Understanding Transition Effects

Those dozens or even hundreds of flips, flaps, flops, fly-ins and other athletic visual effects that signal a change from one scene to another are irresistible.

You can make incoming shots tumble on-screen like circus clowns, pound the outgoing shots into the ground like stakes or float them toward the viewer on cubes like great Borg spaceships.

And, unfortunately, you probably will. Unfortunately? Yes, because your viewers can tolerate only so many hyperactive graphics before fatigue sets in, followed quickly by irritation. What works as a commercial bumper for Jerry Springer is not necessarily good for most videos.

To use transitions with finesse you need to know what each one says to the audience and how to select and deploy them. That’s what we’re here for.

Let’s commence by clearing up some confusion in terminology. Technically speaking, every single transition that you make with your software is created digitally and is, therefore a Digital Video Effect or in the universal abbreviation, a DVE.

However, common transitions like fades, dissolves and wipes, predate the digital era by many decades. For this reason, editors sometimes refer to them as just plain effects, reserving the term DVE for the highly complex transitions that became practical only with the rise of digital processing.

A second confusion arises from a lack of standard terminology. Sure, everyone understands "fade in," but no one can agree on the hundreds (by now, maybe thousands) of proprietary effects designed by different vendors. What do you call an incoming shot that starts as a tiny dot in the middle of the screen and then moves in an ever-widening spiral, growing in size until it has covered the outgoing shot? Spiral out? Corkscrew? And what do you call it if the incoming shot simultaneously revolves like a gas station sign while it’s spiraling in, Texaco Spiral?

To cut through the clutter, we’ll refer to all transitional effects as DVEs and define just the ones that have universally understood meanings.

Punctuation Marks

Many DVEs are used like punctuation marks in sentences to divide video programs into orderly, understandable parts.

A fade in starts with a black screen, which lightens to gradually reveal an image. The effect resembles a lighting fade-up in a theater. Almost all professional programs start with a fade in.

A fade out is the same effect in reverse and it typically signals the end of a program or change in time. Incidentally, you can fade to or from white or a color instead of black, but this effect can seem self-conscious.

A fade out/fade in is a back-to-back pair of the above. It signals a major change in the program. How major? Think of it as an act break in a play. It’s big enough so that the curtain comes down, the lights come up, and the folks go buy overpriced sodas in the lobby.

A dissolve is a fade out/fade in with the two actions happening simultaneously (which is why it is also called a cross fade or mix). Since the outgoing and incoming shots are darkening/lightening at exactly the same time and rate, the screen retains full brightness throughout the transition as one image gradually replaces the other.

Incidentally, a double exposure (which is not a transition) is simply a dissolve that reaches the 50/50 point and holds there, with both images on screen at once.

Continuing the theater analogy, if a fade out is like an act break, a dissolve is like a scene change. The lights may go out while the set and props are changed, but then the play resumes without intermission.

In the grammar of classic Hollywood movies, nearly every change in time and/or place was signaled by a dissolve. Nowadays, however, programs often jump from one sequence to the next with a straight cut, for a more energetic, less deliberate feel.

Which way you go is up to you. However, use a dissolve if a straight cut would confuse the audience. If, for instance, the incoming sequence begins in the same location as the outgoing one, you may need a dissolve (or other similar transition) to show the passage of time.

Other Standard Effects

What other similar transition? Over the years, a few fancier models have been used often enough to acquire fairly standard meanings, usually as visual synonyms for dissolves. Foremost in this group is the wipe family.

In a wipe, a line sweeps across the screen, progressively replacing the outgoing shot with the incoming one. Note that neither shot moves. Both shots fill the full screen, with the new shot progressively revealed "underneath" the old one. Wipe lines can move horizontally, vertically or diagonally. They can have soft edges, hard edges or colored edges. Each creates a different effect.

Soft-edge horizontal wipes make fine alternatives to dissolves (Check them out in Star Wars Episode One). Re-popularized by the classic movie, The Sting, horizontal wipes have a stately, deliberate effect and are great for controlling pacing throughout a program.

Hard-edged and color-edged wipes moving horizontally, vertically or diagonally, have no universal meaning as punctuation. They simply indicate a change in the program.

Color-edged diagonal wipes are especially useful for single camera interviews. If you have only one shot of an interviewee, you can’t chop unwanted footage out of it without a jump cut (a little hop in the picture that is disturbing because the incoming image is close but not identical to the outgoing one). A diagonal wipe signals a jump in the action and audiences understand its meaning.

Why not use a snappier flip-flop or other DVE? Because fancy effects can sometimes call attention to themselves more strongly than wipes and you don’t want to distract attention from the interview.

Before leaving alternatives to the classic dissolve, we should add checkerboards and page turns. Checkerboards break the images into grids of tiny squares, which then expand to fill the screen. This is widely understood to mean the same as a dissolve.

In a page turn (often called a peel) one corner of the old image appears to lift and curve up and back out of frame, revealing the new shot "beneath it" like the next page in a book. This is a useful transition in fiction videos, where the page-turning metaphor reinforces the literary analogy.

Finally, ripple dissolves are standard dissolves in which the images waver like reflections on water. This effect signals a flashback to an earlier time or a dream or hallucination. In classic film grammar, a return to the present (or to reality) requires a second ripple dissolve to bring the dream or flashback to an end. Like straight dissolves, ripples may be omitted in modern practice, unless the audience would otherwise have trouble following.

Moving Right Along…

As you can see, the classic transitions signal changes in time, place or both. Other transitions, including all the fancier DVEs, announce a change in the program, without indicating what kind. For this reason, these transitions have been widely adopted in corporate, training and commercial programs.

Wipes (other than the horizontal, soft-edge kind) are widely used to semaphore a change in subject. Flips are complex wipes that resemble a stand-mounted chalkboard being rotated vertically to display its opposite side. In sophisticated versions, the images are progressively distorted so that they are seen in perspective as they are rotated around.

Displacements are good alternatives to wipes and flips. There are many different designs, but in every one the new shot displaces the old one either by pushing it off screen in some way or by expanding from nothing to cover it. Fly-ins are displacement effects in which the new shot floats along a path (often curving) as it grows to cover the old shot.

From this point on, DVEs proliferate beyond the ability to catalogue them; and they have no more meaning than a firecracker: "BANG! I hereby separate A from B as flamboyantly as possible."

Five Tips for Success

To avoid going ape with your hundreds of rinky-dink DVEs, keep these simple guidelines in mind.

  1. Employ DVEs correctly. Where effects have agreed-upon meanings, use them that way. Don’t try to make them punctuate in ways that they can’t. For example, don’t signal a flashback with a pinwheel displacement. It simply won’t tell viewers what you intend.

  2. Use DVEs sparingly. As we’ve noted, many classic movie usages have been largely dropped by modern directors. The rule of thumb is, if it makes sense to the audience without an effect, omit it.

  3. Make it snappy. A four-second fade or magisterial wipe can be very dramatic, but most transitions should be kept between 0.5 and 1.5 seconds. When a transition persists too long, the audience thinks, okay, okay, I got it already.

  4. Keep it simple. Hotdoggy DVEs were exciting when they were new and only networks and big production houses could afford them. Today, however everybody can use them and the novelty is gone. Now they send the signal that you’re using them to hype up an otherwise boring program.

  5. Be consistent. Don’t mix dissolves and soft-edge wipes. Don’t fade to black one time and fade to red another.

And for goodness sake, don’t run through your repertory as if to show how many effects came with your software. Instead, pick just one DVE for use throughout your program or at most select two compatible effects and alternate them.


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