We’ll start with the venerable ancestors of all effects, the fade, the dissolve and the wipe. (These are the oldest effects, incidentally, because, back before the invention of the optical printer they could be created in the camera on the original film.)
Action. Picture gradually darkens to black (fade out) or vice-versa (fade in).
Use. Signals the end or beginning of a program or major section.
Effect. Says to the audience, "And now for something completely different!"
Variations. A fade out followed immediately by a fade in marks a major transition within a program. Occasionally, very fast fade outs are used like theatrical "blackouts" in order to punctuate the climaxes
of brief skits.
Comments. The most universally used of all transitions.
Action. Image B fades in precisely as image A fades out, so that the new image gradually replaces the old one without darkening the screen.
Use. Signals a change of time and/or place within a program.
Effect. Says, "Here’s a new part of what we’ve been showing."
Variations. If a dissolve executes halfway and then holds, the result is a superimposition of the A and B images, often called a double exposure. A ripple dissolve, in which the images waver like reflections in water signals a flashback or daydream.
Comments. Today, dissolves are often replaced with straight cuts, unless the audience would otherwise fail to recognize the transition to a new time/place.
Action. A line moving across the screen progressively covers image A with image B.
Use. Signals a change of time and/or place, just like a dissolve.
Effect. Lends a sense of anticipation, as if a curtain were slowly drawn to reveal a new scene behind it.
Variations. Classic wipes are upright lines sweeping horizontally across the screen, but vertical and diagonal wipes are not uncommon. Traditional wipes may have hard or soft edges. Colored edges are sometimes used for greater emphasis.
Comments. Unlike many effects, wipes can be very effective when used sloooowly, for a sense of dignity, deliberateness or foreboding.
The invention of the optical printer moved transition effects from camera to film lab, and soon resulted is snappy new types, including the page turn, the flip, and the spin.
Action. The right corner or edge of the image appears to curl downward and move out of frame to the left, uncovering a new "page" underneath it.
Use. Same as a dissolve or wipe.
Effect. A page turn has an obvious storybook feel to it. (Classic Disney features used to start with an actual book that opened to reveal title narration.)
Variations. Page turns can begin at the upper or lower right corner, or the entire right edge of the image can "lift."
Comments. Useful in family videos for a photo album feel. Also effective for a quaint old-fashioned look, in fairy tales and such.
Action. The screen appears to rotate vertically on a center axis, like a free-standing classroom blackboard, replacing the image on the "front" with a second picture on the "back."
Use. Signals any type of change to something new.
Effect. This was the earliest "ta-DAAA!" effect, making a big deal out of the change to something new.
Variations. You can also revolve the image horizontally, around a vertical axis. The effect here is more like a rotating sign than a blackboard.
Comments. By using the horizontal variation at a slow pace, you can create a merry-go-round montage of different images. Start with trial speed of two seconds per image; then gradually slow the pace down until each shot yields up its essential information as it rotates by.
Action. The image revolves rapidly on the plane of the screen, then it slows to a halt, revealing a new whole image.
Use. Classically, spins were used in montages: brief, telegraphic anthologies of information. In particular, spinning newspapers stopped to display things like BABE RUTH HITS 300TH! or PEARL HARBOR ATTACKED!!!
Effect. Like the headlines, the effect screams "Extra, extra: big news." Because of its obviousness, the spin effect was rarely used for regular transitions.
Variations. Often, the spinning paper or whatever would start as a pinpoint and swiftly enlarge to fill the frame as the effect stopped.
Comments. With dozens of DVEs that convey essentially the same effect, you may wish to reserve classic spins for newspaper and similar old-fashioned effects, for a period feeling.
Enter The DVE
Though optical printers could, theoretically, create any effect we now use, the process was so finicky, slow and expensive, that some transitions did not become common until computers gave us digital video effects, among them, the fly-in, displacement and rotation.
Action. Starting as a pin point, image B follows a straight or curved path, growing until it fills the entire screen.
Use. Any type of transition.
Effect. In the completely relative "space" on the video screen, it can appear that you are moving toward the new image, rather than vice-versa, as if you were driving up to a large roadside billboard.
Variations. Try a very, very slow fly-in, so that the new image floats toward the viewer as portentously as an Empire battle cruiser.
Comments. There are so many fly-ins that you will need to experiment until you find the ones you like best. In general, a fly-in is a nice compromise: peppy enough for a certain gee-whiz feeling, without the glitzy excess of more athletic DVEs.
Action. Image B pushes image A off the screen, in any of several directions.
Use. Use for highly emphatic transitions.
Effect. Often slightly comical, as when B bounces progressively down the screen like a pile driver, hammering A out of frame at the bottom.
Variations. Occasionally, image A fights back, regaining some of its territory before succumbing to a renewed attack by B (think of a tug of war).
Comments. Displacements differ from wipes in one critical way. In a wipe, both the "bottom" (old) and "top" (new) images fill the entire screen throughout the effect. What changes is the proportion of each that is visible. In a displacement, the new image actually moves the old one as it pushes it out of frame.
Action. The images are mapped to a geometric shape such as a cube or circle, which rotates on an axis from image A
to image B.
Use. No specific meaning. It’s useful for any transition.
Effect. Like fly-ins, rotations offer liveliness without hokiness.
Variations. Often, the rotating shape will also fly in as it spins. In some variations, the shape completes several rotations, so that images A and B alternate repeatedly until the shape stops with image B filling the screen.
Comments. Slow rotations also work well as platforms for montages. Notice that the teaser on a TV news show will rotate a key image from each upcoming story, pause while a voice-over explains it, and then rotate on the next image.
So there’s your transition effect cheat sheet. Pin it up by your computer and consult it for impeccable transitions.