You see them every day, on TV shows, the news, and in movies, but how well do you know the most oft-used film transitions? Here are the big five:
1. THE DISSOLVE
The dissolve is an editing technique where one clip seems to fade—or dissolve—into the next. As the first clip is fading out, getting lighter and lighter, the second clip starts fading in, becoming more and more prominent. The process usually happens so subtly and so quickly, the viewer isn't even aware of the transition. The above video offers a great overview of the cut, with examples.
2. THE WIPE
This transition is the opposite of the dissolve in that it draws attention to itself. The best example of the wipe is what's known as the Iris Wipe, which you usually find in silent films, like Buster Keaton's or the Merrie Melodies cartoons—the circle getting smaller and smaller. Other wipe shapes include stars, diamonds, and the old turning clock.
The Star Wars films are chock-full of attention-grabbing wipes. Here are two good examples from The Empire Strikes Back. The first shows the clock wipe; the second, the diagonal wipe (pay no attention to the broken blocks at the start of the second clip—that's a technical glitch, not part of the film).
3. THE CUTAWAY
As the name implies, in the basic cutaway, the filmmaker is moving from the action to something else, and then coming back to the action. Cutaways are used to edit out boring shots (like people driving to their destination—why not see what the character is seeing or even thinking sometimes?) or add action to a sequence by changing the pace of the footage. My favorite use of the cutaway is in Family Guy, where the technique is used to insert throwaway gags. Here's a great example:
4. THE L CUT
The L Cut, also called a split edit, is a very cool technique whose name dates back to the old analog film days.
The audio track on a strip of celluloid film runs along the side, near the sprocket holes. In the L Cut transition, the editor traditionally cut the picture frames out of the strip, but left the narrow audio track intact, thus creating an L-shape out of the film. A different camera angle, or scene was then spliced into the spot where the old picture was, so the audio from the old footage was now cut over the new footage.
Of course, with digital editing, one doesn't need to physically cut anything anymore, but the transition is still widely used, and the name has remained the same.
Split edits like these are especially effective in portraying conversations. Imagine how a simple conversation between two people might look if all we ever got was a ping-pong edit back and forth between the two people talking. The L cut allows the viewer to read the emotion on the listener's face, as the dialogue continues over, as we see in this clip from Ferris Bueller's Day Off:
5. THE FADE
The fade in and fade out usually signal the beginning or end of a scene, especially if the filmmaker is fading to/from black. This is the most common, of course, but fading to white has become trendy, too. The opening title sequence from the HBO series Six Feet Under featured many fades to black and a couple brief fades to white. The very last bit in the sequence fades slowly to white, and is my all-time favorite example of the transition: