Film & TV

What Is a Dissolve in Filmmaking? How to Know When to Use a Dissolve Transition

Written by MasterClass

Jun 11, 2019 • 3 min read

When a film is in postproduction, a video editor uses a number of special effects and video transitions to bring the movie to life and add meaning to the story. A classic technique is the dissolve transition.

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What Is a Dissolve?

A dissolve, also called a lap dissolve, is a gradual transition from one image to another, with the first image beginning to disappear as the second image gradually appears. During a dissolve, both images overlap for a period of time, blending in superimposition (also known as double exposure or multiple exposures in photography). The duration that the two images are superimposed can significantly influence the effect of the dissolve. For however long the two (or more) images overlap, a third shot is created, in which the blended elements link and interact to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

A dissolve is purposeful; linking two related shots with a dissolve signals to the viewer that they belong together in a sequence and that the story remains consistent from one shot to the next. A dissolve is an alternative to a straight cut, which is a transition that immediately jumps to the next shot or scene.

The dissolve effect was a continuity editing technique popularized by the French New Wave auteurs in the 1950s, favoring their use over jump cuts because of how a dissolve purposefully link two scenes together.

How to Make a Dissolve

Before today’s digital video editing techniques existed, film editors used a device called an optical printer to create dissolves, fades, and other special effects. An optical printer is a piece of machinery that assembles individual elements of a film to form one complete image, called an “optical composition.” An editor could combine separate pieces like live-action footage, animation, and models into one shot. For a dissolve, an optical printer allowed editors to record a composite of the incoming scene and the outgoing scene to determine where one should end and the other should begin.

Today, creating a dissolve is much simpler thanks to video editing software like Adobe Premiere Pro. While you don’t need to learn how to use an optical printer to make a dissolve, you still need to know the basics, like that most dissolve transitions last 24-48 frames (lasting about one to two seconds). The director and editor determine the length of the dissolve based on the mood and/or pacing they hope to convey to the audience. A quick dissolve conveys energy and speed, whereas a longer dissolve can introduce romantic or dream-like effects. For example, in Citizen Kane (1941), director Orson Welles used slow, dramatic dissolves to create a sense of despair at some points, and quick dissolves to inject life at others.

3 Different Types of Dissolves:

  1. Match dissolve: a specific type of dissolve that uses parallel images, or two images that have the same composition within the frame, such as two faces. The first image dissolves into a second image that has a similar composition.
  2. Fade in: when a transition fades from a blank screen to a picture.
  3. Fade out: when a transition fades from a picture to a blank screen.

When to Use a Dissolve

A dissolve is a nuanced film editing storytelling tool that can do the following:

  • Meaningfully link two or more images together. Connecting two shots with a dissolve tells the audience that they’re related and belong back-to-back. If you want to communicate that one shot relates to the next, transition between them using a dissolve.
  • Indicate a change of time and/or place. A dissolve signals that one scene is ending and another is beginning. Due to its strong sense of finality, a dissolve transition is effective in communicating that the next scene takes place in a different time and/or place, whether later that day or later that week. A dissolve transition is especially useful in demonstrating a long passage of time, like years or even decades.
  • Transition to a surreal scene. A dissolve is an effective way to introduce a more surreal, abstract scene. Use one to indicate when you’re initiating a dream sequence, triggering a flashback sequence, or going inside of a character’s head.

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