Learn to Speak Video: Transition Basics

Does anybody remember 1-inch analog video tape? Back when I was a lad (which I’ll define here as “when I still had hair”), if you wanted to learn how to edit video, 1-inch video tape is what you worked with. A video editing console was as big as a Volkswagen, had knobs the size of baseballs and hummed along on a three-phase power supply that needed an air conditioning booster just to keep from igniting the fabric of your bell-bottom blue jeans.

Video technology has changed a lot over the years. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the essential grammar of visual communications. Just as every natural spoken and written language has a grammar — a set of structural rules that governs its composition — the international language of video has a “grammar” all its own.

One of the most basic pieces of video “grammar” is the transition — the method you use to move viewers from one shot to the next. Learning how to properly use transitions like the straight cut, dissolve and fade in your online videos will help you shorten the amount of time spent editing, and will help you put together a more watchable and interesting video.

Straight cut

The most basic video transition is the straight cut, where the last frame of a preceding shot directly abuts the first frame of a subsequent shot. The change in the camera’s point-of-view is direct and abrupt, which is why the straight cut is primarily used as a transition to indicate continuous action within the same scene.

In plainer English, that means you ordinarily use a straight cut to link together shots taken at the same location, during the same time, that are all linked in the same sequence of activity: Walking from the front of a a motorhome to the back, for example, or demonstrating how to snap the head of your new Miracle Wrench onto a bolt.

When the action moves to a different location, or isn’t a part of the same sequence in time, you should use a different transition (as discussed below). Cuts that significantly change location or try to indicate a change in time usually fail. That’s not to say breaking the rules on occasion doesn’t work, but getting transitions to work outside the conventional video grammar generally requires master-class level skills. Just because Stanley Kubrick can cut from a bone thrown into the air by a prehistoric primate to an orbital nuclear weapons platform, as he did in 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” doesn’t mean you can pull off the same effect in your sales video.

Dissolve (cross-fade)

A more gentle transition, the dissolve, also known as a cross-fade, is used to indicate a change in action, location or time between shots. In a dissolve, the final frames of an “outgoing” shot fade out slowly and overlap an equal number of frames from an “incoming” shot that fade in. One example use for a dissolve might be moving to a new room in a home tour, or moving the action from the home tour to a view of the home’s floor plan.

Most dissolves should range in length from one to two seconds, or between 24 and 48 overlapping frames, depending on how your editing software presents them in its interface. A good rule of thumb is that bigger “changes” — in time, location or action — require longer transitions. To continue the above example, you would use a short dissolve to move from the inside of the home to the back yard, and a longer dissolve to move from the home tour to the clubhouse on a nearby golf course.

When you use a dissolve, remember to appropriately fade any ambient audio track as well. A good video editing program will let you manage the audio track separately from the video. If you have this capability, in most cases it provides a better transition if you mute audio from the “outgoing” shot very quickly, so audio from the “incoming” shot can fade up to normal level before the visual transition is finished.


A fade is a transition where a full video image gradually progresses to black (or another color, sometimes), or where the shot “fades up” from black to a full image. In classical cinematography, the fade represented a major break in the action — like the change between acts in a stage play.

In modern commercial videography, a fade is rarely used as a transition; they consume too much valuable screen time. If used at all, a fade-in may appear at the beginning of a video and a fade-out may be used at the conclusion.

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