Basics of Video Transitions

Photo Credit: Penn State Media Commons http://mediacommons.psu.edu/

Transitions are powerful visual tools that hold a story together and do far more than just moving the narrative sequence forward. When used at the right place and time, transitions can add huge meaning to your story and provide subtle visual cues to what actually unfolds between your scenes. It sets the pace, tone, and energy level of your video, establishes the spatial relationship between the characters in the scene, and implies a sense of time between your scenes, whether they are separated by a passage in time or are actually happening concurrently.

The average person today is well-conditioned as a video consumer in the sense that they won’t register most standard transitions; their brains just instantly make that connection for them in their heads. So unless you’re using a particularly jarring transition, or you cut at a point or to another point that does not make sense, transitions generally won’t pull your viewer out of the experience.

There are a number of basic types of transitions that are instantly available at your disposal on any editing software, although most of the time, you can put together an engaging story with just the first 2 types if used with great effect:

  • Cut: This is the most basic transition in all of video editing. All you have to do is put two clips next to each other. It may be the simplest, no-frills transition there is, but it’s exactly because of this that the cut is the quickest and cleanest way to jump from one shot or scene to another. Use it to control the amount of information you want to disclose to your audience, i.e. how much or how little you want them to see something unfolding.
  • Dissolve: This is the most commonly used transition when editing a video. A dissolve or cross-dissolve layers two clips together so it transitions seamlessly from one shot to another. It’s a subtle cue to tell your audience that there is a passing of time, location of subject matter without stating it outright. Use sparingly and use them with purpose. Try not to drag out the length of the dissolve too long as well; a one second dissolve would suffice.
  • Fade: The fade to black or fade from black is a more dramatic version of the dissolve, where instead of layering two different clips, the scene comes in from or goes out into a black screen. This is a strong way to indicate the start or end of a chapter in your story, or of a particularly pivotal scene. It’s also particularly effective in connecting two scenes with a vastly different energy level, and a good way to create suspense, especially when used in the context of trailers.
  • Light Flash: The light flash is another version of the dissolve where the shot quickly dissolves the screen to white for a fraction of a second, resembling a camera flash, hence the name. Its application is not as versatile as the standard dissolve or fade to black, although a well-placed light flash can help highlight some dramatic moments in an action-packed environment. A more drawn out light flash would be a fade to white, which would come in handy in endings, or when you want to end a scene with a skyward pan.
  • Wipe: The wipe is a transition where an electronic border slides from one shot to another, literally ‘wiping’ it. This is a particularly dangerous tool to use, and unless you have a real good reason for it, or you’re George Lucas, it can be quite difficult to pull off a wipe transition without looking cheesy or distracting. Granted, it depends on the type of content you’re doing, as it has been used to great effect in animated programs or niche TV shows, and also if it’s a deliberate style and look that you’re going for.