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Transitions in Editing: the History and Evolution of the Dissolve

The DissolveOnce 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 Essaywhich 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.


[via Cinephilia and Beyond]


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Description image 22 COMMENTS

  • That dissolve from a freeze frame in Crystal Skull, created by where it never existed before, is the ultimate stylistic no-no in this art of cinematic dissolves, so within the first minute of the overview, credibility already suffers…

    • Yeah, I don’t understand why they did it. And it happened several other times in the video.

    • Arthur Vibert on 08.14.13 @ 2:52PM

      I think they’re doing it to differentiate dissolves that are original to the actual films from the dissolves that were created by the makers of this short. I don’t know that it’s particularly successful because it is extremely unpleasant to look at, but at least they have a reason for it.

  • There’s a horror film I love, I Can See You, that makes great use of dissolves. I searched youtube for an example, but all they have is the trailer, which isn’t a good representation. If you’re into low-budge horror films with an experimental flair its worth checking out.

  • I still regard having to use a dissolve as a cheat when cutting.
    It does have its purposes, but my general rule is only in emergencies, to be nostalgic (no accident a lot of the above are either from period films, or from the actual period), or if there’s a shot driven reason (repeated shape overlapping, continuation of movement etc) in a very theatrical project.
    Otherwise, you put in a slow dissolve around me and I’ll slap the back of your hand with a ruler.

    • There used to be a saying “If you can’t solve it, dissolve it”. It suggests that a dissolve can often be a way to “solve” a certain cut that just won’t work no matter where you cut it.
      But of course like anything, just because something is used to cover up a problem, it doesn’t mean that it’s only used for that.
      I think dissolves are great. I tend to read them as a time passage for the most part myself.

    • Arthur Vibert on 08.14.13 @ 2:57PM

      That’s like saying you think using the word “and” in a sentence is a cheat. A dissolve is part of the syntax of film. Used correctly (and sparingly) it works extremely well.

  • These are all great uses for the dissolve, but too often I see novice videographers and filmmakers throw them in willy-nilly for no reason, or worse, to fix mistakes that they’ve made, like breaking the 180 rule (unintentionally). Like music, transitions should increase the power of the story, and not be something tacked on to cover poor editing or story-telling.

  • I don’t have a favorite dissolve. Dissolves are the worst. You’ll never win me over.

  • How can you omit Wayne’s World?


  • I run a Wedding Videography company here in LA and our Highlight Videos are about 90% dissolves. Because the Highlight Video is a montage or passage of time, I find the dissolve to be a much more effective tool than a hard cut specifically for our Highlight Videos. We shoot upwards of 40 Weddings per year now and as much as I’m aware of how different we are than almost every other company, I’ve come to actually love the fact that we are different. And having a unique style is not a bad thing in this business where sometimes it’s hard to tell one company apart from another (especially in the mid-upper level price range)…but I think that as long as it’s done carefully & purposefully, it’s a great TOOL. Can it be used incorrectly? Hell yes. Am I gonna use it all the time on a short film or during live Wedding coverage like toasts, etc.? No, absolutely not. But trust me, I’ve cut the same Highlight videos together with hard cuts and the emotional “through-line” does not hold together as effectively as when I use dissolves.

  • I agree that dissolves are vital to Wedding Videography, especially Highlights and event montages. But in my opinion most Wedding videography is not filmmaking.

    And after producing a bunch of wedding highlight reels myself, I know that a well-made wedding video can be a very artful and moving presentation. But it doesn’t have a plot. A film, however, is a unique and unknown entity to the viewer at the beginning- he/she doesn’t know how the story will turn out. This requires the Editor’s craft to creatively employ transitional elements to impart pacing and mood, ultimately revealing story and characters to support the theme and emotional impact.

    We already know how the wedding turns out: they get married. A limited denouement, to be sure.

    • obviously that is a little off. have you seen some of these wedding movies out there? AKA Joe Simon or stillmotion? Wedding videos are not really stories about just the actual wedding these days, they are stories about unique individuals coming together with individual stories, With their own conflict, their own plot. with the climax and resolution of the story being their marriage. I did notice that you said “most” instead of not “all”.. Which is true and I’m glad you said it that way. But now-a-days even unless your the old grandpaw with the big shoulder mount camera, your shooting on a dslr and getting some pretty dang good stuff out of it, telling real stories.

      Thats like saying most videos on vimeo these days isn’t filmaking, they are just pretty shots of nature cut together by music.. No use in going there. Just love what you do and don’t play that game of trying to define what is filmaking is or not. Stop trying to be so pretentious.

      • I would agree that the mid to upper end of Wedding Videography is leaning toward “Event Filmmaking” more than anything else. But a dissolve is an editor’s tool not the camera operator, so whether you use a 1/3″ sensor or full frame, it’s the editing, not necessarily the camera work, in the end that will make one video more engaging over another. In my opinion of course. Granted, a fun wedding with a great looking couple also helps :)

  • One thing I thought about that seems a bit weird… is that when using dissolves and wipes. By this blending images so that they show two things in the same frame. And this suggests to the viewer that what they are seeing is two things separated in space and time.

    At the same time, a straight cut instead suggests that what you are seeing are two instances going without the same distance between them.

    Or rather: a dissolve shows two things in the same image and therefore there is a big gap in space and time between them. While a straight cut does the opposite. Since the two things are in separate images we assume that it’s just going on in the same space…

    Exceptions abound of course, but I just found the contradictory nature in the difference between dissolves and straihht cuts to be a bit funny.

  • Bruce warner on 02.19.14 @ 9:16PM

    what’s my favorite dissolve? The first one that comes to mind is that great dissolve in The Killing Fields where, after haing ngor’s character, dith pran, stands looking down at the Red Cross camp over the Thai border from Cambodia and dissolves into Sam Waterston’s character, Sydney, running down the hall with the news of pran’s escape to freedom… The music hits that great crescendo and fades out into the office scene… Just terrific!