Transitions in Editing: the History and Evolution of the Dissolve
Once a powerful storytelling device and pillar of continuity editing, the dissolve has become something of a ghost. This transition, which is also the earliest transition, has evolved from a tool for putting multi-shot films together, to a branch of film language that has a rich and powerful meaning all its own. The Dissolve (the website not the transition) has made a video about the dissolve (the transition not the website) that highlights some of the most well-known dissolves in film, and offers insight into what each transition is trying to convey. Check it out after the jump.
Maybe I’m the film nerd above all film nerds, but the history of the dissolve is — dare I say — quite poetic. Before the cut was adopted as the go-to transition, the dissolve started out as a relatively straightforward way of combining multiple shots together, reminiscent of the transitions in magic lantern slide shows, according to a 2011 Cornell University study.
Around the turn of the century, achieving a dissolve was as simple as shooting your scene, which consisted of one shot, rewinding the last few seconds of the negative, and continue with your next scene. This in-camera process allowed a bridge to be built between images that eased audiences from one scene to another without jarring them.
The dissolve was dethroned as other methods of transition, like fades, wipes, and the most popular, cuts, became words in the language of film that allowed filmmakers to be more specific with their storytelling. The cut replaced the dissolve as the bridge (rather the glue) between shots, and the dissolve became the transition that held entire scenes together.
Check out this video entitled The Dissolve on dissolves: A Video Essay, which shares some of the most notable uses of the dissolve, as well as explains the new meanings the transition took on in visual literacy.
Dissolves became a way for filmmakers to convey a deeper meaning, express a passage of time, connect scenes, even a special effects technique. A dissolve was a slow and painless way to move the audience through each scene, but a dissolve could also signal an ellipsis of time — a character pacing in a room waiting, a change of seasons, etc.
The dream sequence in Spellbound demonstrates two dissolves that have different cinematic meanings: one is used to indicate the entrance into an altered mental state (waking/dream state) and the other is used in a montage.
Here’s the iconic transformation scene from Metropolis, which demonstrates how dissolves can be used in SFX.
Graphic matches and juxtapositions can be used to link two images, offering a nuanced statement about their relationship. This becomes a subtle indicator that there is more to the story than meets the eye, which is demonstrated in the video above in the shots from Citizen Kane.
Another famous scene from Metropolis demonstrates this as well. Look for the dissolve from podium to pulpit. What kind of message was Fritz Lang trying to send to his audience with this dissolve?
As the Cornell study shows in detail in its graphs of the numbers and proportions of all transitions used since 1930, though the use of the dissolve has seen an astronomical drop since the beginning of filmmaking, it hasn’t disappeared.
Following the dark age of the dissolve in the 1970s and 1980s, the technique has made a slight comeback over the last two decades, partly attributable to digital nonlinear editing technology that makes a range of effects more time- and cost-effective than in the prime of celluloid.
What do you think? What are some of your favorite dissolves in cinema? Let us know in the comments.
- The Dissolve on dissolves: A video essay — The Dissolve
- The Changing Poetics of the Dissolve in Hollywood Film — Cornell University
[via Cinephilia and Beyond]