compositions of the two shots are very similar, but they have different subject matter. Consider the following example – the scene involves a man who is a werewolf; as he begins to twitch and snarl you cut to an XCU of his bloodshot eyeball with pupil dilating rapidly, then DISSOLVE TO a close-up of the full moon. The two round objects match in composition and shape as the dissolve momentarily joins these images for the audience.

  1. Camera angle – Generally you will dissolve between two shots that present differing camera angles on the action, either from footage within the same scene or from two adjacent scenes in the story. Sometimes you may need to collapse time for one long, continuous event recorded from the same angle. Consider the following example – a bank robber is “trapped” in his hideout waiting for his partner to arrive. The scene encompasses time from late afternoon to late evening with appropriate lighting changes throughout. It is all shot from only one stationary camera angle. To compress time, and quickly show the escalating agitation of the man, the editor dissolves between short portions of footage. From daylight through drawn shades to dim desk lamp, the audience gets to watch the character move around the room, sit down, lie down, check his phone, peek out the window, etc. – all over elapsed “film time” via these multiple dissolves.
  2. Sound – It is customary to also mix together the audio tracks of the two shots being dissolved in what is often called an audio crossfade. As the picture for shot one is dissolving away gradually under the incoming image of shot two, the audio tracks for shot one are also fading down (growing quieter) while the audio for shot two is fading up (growing louder).
  3. Time – An important element in the efficacy of the dissolve is its duration, or how long it lingers on screen. One second is usually the default duration for dissolves in video editing software, but a dissolve can last for as long as there is visual material in each shot involved in the transition. In general, the dissolve should last as long as is required for its purpose in the motion picture. A quick dissolve of just a few overlapping frames, sometimes referred to as a “soft cut,” might be preferable to an instantaneous straight cut – but beware that this can imitate a jump cut. Along dissolve can be on screen for several seconds and may, along the midpoint of this longer duration, appear more like a superimposition of the two shots rather than a dissolve. If the story calls for such a visual treatment of these two images uniting for this longer period, then so be it.
  4. The dissolve allows the editor to play with time. If you were editing a story that involved a flashback, you could dissolve from the last shot of the present time to the first shot of the events from the past. Also, the dissolve is often used to create a montage of many different images that condenses events over time; for example, a day at the amusement park is shown through ten shots that dissolve from one to the next, the whole sequence lasting only thirty seconds of screen time. Usually such special treatments of visual material are planned by the filmmakers from the outset of the project, but editors should feel free to experiment with dissolving time if they find certain scenes to be too long.

It is important to note that dissolves can also slow down time and manipulate the emotions of an audience when accompanied by slow motion imagery. A romantic or maybe an emotionally sad sequence can use dissolves rather effectively to slow down events and give the audience time to view and digest the meaning of the material. The gradual transition from image to image softens the experience. It is said that dissolves are the “tear-jerker” transition. They allow the viewer time to think and feel, they are associated with more languid, somber, or “thoughtful” emotional responses to the visual story elements.

Dissolves can be used in any time-based motion media piece such as fictional narrative movies, television shows, music videos, documentaries, animated cartoons, how-to and wedding videos, and so forth. There was a time that you would have been hard pressed to find dissolves in the daily news, but even factual reporting has incorporated the “manipulative” transition. An indication of how the rules of visual grammar are changing with our never-ending 24-hour mobile access to motion media.

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Excerpt from Grammar of the Edit by Christopher Bowen, Roy Thompson © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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