Dissolves: Why, How, and If (Film Editing)

From time to time, certain techniques become fashionable and are considered "in" by filmmakers, including cutters. Every fad carries an inherent weakness which outweighs any possible benefit: A fashionable movement usually has one creator or trendsetter,- all others are necessarily imitators or followers. In films, the fad is also self-indulgent, ignoring the viewer, who will usually react most favorably to the most effective technique rather than to one which happens to be chic. Beyond that, it limits the cutters’ options.

In films, the fashion phenomenon has surfaced in a number of ways, e.g., in the craze for indiscriminate camera movement and in the use of dissolves. Camera placement, whether mobile or static, is the responsibility of the director, but the decision to use or eliminate dissolves is frequently in the hands of the film editor.

The function of the dissolve is mainly to facilitate transition. In its simplest form it can carry us from one place to another or from one time to another. In complex clusters, such as the Hollywood montage, the dissolve is the film- \ maker’s "time machine," transporting the viewer instantly \ backward or forward in time and location at his will. In more ! sophisticated usage, dissolves aid greatly in the manipulation ; of pace and mood. 1

Before "talkies," most fades and all dissolves were made in the camera, a rather awkward and unwieldy operation. Shortly after the advent of sound, it became fashionable to eliminate the dissolve by cutting directly from the end of one sequence to the beginning of the next, no matter how extensive a transition was required. However, the development of the projection printer, with its ability to manufacture effects of all shapes and styles, brought the dissolve back into universal use. Much later, television rediscovered the straight-cut technique, and to a considerable extent, this fashion still persists. In both instances, dissolves were originally eliminated because of technical shortcomings and economic considerations, but the practice continues largely because of the working of the fashion syndrome.

At one time or another I have used all the techniques—I do not disapprove of any of them. I do, however, disapprove of the cutter who disregards suitability, who voluntarily limits his range by adopting only those techniques which are currently in fashion. There are occasions when the oldest cliche is entirely apropos, and attempts to avoid it lead only to circumlocution. Properly used, the dissolve is an asset; improperly used, it is a time-waster and a distraction.

Before discussing the different transition techniques, it might be beneficial to define the dissolve. This effect is not fully understood by many students or, surprisingly, by more than a few who certainly know their way around a movie lot.

A dissolve is not a fade-out or a fade-in. These two terms are adequately self-descriptive (although black-out and black-in might be more accurate). In the fade-out, always used at the end of a sequence or a section of film, the screen image grows progressively darker over a number of frames, usually 3 or 4 feet, until the screen is a dead black. The fade-in which follows reverses the process. Because of today’s tighter story construction, fades are now rarely used, except at the start and the finish of the film. However, if the story breaks down into markedly disassociated episodes, fades can still be useful, giving the viewer a brief pause to catch his breath and gather his senses for the incoming section.

A dissolve, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. It connects the outgoing and the incoming sequences, welding the two disparate sections into one. The second image does not displace the first instantly, as in a straight cut, but over a period of time, which may be as short as a quarter of a second or as long as a minute or more. The dissolve allows the two images to be seen concurrently, as in a double-exposure. As the outgoing scene dims out, the incoming scene grows correspondingly brighter until, at the end of the dissolve, the first scene has disappeared entirely and the second scene is seen at full exposure. There is never a period of blackness. In fact, the intensity of the exposure of the two scenes always adds up to 100 percent. In other words, when the printing intensity of the outgoing scene is 80 percent, that of the incoming scene is 20 percent. At the midpoint of the dissolve, each scene should have an intensity of 50 percent. And so it continues, until the outgoing scene registers 0 percent and the incoming scene 100 percent.

Leo McCarey enjoyed telling of the tyro director who asked for a few words of general advice before making his first film. Only half in jest, Leo answered, "If you find yourself in trouble, dissolve!" McCarey saw the finished film at its preview. "It was, scene, dissolve, scene, dissolve," he laughed, "from the start of the film to its sorry conclusion."

This rather sad anecdote illustrates one of the dissolve’s remedial functions, one which, it is hoped, most cutters will have little use for. But it also serves to bring out a more positive point: The dissolve is of special value in welding two possibly unrelated sequences into one continuous whole when obvious juxtaposition of content or image is undesirable.

There is a vast array of dissolve patterns to choose from, of which the most exotic are seen in television commercials and film trailers. A spinning helix can wipe out scene A as it brings on scene B, or small squares of the first scene can be replaced in rapid, random succession by similar-sized squares of the second scene, until it occupies the entire frame. If something fancier is called for, the cutter need only ask. If he can dream it, the dissolve technician can bring it into being. For most feature films, however, the dissolves of choice are more sedate.

The most commonly used and, while still effective, most unobtrusive, is the lap dissolve. This was described earlier in the topic, and it is the name used when both scenes are seen in their entirety while their relative intensities change in reverse proportion.

Following the lap in order of popularity and usefulness is the wipe, or barndoor, dissolve. In this effect, scene A is wiped off the screen, in any desired direction, disclosing scene B. Used as a "hard" wipe, i.e., where a visible dividing line can be seen sweeping across the frame, it can help to convey a sense of swiftness and action. For instance, in scene A a character walks off screen-left. As he moves, the entire frame is swept off the screen, right to left, at the speed of his movement, while scene B, showing the same character, or another, against a different background, is swept onto the screen from the right. This actually shortens the exit-entrance cut by a number of frames and imparts a feeling of speed to the scene transition.

"Soft" wipes, in which the sweeping line is invisible, are practically unnoticeable, but they impart a much more subtle effect than a straight cut could supply.

The lap dissolve, however, is the most flexible and, consequently, the most useful. The normal lap, or superimposition, runs 3 or 4 feet. (I prefer the longer version.) But for special situations, the length can vary considerably. For example, in The Reluctant Saint, Maximillian Schell, playing Joseph, a lay brother, is summoned by the abbot and told that his beloved father has died. As the camera moves gently into a close-up of the stricken Joseph, the scene dissolves into a shot of a tolling church bell, but it does not fade out completely. Instead, Joseph’s image remains onscreen for some 40 feet until, with the shot of the bell still superimposed, it dissolves to a long shot of the front yard of Joseph’s home. Only then does the shot of the bell slowly fade away, leaving us with a clear full shot of Joseph and his mother driving a donkey cart into the open yard.

This series of dissolves (three in number) over the long super-imposition gives the viewer a chance to experience Joseph’s silent anguish while it establishes a mood which allows us to bypass his return home and the father’s funeral. Into 30 seconds we compress days of actual time while still allowing the viewer to feel Joseph’s emotions and to absorb the mood of the occasion.

On the other hand, a transition in Give Us This Day (Christ in Concrete) called for more speed and shock. As the leading couple expresses relief at the near attainment of a long-sought financial goal, the camera moves up to a close shot of a calendar, informing the viewer that it is October 23, 1929. Pausing just long enough for the significance of the date to begin to sink in, a quick dissolve (probably 2 feet long) discloses a moving tray of apples, the recognizable symbol (at that time) of the Great Depression. The camera pulls back to show the tray being carried by a shabbily dressed woman as she crosses in front of a group of men lounging listlessly outside the union hiring hall.

The double image of the calendar date and the apples throws us full force into the Depression, still a vivid memory in the minds of most of the viewers at the time the film was made (1949). Dramatically, shock was demanded here—mood followed slowly and inexorably. If the film had been made in 1979, I might have used the straight-cut technique, but probably not. Regular dissolves were more applicable in the greater part of the film, and a sudden change in style might have appeared to be self-conscious—a sin all filmmakers should avoid.

Whether straight-cut or dissolve, the main consideration here is that the cutter’s decision should not be casually made. Each sequence transition should be carefully studied and the optimum effect selected while two considerations are kept in mind: (1) that each transition calls for the effect which best suits that particular situation, and yet (2) that the overall style of the film must never be disregarded. The two requirements may seem inconsistent, but the great variety of dissolves available make it quite possible to find a constructive compromise.

And remember, situations which permit experimentation will occasionally arise. Such opportunities should never be rejected. But the cutter must always make sure that the final choice in no way unfavorably disturbs the flow, the mood, or the content of the film as a whole.

A word of warning: There must be enough working footage in the film used through the dissolve to keep the scene alive even when the image is fading out (or in). In poorly made commercials one often sees an actor waiting for his cue to move or to start speaking as the scene fades or dissolves in on the screen. Unfortunately, one sometimes sees the same gaffe in a feature film, where it is far less excusable. The effect of such carelessness can be devastating, completely spoiling mood, effect, and the viewer’s concentration.

This error is always the result of a slovenly approach to one’s work and can easily be avoided by giving dissolves the same care one would expend on any other cutting problem.

Dissolves are essential, of course, in the construction of montage, but this field requires a topic to itself.

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