Let’s Talk Transitions

There are two things that generally stand out when you watch an amateur video. Shaky footage from the lack of tripod use, and too many transitions. We amateurs love transitions and use them frequently. Too frequently. Why? I don’t know, maybe because any video editing software comes with piles of cheesy transitions, which amateurs think they really ought to use. Well, allow me to write a bit more on this subject, and I’ll shed some light on when to use transitions and when to avoid them.

The Two Big Ones

Let’s start out with the two best transitions you could ever use. The cross dissolve and the fade in/out dissolve. Both of these transitions have certain meanings to movie-goers:

cross dissolve tells the audience that the scene has changed.

A fade in/out dissolve means that time has passed. It can also be used to show a scene change, but generally a cross dissolve is used for that.

In the early days of film, the goal was to make the movie look as much like a play as possible. So when the scene was over, the film editors would use cross dissolves to replace the curtain. Watch an old movie from the 1930s or early ’40s, and you’ll see what I mean.

What use do these two have today? Considerably less than they did back then. Nowadays, our goal is not to create the feel of a play, but to draw the viewer into the story. Watch a recent movie and notice the difference. Try counting and comparing the number of transitions between a movie made in the 1930s, and a movie made in the 21st century.

Putting these to use is pretty easy. Not! Fight the urge to use them every chance you get. Do hard cuts first, then use a short cross dissolve to soften the cuts that are too hard. Most of the time, you won’t need a transition at all. Part of this is good scripting and shooting. 

The Cheesy Ones

Take a look at the list of available transitions for your editing software. I see things like wipe, stretch, slide, and 3D simulation. Here’s a short video of a few of them:

Cheesy Transitions from Phantom Moose Films on Vimeo.

Pretty awful, aren’t they? “No,” you say, “I think they look cool!” At what price? Your job as a filmmaker is to draw the audience in, not snap them out of their enjoyment to think about that cool transition. Save “cool” for the special effects that drive the story. 

Plain and simple, don’t use those very often, if at all. “But I’ll never get to use them then!” you complain. Hold on, stay with me. They have their place.

Put the Cheesy Ones to Good Use

While cheesy transitions don’t work well in movies, TV shows use them all the time to spice up some of the more boring content. You guessed it, I have an example.

Watch a few episodes of Good Eats on Food Network. Don’t worry, it’s a great show. Notice their fancy use of fun (and cool) transitions, such as the radial effect to show the passing of time. Also, watch for the unseen transitions. I know, that sounds crazy. How can you see something unseen? I’m talking about the transitions that happen when Alton Brown’s frying pan fills the screen, only to be set down again in a different setting. They do all sorts of variations on this one, so keep your eyes open.

I’ll leave you with a repeat of something I said earlier in this post. Make all your cuts hard cuts, and then watch the whole movie. Don’t add any transitions until you’ve seen a cut without one first. Then think about it carefully before you try a transition. Remember, a little goes a long way.

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