In video and filmmaking terminology, a “transition” could be defined as the way in which any two video shots are joined together.
The first point to understand about transitions is that misuse or overuse of transitions is a sign of an amateur, in the same way that overuse of slide transitions in a PowerPoint presentation is considered unprofessional. Especially if too many different types of transitions are utilized.
In short, any way that transitions call attention to themselves and distract from the video continuity would be poor utilization.
Conversely, when used professionally (“not” to the point of overuse), effective transitions bridge different video shots together to produce a better message or story flow.
There are significantly more transitions than depicted in this article, but the following are among the most widely used.
VIDEO TRANSITION: THE “CUT”
The most common transition is the “cut.” This is simply one video clip changing instantly to the next shot.
Cuts are the best way to keep the action or momentum moving along at a good pace.
Straight cuts are not only simple, but they create smaller overall file sizes, which are an advantage for web videos. (In other words, adding transitions create larger video files, and on the Internet, smaller files are desirable).
VIDEO TRANSITION: THE “FADE”
Two key transitions are fade-up from black and fade to black. Fading in from a single color, such as black, conveys a sense of “beginning.” And nothing says “the end” like a fade to black. (Fades can be used with any other colors, too).
VIDEO TRANSITION: THE “CROSSFADE” OR “DISSOLVE”
Another common transition is the crossfade, or dissolve. This is when one video shot gradually changes to the next.
Although the length of most transitions can be shortened or extended to best support the video, crossfades, in particular, can provide a more relaxed feel than a cut and slow the pace of the video.
Dissolves can better convey a sense of passing time than a cut.
VIDEO TRANSITION: THE “WIPE”
A wipe is a more complex transition and includes many variations. These could be categorized as fancier types of transitions, which means they would not be used very often in the realm of traditional storytelling. (They tend to have more applications in short social media videos and/or some commercials, to increase viewer interest, but much less so in long-form storytelling).
One way to think of a simple wipe would be imagining a single sweep of a windshield wiper as a transition from one shot to the next while it moves across the screen.
Variations include an iris wipe, a heart wipe, a clock wipe, and a star wipe, in which the name approximates the geometric manner in which the wiping motion occurs.
Examples: an “iris wipe” is like an expanding or contracting oval. A “heart wipe” or “star wipe” is like an expanding or contracting heart or star. And a “clock wipe” moves around in a circle.
Wipes can represent every shape or custom line imaginable. As another example, a jagged line, such as a lightning bolt, could move across the screen to unveil the next shot. And to make things more interesting, wipes can begin on the left of the frame and move right across the screen. Wipes can also begin on the right of the screen and move left. They can also begin at the top and move down. Or, as you might anticipate, they can begin at the bottom and move up to reveal the next shot. Furthermore, they can begin at any corner and move diagonally across the screen.
NOTE ON FANCY TRANSITIONS
Most video editing programs have a large library of built-in transitions. You can also buy additional video transitions. And on top of that you can create your own unique transitions.
Nevertheless, for the purpose of filmmaking and storytelling, be aware that you can create an entire feature film or documentary using only cuts.
So, why do fancy transitions even exist?
Fancier transitions are more often used in shorter videos to lend “style” or to increase viewer interest. Whether that be in social media videos, commercials or other videos. This does not suggest that fancy transitions are required or necessary in short content. However, as with all creative ventures, any rules can be broken.
Like fashion in general, styles change and what’s acceptable now may not be next year. Unlike fashion, what’s acceptable with transitions tends to change slowly. In the 60s and 70s there were TV shows that used wipes. Now, that would be uncommon. Yet, shorter-form videos and especially the “anything goes” culture of YouTube have demonstrated a greater facility with fancier transitions than ever. But this use bears the risk of such videos looking “dated” in the years to come, whereas a more traditional or classical use of transitions will better stand the test of time.
At the hands of professional video editors, appropriate use of transitions is an important aspect of the editing process.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Effective integration of transitions should always be inspired by some aspect of the story that is being conveyed in your video. For example, a transition may signify a change in location, or a change in the pace of the action, or simply the passage of time. If there’s no specific reason to use a transition, more often than not, just keep it simple and use a cut.
Another application of transitions is to smooth out minor video (or even audio) errors, which could appear more prominent with a cut, but which may be less apparent by a well-placed dissolve.
As a concluding note: in traditional filmmaking, transitions should not call attention to themselves. Their job is to subtly support the story or message.
Avid hiker, bicyclist, motorcyclist and long-time advertising pro. Founder of Skyworks Marketing, Nonprofit Fire and Our Ventura TV (cable TV). One career highlight was working on a small team that built a business from nothing to over $100 Million in 3 years. Skyworks Marketing provides lead generation and video advertising services. We create custom marketing funnels that provide the highest-quality leads and sales.