What is a Dissolve?

In the editing world, a dissolve refers to a smooth transition between two clips. Typically, the first clip fades out as second clip fades in, but you can also fade a clip to black (also known as a "fade-out") or "fade-in" from black. Unlike a simple cut between two shots, a dissolve overlaps them until the first shot has eventually faded to nothing. Dissolves can be a great way to show the passage of time in a scene, and they're often used in montages to make the viewer feel like the main characters have experienced a series of challenges. 

A Brief History

At the beginning of the 20th century, dissolves were first used as a means of combining multiple clips together. Literally, the first shot would be filmed, and then the cameraman would rewind the negative so that the next shot would overlap with the first one. This rudimentary concept served its purpose at the time, providing the first real transition in cinema. 

Eventually, other transitions like wipes, fades, and simple cuts became much more popular than dissolves, as moviegoers had gotten used to the visual language of quick cuts between shots. By the 1970s, dissolves were all but non-existent. Today, the transition is experiencing a slight resurgence, and that is partly because it's not expensive to achieve with the latest digital technology. 

When to Use a Dissolve

Unlike a simple cut — which is as unintrusive as possible for viewers — dissolves tend to be more distracting. They're not the ideal transition for many situations, but if you're looking for a gradual change between shots, they can be a powerful tool. For example, if there's a change in location and you want to ensure that viewers understand time has passed, using a dissolve is a smart option. Since dissolves draw more attention to what's happening onscreen, you can also employ them to heighten an emotional moment in the storyline. For a dissolve to make sense, remember to keep these elements in mind:

  • Show New Information: Using a dissolve with two similar shots is confusing and unnecessary, unless you're trying to create some kind of avant garde effect. Instead, each shot should have distinct visual information that propels the story forward in some way. 
  • Signify Movement: This may seem obvious, but both shots in a dissolve should look balanced as they overlap with each other. Otherwise, it will create an awkward mish-mash of imagery, especially at the midpoint of your transition. It helps to consider the composition of both shots, seeing if they fill a distinct section of the frame (i.e. frame right and frame left).

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