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MediaStorm Guide to Crossfades

In my last post, 10 More Ways to Improve Your Multimedia Right Now, I wrote:

Delete all dissolves between images…The eye sees cuts. When we look from one object to another, we see a blink. We don’t see one object then dissolve to another.

A reader responded with a comparison: “Our eyes don’t see shallow depth-of-field [either], but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use shallow DOF when appropriate.”

I agree.

So before I discuss when it’s appropriate to dissolve between pictures, let’s quickly revisit why doing so usually doesn’t work.

The problem is that crossfades create an unexpected middle image. In most cases, this intermediate picture, a combination of two hopefully strong ones, is both messy and confusing. There’s no particular meaning to be gleaned from this superimposition. Now, repeat this between every image over the course of a three- to five-minute project, and it’s not hard to see how exhausting it can become. In short, it’s a distraction. And anything that distracts from your story needs to be removed.

I’m not steadfast about most rules, but this one I think is pretty solid: the number one way to improve your multimedia right now is to not make crossfades your default transition. Use a simple cut as your default instead.

But back to the question, when do dissolves actually work?

I think the answer is when there’s some commonality between the two images. That is, some portion of the images stays the same so that when you do dissolve, only the most important part of the frame changes. The rest stays the same.

At the 9:09 mark of The Marlboro Marine by Luis Sinco, James Blake Miller is standing at a window while his wife, Jessica, sits on a mattress on the floor. As Miller describes the challenges he faces, he says of his wife, “And before I put her through that, I’d rather be without her.” The image then dissolves to the same scene, Miller still at the window but now he’s alone.

Producer Chad Stevens successfully uses a dissolve here to great effect. It works because the majority of the image stays the same; the dissolve highlights just part of the frame, Miller’s wife as she literally disappears. Combine the pictures with the dialogue, “I’d rather be without her,” and you have a seamless match between technique and story. It’s the kind of harmony we should all strive towards.

A second example can also be found in The Marlboro Marine at 9:30. Here a dissolve is used to emulate a rack focus. Miller is at the back of the frame while the motorcycle he’s working on is in the front, out of focus. A crossfade changes the viewers focus, shifting Miller out of focus to detail the bike. Again, the frame stays largely the same. All that changes is the focal point of the image.

So in summary, to effectively use dissolves between images, most of the image should remain constant and the crossfade should be used to show a change in time or to shift where the viewer is meant to focus. But, like any technique that draws attention to itself, use it sparingly. Once or twice per project is usually more than enough. Ideally, you want dissolves to be seen as a surprise, not a given.

Finally, if you can think of other effective ways to use dissolves, by all means, add your thoughts to the comments below.

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