Don't Touch That Cross-Dissolve! The Power and Weakness of Video Editing's Most Popular TransitionVideo and film editing is the art of combining two images together, implying meaning, context and continuation of thought. The cut, the moment of change between the two, creates a mental third image. It is in this mental headspace that the moving images transform from a string of cuts into a new whole: a movie.
This is why it is disturbing to see so many editors relying on cross dissolves to make all or most of the cuts in a video or film. It doesn’t matter what NLE you use to cut, they all have this transition tool built in. And it shows up in edits far too often.
We are very familiar with cross-dissolves. They fade the first image into the other, meshing the two in-between before revealing the new shot completely. It is a cut that implies the passage of time and makes us feel it’s passage without taking time. This makes the cross-dissolve a valuable and unique tool in the editor’s cutting toolbox. It is this transition’s greatest power–and it’s greatest weakness.
Properly used, a cross-dissolve transition moves the viewer along in the amount of time that has passed between the two shots. It can indicate the passage of a few moments, a few weeks, even a few years, depending on the duration and surrounding context of the two shots. By giving the viewer a few more lingering moments, we say as editors that the previous shot is something to linger over, to savor, to remember. This is something the hard cut can’t do.
Hard cuts in comparison, instantly transport us from one place to the other. As film editor Walter Murch describes, it is just like the blink of your eye, moving from one object to another. We don’t notice an eye blink. It is completely natural. Likewise, a good hard cut is something we don’t notice either.
So why do many starting editors rely primarily on the cross-dissolve when building video edits?
Cross-dissolves look and feel like they must not be noticeable because of how we initially perceive the flow of one image to another. We have time to adjust from one shot to the other. The two images pleasingly blend together, with no jarring effects. As a result, each cross-dissolve moves the viewer forward, slowly and methodically. It prevents jump cuts, covers awkward edits, and appears to be seamless.
However, at the same time the cross-dissolve indicates a passage of time. We may not know how much time, but we feel as though some sort of time has passed in between each shot. This one fact alone can make a minute-long video feel much longer than it actually is. Why? Because of where the cross-dissolve happens in life: when we’re nodding off to sleep. It is our transition from consciousness to the passage of time where we’re unaware.
When every cut is a cross-dissolve, we become aware of the edit, aware of the mechanics moving our brains through the story, and we start to reject what we’re seeing on a subconscious level. Boredom sets in, and soon the beauty of the images is lost on us. It doesn’t matter how gorgeous the next shot is. The emotional space unintentionally gives us no reason to lose ourselves in the story.
Improperly used cross-dissolves indicate an editor unsure of his or her shot selections. Whole videos comprised of shot after shot transitioning with cross-dissolves reveal a lack of fundamental knowledge of what makes a good cut work. The results are weak videos, lacking emotional impact and having no ability to hold a viewer’s interest.
This is not to say we can’t ever use cross-dissolves as editors. But they are a specific tool with a specific purpose. Just as you would not use a nail for every application when building a house, we should not rely on one kind of transition when building our video edits. Especially when there are so many other powerful tools in our editing tool belts.
Instead of only using this one type of transition, learn how to make hard cuts that use movement within the screen to guide the viewer around the frame. This is called eye-trace. Incorporate different pacing and rhythms in your cuts. Craft an emotional space with your music and your sound effects. Let movement on screen land with the beat, instead of with your cut. Strive to make invisible edits and reveal them only for emotional impact. The results will be movies and videos that are more interesting, more dynamic, and more expressive of the power in your footage.