When editing a movie together, transitions help to blend one shot (or scene) into the next. They can inject drama, humor, and mystery into a moment, or fade gracefully into the ending credits. Over the past century of cinema, certain transitions have gained an iconic status, with directors using them both as artistic device and playful homage. If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, understanding a few basic transitions can make a huge difference in the editing room. Below, we’ve showcased five of the most popular transitions in cinema, which can be quickly utilized with today’s video editing software.
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Known as one of the most common transitions, fades are typically used at the beginning or end of a movie. Typically, a “fade in” will start with a black background, and then the scene will slowly become visible. A “fade out”, on the other hand, ends a scene by fading it to black (or another solid color, like red). These transitions are so dramatic and conclusive that they’re usually only used a few times in a film, at most. Some directors also like to use fades to wrap up one storyline, giving viewers a chance to process the action before diving into another scene.
There are plenty of different wipes out there, and most of them have a decidedly vintage feel. Popularized in silent films, the wipe starts with a shape or line (such as a circle, diamond, or diagonal) and moves it through the frame, taking the previous scene along with it. George Lucas was inspired to use over-the-top wipes throughout the Star Wars franchise, emphasizing the swashbuckling, grand nature of his story.
This is the simplest way to go from one shot to the next. Technically, a basic cut isn’t even a transition; the first shot leads right into the second, stitching the scene into a larger sequence. However, cuts can be used in creative ways to amplify a scene’s intensity or create surreal moments. For example, a “jump cut” makes unnatural cuts within one shot, effectively chopping up the timeline so that it feels fast-paced or jarring.
The L Cut
This extremely useful cut allows you to jump to a new shot (or scene) while still using the audio from the previous one. For example, if you’re trying to portray realistic dialogue between two people at a diner, you’ll probably want to vary the shot selection, with occasional close-ups of each character at important moments. To do this without jumping back and forth between two audio tracks, you can have one actor keep talking and then splice in a shot of the other actor (without audio). This used to be done by hand — editors would cut L shapes into the film, to keep the audio track and replace the visual — but it’s way easier with today’s editing software.
Finally, this transition superimposes two clips; as the first clip ends, the second one begins. Software like Final Cut Pro and iMovie allows you to tweak a dissolve’s speed and intensity, which can evoke different emotions in a viewer. For example, slow dissolves can be used to symbolize time’s passage, to shift into a dream sequence, or to share a character’s memories (i.e. a flashback).