Editing: Transition Effects


November 2012, Chuck Peters      

There's much more to visual communication than simply slapping a series of shots together. With video, you need to think about the way you connect your shots.

When we think about writing we tend to focus primarily on creating strings of letters to make words and strings of words to make sentences and groups of sentences to make paragraphs. We do not often think about the importance of spaces and punctuation.
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Translation: "but without spaces, periods, commas, question marks and capital letters you end up with a confusing combination of characters that can be difficult to decipher."

It's true. When we read we don't often think about the spaces, commas, hyphens, apostrophes and periods on the page, but without them we quickly become confused. They are essential aspects of reading and writing. While our brains are actively processing words, sentences and paragraphs on a conscious level, our subconscious minds passively dance over the gaps and punctuation marks, adding understanding that allows us to accurately interpret the intended meaning of the writer. While most of us never stop to contemplate the importance of those gaps, marks and squiggles that we use when we write, the shared unconscious understanding of what they mean is absolutely essential for there to be communication that breeds comprehension.

Furthermore.if.a.writer.were.to. substitute.periods.or,commas, for,spaces.or."randoMly" use"quotAtion
(marks"or. asTerisks*in*non#tradiTional* waYs*the-reader-might-cOnclude) that&the-writeR+ was+on-the-brinK*of^insanity%

We think you get the point: There is a lot more to written communication than stringing the right letters together. The way we connect the words we use is an equally important part of clear communication, and in a similar way, you need to think about the way you connect your shots to communicate clearly through video.

For years, we have taught that the transition effects that we use when we edit TV, film and video are like the punctuation marks we use when we write. Cuts, dissolves, fades, wipes and visual effects transitions all carry meaning that unconsciously communicates comprehension to our viewers so they can understand the relationships between the shots and scenes on their screens. Most viewers are as unaware of transitions as readers are of spaces. Whether our viewers can explain the use of transitions or not, on a subconscious level, they have been conditioned to understand what they mean. There is a language to the transitions we use in our videos. As producers, we need to know what we are saying with our transition choices to stitch our shots together effectively.



When used properly, cuts are all but invisible to the average viewer. In his book, In the Blink of an Eye, Walter Merch refers to the cut as the "eye blink" of editing. The cut is unique among transitions in that it doesn't occupy any time. Where dissolves and visual effects transitions take place over a span of several frames, a cut is instantaneous. It is a switch. While a cut doesn't occupy either space or time, it can be used to manipulate both. In effect, the cut connects things in space and time even if they are separated in the real world.

When a cut is used between individual shots of two people having a conversation (in an interview for instance,) the viewer believes the two are interacting in real-time. In reality, they may have been shot on the same set, but on different days. (See the Interview Tips Survive the Test of Time sidebar.)

The cut also connects exterior shots with interior scenes. So if we see shot A of the outside of an office building, followed by shot B of a businessman talking on the telephone, the cut leads us to believe that the office of the executive in shot B is inside the high-rise shown in shot A. This high-rise shot would be considered the establishing shot. It establishes where elements are in the scene. This technique is used in TV shows (especially sitcoms) and movies all the time. Often the exteriors are shot on location, and the interiors are shot on studio sound stages. Another example of the cut connecting the disconnected is the glance/object pair. An actor in the first shot looks off camera and we cut to - whatever we want him to be looking at. The cut connects the two in a way that joins them in space and time, even if both shots were recorded in different places or at different times.

The cut is a powerful tool for the editor. It functions simultaneously as both a razor and glue without drawing attention to itself. Because it is both powerful and inconspicuous, the cut is the most used transition of all, and it should not be neglected by editors at any level. Some say that 95 percent of your edits should be connected by cuts. We might push that recommendation as high as 99 percent. For some people, transitions can become a crutch that takes the place of thoughtful editing. There is room to hide a lack of precision in a 10-frame dissolve, but not with a cut. Cuts are out there for everyone to see. They are the definition of razor-edge frame-accuracy, and they force us to scrutinize our edit decisions.



A dissolve is a transition in which two clips overlap in time for a period of several frames. During this time the outbound clip decreases in opacity as the inbound increases. The result is a soft, smooth transition. Where the cut connects clips in time and space, the dissolve signifies a short lapse in time or a change of location. Take for example a scene where a man steps onto an elevator and the doors close. We then dissolve to a shot of the same man getting into his car. The dissolve indicates that time has passed and the location has changed. It acknowledges that some of the action has been omitted (and we're glad, because we don't have to watch a long boring elevator ride and walk through a parking lot.) Dissolves work well in montages, highlight reels and title sequences because the shots in these aren't synchronous. But don't readily replace the cuts in interviews with dissolves. Using dissolves between shots in a conversation that is supposed to take place in real-time can confuse your viewers and leave them suspicious that something has been cut.

When you do use dissolves, one important consideration is duration. The duration of the dissolve greatly affects the feel, and appeal, of the edit. Dissolves are artsy elements by nature, so it's difficult to apply a scientific rule to their duration. A short five to seven frame dissolve is barely noticeable, and can create the effect of a "soft" cut. A dissolve that is 10-15 frames long is conspicuous, but conservative. It does the job without drawing undue attention to itself. Dissolves that linger more than a second, or extend into multiple seconds, create a dramatic multiple-image effect that catches the viewer's eye and functions as a visual effect.


Fades to and from black indicate a longer passage of time. Take this example, we see a boy getting tucked into bed at night by his father, the scene fades to black, then fades in again as he awakes the next morning to the sound of chirping birds. The fade to black in this case represents eight or 10 hours of time. Or maybe we see the boy getting tucked into bed, followed by a fade to black, then a fade in on a similar shot of an adult man waking up. This time simple text reads "25 years later." Now the fade represents 25 years of time. And, as viewers, we accept it because we have been conditioned to understand what is represented by that simple fade.

Unlike dissolves, the duration of fades in and out of black has no bearing on the amount of time represented. A second or two of black is plenty long. The most important thing is to fade back in before your viewers turn off their screens or leave the room, thinking the video is done. (A trick contained in some theatrical releases that can also signify bonus content coming up.)

Wipes and Visual Effects Transitions


Wipes and visual effects transitions are designed to call attention to themselves. These are the digital video effects (DVE), including pushes, wipes, flips, flops and fly-bys. They also include matte effects like heart wipes, dripping paint, falling sheep and silhouetted people wipes along with those cool professionally produced 3D animated after-market effects that can make you look like an Adobe After Effects expert. There are thousands of them out there. Your editing app is likely pre-loaded with a great selection of them. They are flashy and fancy and they will tempt young and inexperienced editors with their drag and drop simplicity. But, if you want your productions to be taken seriously, you need to approach them with caution and use them with prudence. What you think will offer you an instantaneously elevated production quality may well make you look like an absolute amateur.

To be clear, the problem with these effects is not the effects themselves, it's the misuse and overuse of them by amateur editors. When they are used in the right way, wipes, DVEs and 2D and 3D transitions can be used to punctuate a point, signal the start of a significant segment or to top off a top-notch title sequence, and that's where you typically see them used by broadcast producers.

If you make car commercials or kids' shows (I have produced both!), then all the rules go out the window. If you want to use wacky effects in those kinds of edits, go right ahead. You need all the help you can get. When you're trying to sell someone something or get kids to pay attention to your program, pretty much anything goes. Naturally, our eyes follow movement, so adding some in your transition can be an attention-grabber. For the rest of your work you would do well to back out of the transition effects directory and lose the link.


One of the best ways to become better at choosing and using transitions is to study what you see on TV. For the best results, pay attention to national broadcasts, not locally produced programs. Watch a newscast, a sports event, a talk show, a news magazine program, a reality show and a sitcom. As you watch, try to count the cuts, dissolves, fades and special effects transitions. When you see something other than a cut, note why and how it was used. You'll soon start to see that the way you connect your shots says as much as the shots themselves.

Sidebar: Interview Tips Survive the Test of Time

As mentioned in the story, you can cut between two people talking to make it look like there are two cameras and two mics when in reality the interviewer may be sitting alone and the interviewee has left the building. This is a time tested interview technique. Mic and record the interview guest, then send the talent on his or her way. Later, reposition the camera to shoot the host asking questions to an empty chair or to a stand-in. When cut together, the scene plays like a real-time interview. An added advantage is that the questions can be re-written after the interview is complete to make the host sound more intelligent and better informed.

Sidebar: Transitions to Retire

There are some transitions that have been so over used, or are just so blatantly bad, that they need to fade into obsolescence. Here are the nominees:

The Checker Board - Sure, it was cool on the TV show Happy Days - in the 70s. While the Fonz will always be cool, this wipe went out with feathered hair and the Ford Pinto. King me! Game over.

The Heart Wipe - The first time we saw it, it was kind of cute. Sort of the Valentine of video effects. But the heart wipe has been beat to death and it has haunted unsuspecting wedding videos ever since. Wedding videography has grown into a highly specialized category of professional production, and the people who do it for a living hate the heart wipe. For the sake of newlyweds everywhere, it's time we pull the plug on this cliché.

The Star Wipe - The star wipe officially jumped the shark when The Simpsons had an episode that made fun of it.
Lisa: OK, I finished editing the gardening sequence.
Homer: OK, from here we star wipe to a glamour shot of Flanders paying his bills, then we star wipe to Flanders brushing his teeth.
Lisa: Dad, there are other wipes besides star wipes.
Homer: Why eat hamburger when you can have steak?
Lisa: I'm taking my name off this thing.

Chuck Peters is a 3-time Emmy award-winning writer and producer. He is currently VP of Production at KIDMO/Rivet Productions.