Every week I have to leave my studio and go to the local grocery store to re-stock my client refrigerator with cold soft drinks. Every week I'd buy the same variety of products. Predictable. Routine. A no-brainer. Then one day I heard about a store–farther away–somewhat harder to reach, but a place exclusively dedicated to soft drinks. They stock a zillion brands that I'd never even heard about. I started sampling their wider range of products. Some of them were, quite frankly, awful. Others were no better than what I'd usually purchased. But some of them were outstanding and my clients seemed to enjoy the new options. Now I find myself splitting my shopping between the two stores, but when I look into my studio fridge today, I'm surprised that while some of the brands or flavors have changed -I really feature about the same overall number of "choices" as I did before I expanded my shopping. Reminds me a little about how I feel about editing transitions.
Early in the days when NLE software was just getting started, the early packages had a pretty limited palate of transition choices. Some tricky dissolves, a handful of wipes, and maybe a few faux 3D flips. Then suddenly, every editing software was packed with a gazillion choices. Spinning, twisting, fracturing, shape-shifting arrays of ways to get from picture A to picture B, including a wipe called “Falling Sheep.”
Today on my desktop I can pick from about a thousand transitions–each with variations–all with the click of a mouse. Want to guess how many I regularly use? Yep, about as many as I used back when I was stuck with simpler software. Does that make my video tastes boring and less than adventurous? Would my videos be better if I used more of the transition choices my software provides? Perhaps.
But consider this. Perhaps ninety-five plus percent of the transitions you'll see between the scenes in any professional video, TV show or movie will be simple cuts. This is because nearly 95% of the time the storyteller simply needs to efficiently move from one character to the next or the current scene to the next without distracting the audience's attention.
When executed properly, the cut is pretty much invisible. And invisible transitions are an excellent tool when you want to keep an audience focused on the content of your program–rather than pulling them away from the content to admire how "cool" your transitions look.
The unkindest cut… Occasionally, however, using a cut between two scenes just won't, well… cut it (pun intended.) You've probably heard the term "jump cut" if you've been around video for long. A jump cut results from cutting between two nearly identical scenes–for example, cutting a cough out of a continuous single camera shot of a person speaking. This kind of cut nearly always causes an unacceptably jarring jump in time. It's distracting because in real life, time doesn't skip like that. In real life we watch the person speaking at the podium and suffer with the poor wretch until their coughing fit subsides. In video, this is boring. We want to remove the distracting coughs, so we cut them out, but unless we've changed the framing or we use a cutaway shot or other scene- patching technique, we've got to do something to hide that skip in time.
Transitions are useful for this. A page peel, a push slide, a flash-frame–there are lots of useful transitions for covering a jump cut. But how many do you need in one video? For my tastes, it always seems smarter to pick one transition style and stick with it throughout the program. So, for example, if I used a page peel to cover the first jump cut- why not just use the same transition for every other distracting edit? Pretty soon, the audience starts accepting the transition as routine and then they're free to go right back to thinking about the content rather than whether a 3D spinning vortex transition or an equally mystifying "dripping rain" transition will pop up next.
Other standard transitions like the dissolve, (aka the cross-dissolve or cross-fade depending on your software,) have become industry standards because in the traditional language of video, they've often been used for a specific purpose. A dissolve in traditional movie vocabulary implies a passage of time. But not always. Perhaps the "dreamy" nature of a slow dissolve just fits better with the mood a video is trying to achieve. The point is to have a reason for picking the type of transitions you use so that you can build a visual vocabulary that your audience will come to understand.
Sharing Language with an Audience
I'm a long time proponent of making the transitions you use in your videos mean something. Again, think about your motivation. In training videos I like to link transitions (push slide left means we're leaving a lesson for an example–push slide right means we're returning from the example to the lesson–page peel separates the lessons, etc.) to create a specific visual vocabulary–because once the audience catches on, it makes it easier for them to follow the program.
And, fine. I agree that in some cases, transitions can just be there because they look cool. If you're working on a music video for a hard rock band and you're just itching to use the hyper-space particle explosion transition–go for it. But understand that in the end, visual vocabulary is a lot like real vocabulary. The way you "speak" to your audience reveals lot about you.
Wouldn't it be cool to have the ability to "speak" in classical video visual vocabulary when you're working on a business video for a big corporate client–then switch and spice up your visual communications with some hipper "slang" transitions when you're working on something edgier? And, hey, if you're doing the video equivalent of a psychedelic 60s rock and roll concert–then that bubbling slo-mo chartreuse amoebae explosion transition is fine. Really. Well, sometimes. Maybe. But I never did find a way to use that “Falling Sheep” transition work in 20 years of editing.
Contributing Editor Bill Davis writes, shoots, edits,
and does voiceover work for a variety of corporate and industrial clients.
[Sidebar: The Basic Grammar of the Edit]
The Cut – When the first frame of a new shot directly follows the last frame of the previous shot, you have the most common edit, the cut. This edit usually implies no change in time or place. In the classical “Hollywood” model, this edit would be invisible to the viewer. If executed incorrectly it becomes a jump cut (see below).
The Cross Dissolve (or Cross Fade) – When the end of the outgoing shot fades out while the incoming shot fades in, we have a cross dissolve. A group of the first clip's final frames are composited with a group of frames from the front of the second clip during the dissolve (a default in some editing systems is fifteen frames from each side). Another way to describe this much used transition would be the opacity of the outgoing clip moves from 100% to 0% while the opacity of the following and overlapping shot is doing the opposite. This indicates a change in time or place or both.
The Wipe – The wipe is a very noticeable transition not used often in Hollywood or television. One clip pushes the preceding clip “off the screen,” to the right, left, top or bottom. George Lucas used it in the Star Wars series. Usually indicates a short lapse in time but implies the two clips are related.
Fade to Black – A fade to black can be thought of as a cross fade with the second “clip” being a completely black image, usually without sound. A fade to black usually indicates the end of the program or maybe the end of a “chapter” in the story.
The Jump Cut – The most basic definition of a jump cut is an edit that breaks the continuity of time (and/or sometimes place). This often happens when a section of footage is taken out of the middle of a shot, for example a talking head interview, causing the subject to jump while the background stays the same. Though done purposely by the French New Wave (and Woody Allen's 1997 Deconstructing Harry), it usually is considered a mistake and jars the audience, distracting them from the story.