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Transition Magician: Getting from One Scene to the Next When Editing Video

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Hard cut. Dissolve. Fade to black. Everyone is familiar with these terms from their use as scene transitions in the movies, going back to the days of silent film. And even those who can't immediately define them know their vocabulary from watching movies and television since they were kids.

For anyone making video for the Web, it helps to know what these rules are, even if you plan to break them from time to time. As video producer Chuck Peters explains in one of his instructional videos at Digital Juice.com, in a movie, hard cuts are normally used to switch between camera angles within a scene. (Establishing shot to medium shot to close-up and back, for example) Dissolves are used to indicate a passage of time. Fade-to-black typically indicates a longer passage of time, or the transition to an entirely new segment of the film; that awesome fade-to-black that transitions from boot camp to Vietnam in Full Metal Jacket, for example.

In video, the rules are somewhat looser, if only because for decades, transitions on an electronic video switcher were easier to employ while taping live than editing a film, where historically, transitions were manually cut-in as an optical effect during postproduction editing. This helps explains why it's rare for a movie to have lots of complex transitions. Citizen Kane is the exception that comes immediately to mind; it's loaded with fluid transitions created by Linwood Dunn, RKO's veteran effects man, on his pioneering optical printer.

Swipe On, Swipe Off

In a slight contrast to the vocabulary of movies, video editors often use dissolves between camera angles, or to smooth awkward jumps. And the average non-linear editing (NLE) program includes an arsenal of dissolves, fades to black (Adobe's Premiere Pro CS4 also has fade-to-white; other NLEs may also have this feature), wipes and other transitions.

Additionally, overlays can be used to smooth an otherwise hard cut. What Digital Juice calls "Swipes" in their product line are an extremely useful technique, which can perform two functions (sometimes simultaneously). First, they give a transition some serious extra punch; Swipes are definitely for when you want to call attention to a transition. Second, when editing two segments on an NLE's timeline, when inserting a dissolve or similar edit would be difficult, Swipes, at least those that use a single alpha channel for their overlays are often a simple alternative. Digital Juice also makes double-alpha channel Swipes, which are slightly trickier to edit into the timeline. See this demo reel for instructions on how they work in Premiere Pro.

The New Blue Review

NewBlueFX's plug-ins, compatible with most NLE programs, will also generate a variety of interesting transitions. "3D Explosions" transitions from scenes with effects somewhat similar to those in Adobe After Effects, typically crystallizing the first shot into a grid pattern then, as the name implies, "exploding" that grid into the next scene.

NewBlueFX's Art Blends transitions between shots with a wash of color or white, for a variety of subtler, more nuanced transitions; wedding video producers will likely give these transitions a workout.

As their name implies, NewBlueFX's Motion Blends add plenty of kinetic motion to shot transitions. You can see these effects in the one minute prologue to the newest edition of my "Silicon Graffiti" video blog. The opening shot of a film projector transitions to the film it's projecting via the zoom blend, and the transition out of the prologue and into the main titles is via the "shredder" blend, which nicely simulates a TV picture breaking up and distorting. This would work extremely well DigiEffects' Damage plug-in, for those wishing to create monitor inserts for a sci-fi-themed video. Also built into NewBlueFX's Motion Blends is a ripple transition, for those who wish to get into and out of a dream sequence in classic Hollywood style.

NewBlueFX's transitions are somewhat processor intensive. At least based on my own experience, expect to wait about a minute or so for each one to render when previewing a shot, even on the fastest PC. On the other hand, they're extremely easy to insert into the timeline and then fine-tune, as opposed to dragging footage into After Effects, futzing with individual parameters, and exporting it back into your NLE's timeline.

Products such as Digital Juice's Swipes, and NewBlueFX's various transitions can add plenty of punch to a video, when carefully inserted into the right moment. Some of these transitions are also great for animating otherwise static titles on and off the screen. For more on titling, check out my article on the topic in the August edition of Videomaker magazine.

For those seeking more information on shot transitions, pick up a copy of Setting Up Your Shots By Jeremy Vineyard and Jose Cruz. (Click here for my 2007 Blogcritics review of the first edition of the book) Setting Up Your Shots places a variety of film transitions into context, by both illustrating how they work, and listing the films which put each transition on the map. It's highly recommended to those seeking to work with film or video.

Beyond that, keep a keen eye out for the transitions employed in your favorite TV shows, commercials, and movies. Then keep practicing and experimenting, and watch your productions transition, so to speak, to the next level. Happy editing!

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About Ed Driscoll