Film 101: How to Use Dissolves

By Phill Powell

Cutting from one scene to another is an art, and film editors have many ways to do it. Dissolves are used to gradually transition between two pieces of footage.

Take a look at the opening from 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers, in which various logos dissolve from one to the next. Notice how the Paramount logo eventually dissolves back into the shimmering blue tesseract:

Dissolves differ from cuts in one key way: In a dissolve, the fading out of the screen image from the first piece of footage occurs gradually, usually within 1-2 seconds. During this same period, the second piece of footage is also fading into view. The effect of a dissolve is more smooth than a cut, which can sometimes seem sudden and jarring.

If you want to see an impressive use of dissolves, look no further than the granddaddy of modern war films: Apocalypse Now. The 1979 masterpiece is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made.

For the film’s opening, director Francis Ford Coppola needed to communicate a lot of information about the story’s main character, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), and do it in a fairly short amount of time. So he weaved together a series of shots, using a creative display of dissolves.

It’s All in the Edit
Apocalypse Now‘s opening tells us about Willard through a series of disconnected, slow-motion shots that are combined through dissolve transitions that extend longer than typical Hollywood dissolves, which normally try to move the action from Shot A to Shot B within a certain amount of time (usually 1-2 seconds).

Coppola’s opening dissolves, on the other hand, linger without end, so you have the effect of two (or more) films superimposed on each other. Message: Willard may be in a hotel room, but his mind is still back in the jungle, replaying his battle memories.

In another sequence, Coppola has a battleground fire superimposed near Captain Willard’s head, to communicate his mental conflict.

Coppola gives us all this information up front, because Willard is central to our understanding of the film. If the audience doesn’t understand who he is, they will have less connection to the story and will lack a critical point of reference. In short, the rest of the story will fail.

Instead, Coppola’s powerful use of dissolves leaves a permanent impression on the viewer, and sets up that viewer’s appreciation of the rest of this modern classic, which remains an inspiration for those eager to learn how to make movies.

Apocalypse_Now_Martin_Sheen
Mind on Fire: Through his clever use of the dissolve, Francis Ford Coppola establishes Captain Willard as a tense, conflicted character who may be in Saigon but whose head is still stuck in the jungle.

An Important Change in Film Editing
There was a long time when most Hollywood films made some use of dissolve transitions, but that began to change in the 1960s with the French “New Wave” of films that lobbied for more handheld camera shots and lots of jump cuts.

Now movies tend to be largely dominated by jump cuts, which support a faster editing tempo. It’s rare to find a dissolve in many new action films. These days, dissolves help company production cards or movie studio logos blend seamlessly into the first shot of the movie as many modern action films “hit the ground running” in the opening scenes. Take, for example, Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even the recent James Bond films.

How and When to Use Dissolves
When editing, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Purpose: Dissolves are still useful anytime you want to convey that time has passed. That’s still the primary way that movie audiences interpret dissolves.
  • Length: The length of the dissolve is the key to how it will be “read” by the audience: a normal-length transition (about 1 second) will be interpreted as that some time has elapsed between the first shot and second shot. Meanwhile, an extra-long transition (about 2-3 seconds) is commenting on a larger passing of time, such as the end of an era.
  • Fade-In: A fade-in is a dissolve that originally comes from a black screen and transitions into a second piece of footage.
  • Fade-Out: A fade-out is a dissolve that transitions from a piece of footage into a black screen.

Come Learn Filmmaking with Us!
This summer is the perfect time to start your adventure in filmmaking, by attending a Digital Media Academy filmmaking camp. Students work on their own films, serving in the same roles as on an actual production crew. Get ready to tell your story…through film.