Take a moment to cast your mind into the recent past. Remember the last big Hollywood movie you watched? Remember the characters? How they made you laugh or cry, grab the seat in terror or turn your head in tense anticipation?
Okay, now think a little more. How was the film edited? Did you notice any digital transition effects, like the page peels or heart wipes that you have on your editing system? It’s a safe bet that the last film you watched didn’t utilize any of those types of transitions. Chances are, the last time you saw a page peel or a star burst transition on television it was to advertise the lowest price at your local used car lot.
The CG (computer generated) transition effects commonly found on your home editing system certainly work. Flips, peels, wipes and all the rest visually transport your viewer from one scene to the next and help to move your story toward its conclusion. However, unlike cuts and dissolves, most CG transitions tend to be visually jarring, calling attention to themselves and distracting the viewer from the flow of the content of the production. The next time you’re shooting a 1970s disco spoof, feel free to spin or slide your way from beginning to end, but if you’re looking to produce something with a more professional look, consider creating your own in-camera transitions as a way to help tell your story with style.
This article will explain how to create some basic in-camera transitions as well as set the stage for you to try out some of your own on your next production. Using in-camera transition techniques doesn’t mean that you have to shoot your project in a linear fashion, editing everything with the pause button on your camera, but it does mean that you can’t just add it in post. While the name may be slightly misleading, in-camera transitions use organic, rather than digital sources as the primary elements to transition between two shots. When you want to use in-camera transitions to help tell your story, it’s vital that you plan ahead.
Put the Body to Work
Imagine that the sequence you’re shooting calls for the following:
- A woman must get up from her desk,
- walk out of her office,
- and enter the office of a co-worker.
It’s a fairly simple sequence of events that, if you’re not careful, could turn into a fairly boring sequence of events. A standard way to move the scene along is to instruct the woman to:
- Get up from her desk.
- Exit the frame to either the left or the right.
- Enter her co-worker’s office from either the left or right.
Knowing that a transition effect is a great way to spice things up a bit, instead of using a cut between the woman leaving her own office and entering the office of her co-worker, you might be tempted to drop in a ripple effect on your transitions menu when you finally get to the edit. Alternately, you could direct the woman to do the following:
- Get up from her desk.
- Walk directly at the camera until she completely blocks the lens with her body.
- The frame goes to black.
- Starting with her back against the camera, walks away.
- Walks into the office of her co-worker.
While you will need to edit the shots to make them flow as a scene, the second scenario accomplishes a transition from one location to another by using your actor as a dip to black rather than relying on a CG transition.
Camera Movement as a Transition
Let’s get out of the office for awhile and move to a livelier location for this next example. Imagine your next scene calls for the following:
- A group of guys are watching the big game at the local pub.
- A waiter delivers mounds of food and drink to the table.
- The guys get sick from eating too much and are now unable to enjoy the game.
Rather than film the guys eating and drinking for the next hour, you need to indicate the passage of time with a transition. As with our previous example in the office, you could direct and edited any number of ways, but for now, consider these two examples:
- Shot of guys watching the game.
- Waiter delivers mound of food and drink to the table.
- The guys dig in ravenously.
- Wipe to the next shot, all the food is gone and the four guys are looking none too well.
With this example, you’ve covered all the bases. The use of the CG wipe helped indicate the passage of time and if the actors were any good, you’ve got a nice comedic sequence. However, the following in-camera transition technique could add a bit more meat to the scene.
- Waiter delivers mound of food and drink to the table of guys watching the game.
- The guys dig in ravenously.
- Briefly pan the camera over to the television.
- Pan immediately back to the four guys sitting around their messy table. The food is all gone and they are looking sick.
Here’s the trick: with empty plates and mugs on standby, when you pan the camera to the television for just a few seconds, another member of your crew quickly switches out the full plates and mugs for the empty ones. Or, if you don’t have the extra helpers available, simply leave the props on the floor at the feet of your actors. While you’re panning the camera, have your actors make the switch (just remember to take care not to shoot the floor).
While this technique may take a few practice runs to get the timing just right, a simple pan is enough to make your viewers take notice and appreciate the extra effort.
Another technique you can attempt is sometimes called prop matching. Imagine this:
- An irritated driver is caught in a traffic jam.
- Sweat pours off his forehead from the summer heat.
- Cut to a hand as it slams onto the car horn.
- Pull back from the hand to reveal an angry female driver bundled in winter clothes.
- She’s in a car identical to the one we just saw being driven by the angry man.
While the immediate surroundings and circumstances for these two drivers are practically identical, their locations may be thousands of miles apart. This in-camera technique has enabled you to take your viewer across a great distance in the matter of a split second. The cut works because the two scenes are radically different, but the prop between the two is the same.
Try Some Transitions
Before embarking on your next shoot, plan to use one of these easy examples or conjure up an in-camera transition of your own.
The right one will add a completely new dimension to your next video production, and will most certainly please your viewers.
Sidebar: Plan for Success
Planning your in-camera transitions before you shoot will accomplish some important objectives.
- You’re sure to have a smoother shoot because you’ll know exactly how to visually get from one scene to another without waiting until the edit to figure it out.
- When you get to the final edit you’ll be less tempted to use the cheesy CG transitions that came with your editing software.
- In-camera transitions don’t require the rendering times involved with visually complex CG transitions such as peels and wipes.
Sidebar: Leave Them Guessing
Try using a dry-erase marker and a reference monitor to match the shape of objects in your frame, like two tires on two different cars. Once you’ve matched the position on your reference monitor by using the dry-erase marks, cut or dissolve between those objects to make a dazzling transition effect. It takes some practice but once mastered, it’s one in-camera transition technique that will leave your audience asking "How’d they do that?"