A common bit of advice to new filmmakers is to eschew dissolves, wipes and other fancy transitions. Instead, experts recommend using the simple jump cut for most purposes. I don’t wish to dispute this advice. I think that, in general, it’s sound advice. Inappropriate or excessive use of elaborate transitions can distract and detract from the story. Still, I think the answer to the question of whether to use creative transitions on a particular piece is: it depends.
It’s certainly true that if you watch top quality films and shows produced by professionals what you see is mostly straight jump cuts. But I do think there are times when the use of other transitions can be appropriate and can work better. Recently, while working on a series of videos for the Camino Real Playhouse I’ve often had creative ideas that initially seemed like good ones. But sometimes, upon reflection, I’ve realized these ideas would not be right for the project.
Using Dissolves for The Diary of Anne Frank
For example, while working on some videos for the playhouse’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank I had several ideas about the use of transitions and other showy visual techniques. I had thought that certain of these techniques might help to heighten the drama. But, after thinking about it, I decided that this material about the Holocaust required a more sober, respectful treatment.
Even so, I did decide to use dissolves rather than jump cuts. There were two reasons for this choice. First, I was assembling several sequences to be used as promotional trailers. This was not a situation where one scene immediately follows the previous one as in a traditional narrative story. These were disconnected scenes, often out of time order, that I was trying to combine into a theme. I wanted to insert a beat between each pair of scenes to allow the viewer to mentally leave the previous scene and enter the next one.
The other reason I chose to use the film dissolve transition is that it was frequently impossible to find an appropriate point to abruptly begin or end a clip. While shooting the performances I had no control over takes. I was just capturing live whatever the actors were doing. So, the action frequently flows directly from one line to another without a pause where I might need one. The dissolve enabled me to more gracefully transition between clips.
Using Wacky Transitions for a Farce
By contrast, in my videos for the comedy Happy Birthday I chose to use some very loud and in-your-face transitions. Being a farce, the play is inherently wacky and over the top. In this instance, I felt that using playful transitions with a lot of movement would help communicate the frenetic feel of the play while also conveying a bit of humor.
So, as with most rules, I don’t think we want to follow the jump cut rule slavishly. Style serves story and we want all of our creative choices working together to produce the desired effect. We just need to be thoughtful and make sure that our choices really do make for a better portrayal of our stories.
This post is a very thoughtful bit of advice. In fact, judgement is best advised in following any rule. Fortunately, in the case of photography and filmography, one can’t be put in jail for breaking a rule, as opposed to other areas of practice.
Yes, fortunately, photographers and videographers can’t be jailed for breaking a style rule! Although, if you do commercial photography using a drone or use someone’s image without consent that could land you in hot water. We have to know which rules to break and when to break them :-).