Editing tips

The Dissolve: A Winning Edit

A winning hand in the editing game means knowing the right transition for your edit. Introducing the second most popular transition in movie and TV history: the dissolve.

After the "cut," the dissolve gets the most screen time amongst the guild of transitions. We see it countless times, but do we know why and when it is usually used? For consumers, it may not be so important, but for editors, it's crucial.

We usually edit to change the duration of time, most often by shortening screen time of an event or, on occasion, lengthening it. We may condense a two-hour poker match to four minutes, beginning with the dealing of the first hand and concluding with the triumphant winner. In effect, the editor takes out all the non-essential "middle parts" in order to keep the story moving along. The majority of the shots in this four-minute scene will most likely be "straight cuts," but there could be one or more dissolves. Let's learn when to use the cut or the dissolve, and why.


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Time Stands Still

An editor usually uses a cut to give the audience a new perspective. A cut shows the same subjects and action as those in the shot before, but from a different position, angle and/or framing. It usually does not try to communicate a change in time. An example might be a wide shot of our four people around a table playing five-card stud. The dealer is passing out the cards, while the person to his left is telling a story of what happened to him at work that day. The editor decides to "cut on action," as the dealer tosses the second card to the talking man to his left. The initial framing is a medium shot of the dealer pulling a card from the deck and beginning to throw it down onto the table. When the dealer's arm is halfway through the motion of dealing the card, the editor cuts to a close-up of the same action, now just the dealer's hand and card. This does not interrupt the dialog, and the action is seamless. If the editor does it well, the audience does not consciously notice the transition.

An exception to this would be a "jump cut," like those that were used by the French New Wave directors of the late fifties or early sixties, such as François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard, who wished to draw attention to their filmmaking process. But let's stick to the typical Hollywood style of narrative storytelling, where cuts generally go unnoticed.Video Editing Timeline with Skateboarder

Time Shifting

Now let's say the film cuts to the man to the left excitedly talking about his work, as he sits tall in his seat. He has towering stacks of poker chips in front of him, a full soft-drink or beer bottle in his hand and an overflowing bowl of chips at his side. The editor then uses a three-second cross dissolve to a shot of the same man framed in the same way, but now he is slouching in his seat, a look of exhaustion on his face, the top two buttons of his dress shirt unbuttoned, four empty beer bottles in front of him; the chip bowl has a few broken crumbs at the bottom, and his towers of chips have transformed into tiny stacks. We don't need a lesson in filmmaking grammar to know that a fair amount of time has passed, and this man has lost most of his money. So editors often use the dissolve, a gradual merging of the end of one shot with the beginning of the next, to show a passing of time. Though this transition is more obvious than the cut, we are so used to seeing it that we accept that it indicates the passing of time, and we move right along with the story.

Time Fades

In our Videomaker workshops, when we discuss transitions, we often ask our attendees what they think of when we say "fade to black." The inevitable answer is usually "commercial break" or "end of movie, roll the credits." But the fade to black is actually a powerful transition denoting a change in time or location. It can also change the mood of the story tremendously. Some directors will hold the fade to black so long that the audience often is tricked into thinking the movie has ended, but it's usually just a transition to an epilog or last chapter to the movie. It's different from a dissolve: when we see the time shift, location change or scene change made with a fade to black, we think of a shift that is important and meaningful to the movie.

Using our poker game example, we've established that our card player has been at the table a long time by the number of empty bottles and snack bags at the table. Perhaps we've had him open his shirt all the way and pull his shirttails out, and we've given him an aged, tired look. But now, he's playing his final hand, and we see a look of jubilation as he lays down his cards: a Royal Flush. We then fade to black for a 2- to 3- or even 5-second pause, then we fade up to a shot of him on a yacht or on the beach of an exotic locale or driving off in a brand-new souped-up sports car. Unlike the dissolve described above, this transition was both showing a conclusion to the tension in that long-played-out poker game and changing the mood from tense to relaxed. The fade to black shifts our gambler to a better time and place.

Talking Heads

Narrative storytelling doesn't hold all the chips in the dissolve game. In fact, it can be a lifesaver to the documentary editor. Let's say a doc producer shot a long talking-head interview but failed to acquire B roll. This producer also failed to alter the framing of the shots, thus having an entire hour-long interview of the same framing. Definitely not a good place to be.

The interviewee occasionally lapsed into long fits of coughing, which almost blew the headphones off the audio person. The editor needs to remove these coughing segments, but, to her horror, she finds there is no B roll.

What comes to save the day? You guessed it: the dissolve. A straight cut would produce a jump cut, which could jar the audience. When this instantaneous transition between two identical or near-identical shots occurs, the subject appears to "jump" within the screen. But a quick cross dissolve between two identical or near-identical shots will soothe the visual "jump," allowing the audience to continue to move smoothly along with the story. You can watch just about any PBS documentary with talking heads, and you'll see this cross dissolve used.

Though the cut dominates the editing profession with little competition, the dissolve is a transitional player more involved in both narrative and documentary pictures than you may think. When the chips are down and you feel all is lost, try playing your dissolve and see how you fare.

Contributing editor Morgan Paar is a nomadic producer, shooter and editor, making documentaries worldwide.

Sidebar: Types of Dissolves from Apple's Final Cut Pro 5 Manual

It's not unusual to find many different dissolve transitions in your video editing application. Some of these might be useful, while others act more like a fade, which is completely different from a dissolve. We suggest sticking to a cross dissolve.

  • Cross Dissolve: Blends the first clip into the second clip.
  • Additive Dissolve: Adds the two clips so that the first clip fades out and the second fades in.
  • Dip to Color Dissolve: Blends the first clip into the plain color of your choice, and then blends the plain color into the second clip. You can adjust the speed of the blend.
  • Dither Dissolve: Dissolves the first clip into the second by removing random pixels from the first clip to reveal the second clip.
  • Fade-In Fade-Out Dissolve: Fades in the incoming clip as the outgoing clip fades out. Reveals the track below the current track in a transition.
  • Non-Additive Dissolve: Compares the pixels in the two clips and displays the lighter of the two as the first clip fades out and the second fades in.
  • Ripple Dissolve: Applies a pond ripple effect to the first clip, simultaneously blending it into the second. You can choose the number of ripples, their center point on the first clip and their amplitude and acceleration. You can also apply a circle highlight to the ripples.

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  1. For years, working with film, they were 'lap-dissolves', to me, but 'cross-fades' serves as well. Used responsibly, they may be part of your 'signature', as embodied in the way you go about your editing. However, I would caution against them being 'too-many-things'. Attempts to make them the universal panea for all shooting and editing ills, can be a big mistake in my view. I treat them as a form of 'encoding', to convey the passage of time and almost nothing else. That way preserves clarity, in viewers' minds,  as to what it is they are 'encoding'. A personal observation over the years, is that this transition is over-used by almost everyone; including, at one time, 'me'.